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Linguistic Construction of Ethnic Borders

Edited By Peter Rosenberg, Konstanze Jungbluth and Dagna Zinkhahn Rhobodes

This volume focuses on the linguistic constructs involved in ethnic borders. Ethnic borders have proven themselves to be surprisingly long-lived: in nearly all European countries and beyond, border demarcation, exclusion of foreigners, and minority conflicts are some of the most persistent challenges for nations and societies. Which linguistic factors play a role in the formation of these borders, especially those drawn along ethnic lines? Which linguistic constructs contribute to the negotiation, establishment and maintenance of ethnic groups and identities? Under which conditions can processes of linguistic convergence, hybrids, or transcultural identities be observed?
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Language Choice and Identity in Post-Soviet Armenia

Stefan Rabanus and Haykanush Barseghyan


Language Choice and Identity in Post-Soviet Armenia

Abstract: Der vorliegende Beitrag behandelt Typen von Identitätskonstruktion durch Sprachwahl von Armenisch und Russisch im postsowjetischen Armenien. Für das Selbstverständnis der armenischen Gesellschaft war die eigene Sprache, Schrift und Literatur stets fundamental. Sie hat wesentlich dazu beigetragen, dass das Bewusstsein von der armenischen Nation über die Jahrhunderte einer Geschichte, die von fremder Herrschaft, Vertreibungen bis hin zum Genozid und die Ansiedlung des größten Teils der Armenier im Ausland geprägt war, nicht verlorengegangen ist. Dennoch hat die jahrhundertelang fehlende Eigenstaatlichkeit dazu geführt, dass Armenisch nicht den Status einer vollen ‚Ausbausprache‘ erreichen konnte. Die Zugehörigkeit des Gebiets der heutigen Republik Armenien (Gebiet des Ostarmenischen) zum zaristischen Russland bzw. zur Sowjetunion (1813–1991) hat dazu geführt, dass die russische Sprache zahlreiche gehobene Funktionsdomänen übernommen hat. Mit der Unabhängigkeit der Republik Armenien 1991 wurde das Armenische die einzige offizielle Staatssprache. Der Bilinguismus Armenisch-Russisch ist aber bis heute weit verbreitet. Der vorliegende Beitrag ist eine soziolinguistische Untersuchung (auf der Basis von 37 fragebogengeleiteten Einzelinterviews) zu Spracheinstellungen, Faktoren der Sprachwahl und Sprachgebrauch, in der Antworten auf die folgenden Fragen gegeben werden: 1. Wird das Russische in Armenien als eigene, zweite Sprache Armeniens verstanden? [Nein]. 2. Welche Identitäten werden durch die Wahl des Russischen in Armenien konstruiert (inszenierte und perzipierte Identität)? [Russland-assoziierte Identitäten, hoher Bildungsgrad, bestimmte Berufsgruppen, fortgeschrittenes Alter]. 3. Gibt es Tendenzen und Perspektiven zum Erhalt bzw. zur Weiterentwicklung des Bilinguismus Armenisch-Russisch in Armenien? [Ja].

Schlagworte: Armenisch, Ostarmenisch, Russisch, Bilinguismus, Sprachpolitik, postsowjetische Länder, kulturelle Identität

Keywords: Eastern Armenian, Russian, bilinguism, language politics, post-soviet countries, cultural identity

