Learning an ancestral tongue

The door that looked locked opens after being pried and I step hesitantly inside, the aging bride, shy and eager and afraid the words might fade from their long wait upon the page.

Then the music of the house begins from Ayp to Fe and it is everything Derian and Missak Medzarents promised it would be when

wanderer and wandering minstrel finally met alone inside the house Mousekh Ishkhan called the Armenian's home. COMMENT:

When I first began translating Armenian poetry, I understood the language, but, put off by the forbidding alphabet, I found it easier to have others, acting as talking dictionaries, read the poems to me.

After translating an anthology of 4,000 years of Armenian poetry and five other volumes, I found it embarrassing not to be fluent and began reading myself. The language has a phonetic alphabet of 36 letters beginning with Ayp, ending with Fe. It's one of the oldest Indo-European languages in use today and a delight for poets who work in it, because it is so intrinsically musical, with built-in rhyming verb endings. The alphabet was invented in the 4th century by Mesrop Mashtots to keep the Armenian church separate from the Greek.

Because the country, Armenia, has been diminished by invasions and divisions and only a fraction of its former land remains (and that as a small Soviet republic), the language has taken on added significance. For the dispersed Armenians, the descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Turkish massacres, the language is called a ``homeland.'' According to poet Mousekh Ishkhan, a survivor, ``The Armenian language is the home of the Armenian,/ where the wanderer can enter to find love and pride/ locking stranger and the storm outside.''

Another poet of the diaspora, the only major one to survive the Turks, Vahan Tekeyan, compared the language to an orchard beside a ruined palace, where the Armenian can hold honeyed fruits on his tongue. Another, Vahan Derian, who had been a student in Moscow when he learned that three-fourths of his people were destroyed, wrote in a poem called ``Foreign,'' ``Even if you decipher our alphabet/ or read our carved ancient stones/ our mournful language will stay unexplained.''

For Armenians, as for many Eastern Europeans, poetry is the most cherished and honored of arts, not only because of its ancient traditional role in religion, and as entertainment, but because it filled the need of finding oblique ways of expression during times of oppression. Language became a refuge.

Even today, contemporary Armenian poets are conscious of language as a symbol of survival. The most popular Armenian song worldwide is a song of praise of the sun-baked sound of Armenian words.

This year as I became more fluent, I wrote ``Learning An Ancestral Tongue'' after reading a poem by the most musical of Armenian poets, Missak Medzarents.

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