The Latin Lovers of Armenia

Among the samples of Yerevan’s architecture is the bridge at the end of Kievian Street.

It unfortunately has the reputation of being a favourite drop-off point for the suicides of the city. Walking across it the other day, however, I saw a series of markings on the railings that evoke happier times and thoughts.

It appears that there is a young man who is quite infatuated with a young lady. So infatuated, in fact, that he can barely express his words …

… in his own language. Well, in his own alphabet, at any rate. “ԹԻՆ ԵՍ ՍԻՐՈՒՄ ԵՄ ՔԵԶ”, “Tin, I love you” – “Tin” being short for “Tina”, I take it.

“ԹԻՆՍ ՍԻՐՈՒՄ ԵՄ ՔԵԶ ՇԱՏ”, “My Tin, I love you a great deal”. The boy has trouble putting his z’s the right way around, never mind the p’s and q’s about his native alphabet. And the word “SHAT”, though it does mean “a lot” in Armenian, smells of something altogether different in the English language.

At last we get to the Queen’s language itself, but the diminutive for “Tina” is an interesting mix of the Armenian and Russian, not that “Tina” is a very Armenian name to begin with. And there’s more.

Could any young lady resist? Could any canned food company ask for better marketing? Just who is this young lad, anyway?

Oh, we have the same name! She responds (you can tell by stereotype that it is a prettier, more consistent handwriting), “ՆԱՐԵԿ ՍԻՐՈՒՄ ԵՄ ԿՅԱՆՔԻՑՍ ՇԱՏ”, “Narek, I love you more than my life itself”. The use of the Latin alphabet is further complicated in this case by the letter “C” standing for the “ts” sound, a feature of the languages of central and eastern Europe. The tradition of transliteration into the Latin alphabet in Armenia is not based on English, after all, but has gone through a Russian prism, which is nothing new and not surprising …

… as, indeed, the evocation of yet another language showcases. The foreign alphabet is at least an indication that Armenians are interested in foreign languages, for one reason or another. Talk about philology!

The expression “SIRTULKA” is again a healthy mix of the Armenian and Russian – (“ՍԻՐՏ-УЛЬКА”) – as an endearing term for “heart”.

Now Narek is requesting Tin’s forgiveness between calling her his miracle, his life and repeating the fact that he loves her. Are we witnessing the consequences of a tiff or two? (But the photos are JPEGs, hahaha). Although it is a little hard to see in this picture, there is, in addition, some more scribbling written in Latin letters at the end, probably by an exasperated passer-by, asking, “Who is this Tinul?”. What’s interesting about that is the use of an unclear letter at the very end to make the “Ը” (schwa, “uh”) sound. Is it the Armenian letter mixed in, or an “e”, as in that sound in the French? Or is it an “@”, as in that sound in the texting? I wish I had taken a better picture, but, for my money, it’s the latter.

I don’t doubt that this tradition of writing Armenian in Latin letters is the result of what used to be the difficulty of accessibility of the Armenian alphabet for computers. But it’s been quite a few years now that, thanks to Unicode, the Armenian alphabet is ready and usable in computers and online, without the need for additional software or fonts. The letters are still lacking in phones, though, so pretty much all texting takes place in the Latin alphabet, with the more rich Armenian sounds having to give way to improvised letters, or even symbols that resemble the Armenian letters, such as the “@” above for “Ը”, or “$” for “Ց” (an aspirated “ts” sound), or “&” for “Ճ” (an unaspirated, voiceless “ch”). It is really remarkable.

But it is also sad at the same time, for this young man, his heart aflame, could just as easily have defaced public property in the native alphabet that he has learnt at school. What makes it worse …

… is that he clearly has no qualms about making use of the Cyrillic alphabet to give expression to his passions in the Russian. “Praise the Lord that you exist, my Tin”, even though he chooses to write “TINS” in the Armenian language with Latin letters. Notice also that this bit has been scratched through, as were other Latin-lettered ones.

Perhaps some passers-by took offense, as I experienced surprise. I have also experienced some disappoint in the lack of creativity in some quarters, for, when I first moved to this country ten years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to note that all license plates of cars included only a few letters to go with the numbers, and those letters –“Տ”, “Օ”, “Ս”, “Լ” – were the ones of the Armenian alphabet that resembled the Latin one (even though they don’t all make the same sounds). Isn’t that a clever arrangement? Unfortunately, for a few years now, I have noticed that license plates have started to come out in all sorts of different letters and different combinations too, and I can’t tell sometimes whether a license plate is “in Armenian”, “in English”, or even “in Russian” (for those letters that coincide with the Cyrillic too).

I know this isn’t exactly a life and death issue for Armenia, but I am rather nitpicky when it comes to language. I don’t even drive, actually, but I do walk the streets of Yerevan, and in case someday one of the crazy drivers of our fair capital were to take aim at a pedestrian or two, it would be helpful to give an accurate description of the car’s markings. I guess I’ll end up writing a letter or two about it.