1.  Historical background

Armenian is the language of an ancient civilization with a great tradition and culture of writing. The Armenian language, script and literature have always been fundamental for the self-image of Armenian society. Armenian has its own script which ← 13 | 14 → was developed at the beginning of the 5th Century by Mesrop Mastoc’, probably on the basis of – or at least in the order of – the Greek alphabet. The Armenian alphabet was designed according to the specific needs of the Armenian language; hence, it maps the phonological oppositions in Armenian more closely than the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet do for the modern European languages. The Armenian language and script has contributed notably to the fact that the consciousness of the Armenian nation has not been lost over the centuries of a history that was marked by foreign rule, displacement, and genocide, reasons for which most of the Armenian people live abroad. Armenian has always been the de-facto main language of everyday life and local self-government of the Armenian settlements in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the age-long lack of statehood has meant that Armenian never reached the status of a full “Ausbausprache” ‘autonomous language’ (in the sense of Heinz Kloss, cf. Haarmann 2005a). Since the territory of today’s Republic of Armenia (the area where Eastern Armenian is spoken) belonged to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union between 1813 (Treaty of Gulistan) and 1828 (Treaty of Turkmenchay), and 1991 (end of the Soviet Union), Russian took over numerous higher functional domains. These included administrative communication (especially in contacts with the government in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but also with the neighbouring Caucasian provinces or Soviet Republics: Russian was the lingua franca of interethnic communication in the Soviet Union) and scientific/academic communication. For many scientific fields, the top levels of university education (doctoral and postdoctoral level) were not available in Armenia; hence, the élite largely received their training in Moscow. This élite then preferred Russian in numerous functional domains also within Armenia. It is true that in the 1920s, Lenin’s nationality policy promoted non-Russian national languages in the Soviet Union, and that languages such as Armenian and Georgian, spoken in territories with relatively few Russian native speakers and a strong national élite, benefited in particular from this policy (cf. Pavlenko 2008, p. 6). Nevertheless, Armenian was not codified as the official language of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (cf. Xačimgatryan 1991, p. 113), and Haarmann (2005b, p. 826) points out: “Im öffentlichen Leben hat keine andere Sprache mit dem Russischen zu keiner Zeit ernsthaft rivalisiert. Mit der Festigung des stalinistischen Zentralismus wurde auch der exklusive Status des Russischen als faktische, aber nicht nominell als solche anerkannte Staatssprache zementiert.” (‘In public discourse, Russian had no serious rival at any time. With the fortification of Stalinist centralism, Russian became the de-facto state language, although not officially recognized.’) Weitenberg (2006, p. 1900) adds that “ambitious parents preferred to send their children to the Russian schools”, and not to the Armenian schools. Good command of Russian was often ← 14 | 15 → even the decisive criterion for professional success in Soviet Armenia (cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, pp. 275, 278). Hence, after 1991 the logic of independence required Armenian as the only officially approved language for all domains (Article 1 of the Language Act of 17 April 1993 [cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 283; see also § 3], adopted by Article 12, identical text in the Armenian constitutions of 1995 and 2003 [cf. Constitution 2003]: “img” ‘The language of the Republic of Armenia is Armenian.’). The aim of the initially very strict language policy, which Armenia shared with other post-Soviet countries, was the achievement of full ‘ausbau’ status for Armenian. Although Haarmann (2005a, p. 247) attributes remarkable success to such languages as Estonian, Latvian, Armenian or Georgian in their intent to achieve this status, the Armenian authorities changed their language policy a few years later and substituted the initial one-language policy with a more differentiated framework.1 Russian was then allowed to preserve some former domains, for the following reasons:

a)  The old academic élite, with its Russian education and its preference for the Russian language, did not simply disappear in 1991, but continues to occupy important positions in society.

b)  Armenian non-fiction literature and technical terminology cannot be created overnight. It is a process that takes at least decades. This process is hindered – apart from the fact that Russian terminology and non-fiction literature is available (Russian books and journals in the Armenian libraries) – by the emergence of English as the global lingua franca (cf. Haarmann 2005a, p. 247 and Schulze 2002, p. 898). In a time when established and internationally widespread languages such as German are under pressure by English even within Germany (as is the situation in academic contexts and internationally operating enterprises), the ex-novo creation of communicative practice in these domains for a small language like Armenian is, to put it cautiously, an ambitious project. The Armenian authorities are aware of this and admit Russian, for practical reasons, again in domains which were officially closed to Russian in the first phase after independence (cf. Pavlenko 2008, pp. 19, 28).

c)  In contrast to the situation in other former Soviet Republics (e.g., Baltic States or Georgia), in Armenia there is no essential hostility towards Russia (cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 289). On the contrary, there are very close contacts with Russia. 73 % of our informants agree with the statement “Russia is Armenia’s big brother” (see § 5). Russia supported Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh ← 15 | 16 → war and provides border control assistance at the borders with Turkey and Iran (the Russian Army is present in Armenia with a motor rifle division and an air force group, see also § 5 and Fig. 4). Moreover, Russia is the main destination of the Armenian labour migration: there is a large Armenian diaspora in Russia, and there are also close economic relations. A small but significant symbol of the close relationship between Armenia and Russia are the non-stop flights from Yerevan Zvartnots International Airport: by 1 July 2013, there were 24 scheduled flights, ten of which went to Moscow and six of which landed in other cities within the Russian Federation (in addition, there was one flight each to the predominantly Russian-speaking CIS capitals Minsk [cf. Giger/Sloboda 2008, pp. 44–45] and Kiev [cf. Bilaniuk/Melnyk 2008, pp. 85–86]).

Therefore, today’s education system tries to implement a three-language policy, with Armenian as official language, Russian as the second obligatory language2 and another foreign language, usually English, but alternatively also German and French (Pavlenko 2008, p. 18).

2.  Questions

Russian is still widely used in Armenia, with most speakers exhibiting bilingualism with Eastern Armenian and Russian3 – an exception are the so-called Western Armenians, who recently moved to the Republic of Armenia from the Middle East or the other non-Russian-speaking diaspora. Usually they are also bilingual, but with language pairs such as Western Armenian-English, Western Armenian-French or Western Armenian-Arabic; hence, they do not speak Russian.4 Conversely, there are also ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan who have ← 16 | 17 → come to the Republic of Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh war and speak Russian, but no or only very little Armenian (Weitenberg 2006, p. 1900). That aside, Armenia is characterized by a strong national consciousness for which the Armenian language plays a major role. Because of this complex situation, it is unclear how to characterize the general attitudes towards Russian in today’s Republic of Armenia. Thus, the question arises: what role does Russian play for (staged and perceived) identity construction, and what factors control the language choice between Armenian and Russian. There are no modern surveys on these issues. However, because of the aforementioned (§ 1, [c]) close relationship of Armenia with Russia, the situation is likely to be different from better-surveyed areas like Georgia or the Baltic States (see § 3). From the many possible questions on language choice and language attitudes, we selected the following key questions which will be answered by interpreting the data from our sociolinguistic questionnaire (§ 4–6):

1.  Do Armenians perceive Russian as a legitimate second language of Armenia, or exclusively as the language of Russia?

2.  Which identities are constructed by the choice of Russian in Armenia (staged and perceived identity)?

3.  Are there tendencies to maintain or further develop Armenian-Russian bilingualism in Armenia?

3.  State of research

We are not aware of modern surveys on language-choice and language-attitude issues in the Republic of Armenia. The language situation in Armenia (linguistic and ethnic groups, bilingualism, etc.) is sketched in general descriptions of Armenian (e.g., Weitenberg 2006; Schulze 2002; with respect to the situation in Soviet times Comrie 1981, pp. 179–183). In numerous articles, Haarmann treats the relationship between Russian and the national languages in the former Soviet republics, its independent successor states and in the (former) Eastern European vassal states including Finland (e.g., Haarmann 2004a, 2004b, 2005), but Armenia is only briefly considered at the periphery. The volume edited by Pavlenko (2008) is a comprehensive description of multilingualism in the former Soviet Union (including country-specific figures for the groups of speakers and their competence in Russian and in the national languages). However, only Pavlenko herself briefly describes the ← 17 | 18 → situation in Armenia in her introductory contribution (Pavlenko 2008, pp. 18–22), though there is no country-specific chapter on Armenia. Maybe this is because of the degree of national and linguistic homogeneity in Armenia, which is unusually high for a country of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Pavlenko (2008, p. 10) reports that 97.7 % of the population are ethnic Armenians, with ethnic minorities playing little to no role. Hence, Russian is not necessary for interethnic communication in Armenia. This is an important difference from neighbouring Georgia, where large and compactly settled minorities (including Armenians in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti on the border with Turkey and Armenia) have such limited command of Georgian that administrative communication must be carried out in Russian (Pavlenko 2008, pp. 20–21). Perotto (2003, 2006, 2008, 2014) also examines the relationship between Russian and national languages in Russia, and the other successor states of the former Soviet Union, with a particular focus on Georgia. In Perotto (2014), the particular Armenian situation is illustrated by contrasting it with Georgia and Azerbaijan. In the Georgian education system, Russian has been replaced by English as the primary second language. In Azerbaijan, the younger generations are becoming less familiar with Russian also due to the fact that the Azerbaijani language officially transitioned from Cyrillic to Latin script (see Perotto 2014, p. 169). In Armenia, Russian officially remains the ‘second language’ (not a ‘foreign language’), before English and other foreign languages, and the interest in Armenian-Russian bilingualism is ‘real’ (Perotto 2014, p. 168). A similar position is taken by Chruslov (2006, pp. 143–145), who first points out that the Armenian language policy since 2001 recognized Russian as an important supranational means of communication (especially for contact with Russia as business partner and as a main destination of labour migration). These factors served to consolidate the position of Russian in the education system. Second, he highlights the role of the Armenian diaspora in Russia, which is engaged in promoting Russian in Armenia (especially by strengthening Russian language teaching at school) (Chruslov 2006, p. 144). Lazumova (2010, pp. 119–121) focuses on the commitment of Russian educational institutions for the promotion of the Russian language in Armenia (e.g., by the Pushkin Institute, by branches of Russian universities in Armenia, and especially by the Russian-Armenian University [Российско-Армянский (Славянский) университет] in Yerevan). Probably the most complete contribution on the position of Russian in Armenia is Grigoryan and Danielyan (2010), who reconstruct in details the stages of Armenian language policy after independence. The first stage involved the attempt to establish Armenian as the only language of the Republic of Armenia. Article 1 of the Language Act of 17 April 1993 states: “Государственный язык Республики ← 18 | 19 → Армения – армянский, который обслуживает все сферы жизни республики. Официальный язык Республики Армения – литературный армянский язык” ‘The state language of the Republic of Armenia is Armenian, which is used in all areas of life of the Republic. The official language of the Republic of Armenia is the Armenian literary language’ (Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 283). This is also the reason why the small remaining number of purely Russian-speaking schools is attended exclusively by students with non-Armenian nationality (cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan, p. 291). The attempt to suppress Russian in public life has, however, proven to be infeasible for practical reasons. For example, the dubbing or subtitling of all television programmes in Armenian, required by the Broadcasting Act of 20 November 2000, was impossible for financial reasons (cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 296). Russian, therefore, is entrenched today in Armenia’s language landscape due to its importance in numerous functional domains (the table in Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 302 shows the proportions of the two languages broken down by functional domains).

4.  Data and method

The main survey was carried out in May 2013 in the form of an interview, in which students of the State Engineering University of Armenia answered on mainly closed-ended questions. The interviews were conducted in Armenian. We developed the questionnaire in a series of preliminary studies at Yerevan State Linguistic University: starting from open conversations going through standardized interviews with open-ended questions, we arrived at a questionnaire with 28, partially subdivided closed-ended questions with answer alternatives on nominal and ordinal scales. This enabled quantitative, and in some cases statistical analyses. In addition to questions regarding characteristics of informants (social data, native language of the informants and the parents, family language, self assessment of language skills in Russian and English etc.), questions were asked on attitudes (enjoyment of speaking Russian, relationship between Armenia and Russia), convictions and beliefs (stereotypical speakers of Russian, evaluation of the importance of Russian for career and personal life, importance of Russian in comparison to English) and behaviour (own active and passive use of Russian, including the transmission of Russian to their children) (for the question typology cf. Schnell et al. 2011, pp. 319–333). The questionnaire provided fields for comments beyond the answer alternatives and a ‘don’t know’ category (cf. Schnell et al. 2011, p. 330) in order to not force informants to take a position with respect to topics for which they do not have a position. ← 19 | 20 →

Informants: the population was the totality of the students of the Faculty of Computer Systems and Informatics of the State Engineering University of Armenia (N = 779). From a numbered list (1–779) of the students, we have drawn a random sample of 40 students using a Linux shell script (function $RANDOM). Of the 40 drawn students, 37 were available for the survey. The mean age was 20 years, the gender distribution was 10 (female) to 27 (male). We preferred students from the State Engineering University to the students of our own Linguistic University, because a) at the Linguistic University the students are almost exclusively female, b) these female students have – evidenced by their choice of languages as a course of study – a special interest in languages in general, and maybe in Russian in particular. This interest seemed counter–productive to our goals, and c) the students of the State Engineering University – according to our opinion – better reflect today’s typical educated, urban, modern and success-oriented youth of Armenia, about which we wish to make statements.5

Method: depending on the type of question, we calculated the arithmetic mean6 and/or visualized the distribution of the answer alternatives in the form of bar charts. For selected phenomena, statistical correlations were examined: in these cases we interpreted nominal scales as ordinal scales.7 Generally, we interpreted the results in terms of their content and applied them to the key questions identified in § 2.

5.  Results

In this paragraph, we present the results of the questionnaire analysis. The discussion and application of the results on the key questions of § 2 take place in § 6.

The first group of variables relate to the native language (of the informant [see Fig. 1], of the father and of the mother). It turns out that almost all informants indicate Eastern Armenian as their native language. ‘Native language’ or ‘mother tongue’ is a controversial concept. The ‘native language’ is usually characterized ← 20 | 21 → by the fact that – in terms of language acquisition – it is the first language, and that the speakers have higher language skills in this language than in other languages; additionally, speakers have an emotional bond to their ‘mother tongue’ (cf. Dietrich 2004). Considering the additional comments of the informants, the indication of both Russian and Armenian as mother tongues is based on the fact that these informants attended a Russian (i.e., completely Russian-language) school in Armenia. The only informant who selected Russian as the only mother tongue (not Armenian) lived in Russia for ten years. Given this distribution, i.e. almost only Armenian native speakers, it is surprising that as many as 19 % of the informants indicate Russian as family language. Figure 1 contrasts the numbers of native and family language. Two informants select Russian even as the only family language, although none (neither the informants themselves, nor father or mother) are Russian native speakers. From the comments and the information concerning school education (Russian or Armenian school), we conclude that Russian as a family language depends on the type of schooling: with one single exception, in which both parents were categorized as native Russian speakers, the indication of ‘Russian as family language’ correlates with the Russian school attendance of at least the parents, and sometimes of the informants themselves. Russian as family language is, thus, a conscious choice, depending on the type of education. The correlation of Russian with a high level of education is confirmed by the observation that ‘educated’ is a very common stereotype for speakers of Russian (see below).

Language skills (Fig. 2). All informants learned Russian at school, with at least two to three hours per week (this result confirms the numbers in Pavlenko 2008, p. 18). Additionally, the university curricula of all informants included two semesters of Russian. This means that most informants attest to having ‘advanced’ or ‘good’ language skills (value 3 on the scale from 0 ‘zero’ competence to 4 ‘native-like’ competence in Fig. 2). Consequently, the answer ‘zero’ is not given at all: all informants have Russian language skills. The mean value of Russian competence is 2.89. With English, the situation is different. The mean value of competence is 2.35 and, thus, significantly lower than the mean value of Russian. One informant claims to have no English skills at all. The result matches expectations: Russian remains the second obligatory language in the Armenian education system (unlike in Georgia, see § 3), and literature for the study of Computer Science is available in Russian, if not in Armenian.

Another explanation for the strength of Russian can be found in the contact with Russia and other post-Soviet countries, which are at least partially Russian-speaking. Almost all informants indicate having relatives or friends in Russia, at least one third of the informants lived in Russia from a few months to several ← 21 | 22 → years. From the answers to the question regarding contacts with foreign countries, we conclude that the relationships are not limited to the Russian-speaking countries. Almost 80 % of the informants (28 informants) specify contacts to other countries, particularly to the United States (12) and Germany (7) (only two informants to France). Nevertheless, the relationship with the Russian-speaking countries is by far the closest one (on this point see also the statements in § 1, [c]).

Attitudes. The first variable concerns the enjoyment in speaking Russian. Fig. 3 shows that the informants like to speak Russian (mean value 2.84 on an intensity scale from 0 ‘not at all’ to 4 ‘very much’). Especially women responded that they liked Russian, with six out of ten female informants selecting the maximum value ‘very much’. The comparison with the self-assessment of language skills in Russian (Fig. 2) shows a significant correlation between the degree of Russian language skills and the degree of enjoyment of speaking Russian: the higher the skills, the more the informants like to speak Russian (p < 0.05, N = 37, two sided; RHO = 0.411). The other two variables in this group relate to (socio-)political attitudes. 73 % of the informants attest to the statement “Russia is Armenia’s big brother”, a confirmation of the close relationship and a positive assessment of this relationship (as already stated in § 1, [c], above). Hence, the controversial evaluations of the presence of Russian Army in Armenia visualized in Fig. 4 are surprising at first glance. First, it seems surprising – given the good and close relationship with Russia – that the rejection of the presence (‘undesirable’ and ‘very undesirable’) by 15 informants is only a little lower than the endorsement (‘desirable’ or ‘very desirable’) by 20 informants. Second, and this is even more revealing, Fig. 4 shows a bimodal distribution in which the average value (2 ‘all the same’) is virtually not selected. This means that the presence of the Russian Army in Armenia polarizes the informants: the informants are either in favour of the presence or against it, but almost no one is indifferent to this question. This fact plays a major role in answering the key question 1 in § 6.

Conviction issues. For the first variable, the question “Who speaks Russian in Armenia?”, we derived the following possible answer stereotypes for speakers of Russian from our preliminary studies: ‘old’, ‘young’, ‘prostitute’, ‘educated’, ‘foreigner’, ‘beggar’, ‘rich’. Clear correlations exist with the stereotypes ‘old’ (confirmed by 90 % of informants) and ‘educated’ (95 %, not a single ‘no’, only two informants answer ‘don’t know’). For the other suggested stereotypes we obtained no clear results. However, in addition to our suggestions, many informants specified ‘teachers’ and ‘doctors’ as typical speakers of Russian in Armenia. The second variable relates to the evaluation of the concrete meaning of Russian in life. All informants (100 %) consider Russian ‘important/useful’. There are small differences ← 22 | 23 → with respect to the functional domains: whereas 97 % of the informants (36 of 37 informants) consider Russian ‘important/useful’ for ‘study/science’, and 95 % for ‘work/job’, “only” 78 % of the informants share this evaluation for ‘leisure’. However, the difference between the domains is small. Fig. 5 visualizes the assessment of the importance of Russian in comparison to English. Most informants (54 %) believe that both languages are equally important, only three informants consider Russian to be more important than English. A closer look shows two more results. First, if the variable is conceived as constituting an ordinal scale (‘English more important’ -1, ‘both equally important’ 0, ‘Russian more important’ 1; see Fig. 5) then there is a (negative) significant correlation with the self assessment of English language skills (see Fig. 2), namely: the higher the competence in English, the more English is rated as more important than Russian (p < 0.05, N = 37, two sided; RHO = -0412). Second, women consider English to be more important than Russian. One half of the female informants take both languages for equally important, the other half think that English is more important; none of the women consider Russian to be more important than English (see Fig. 5).

The last group of variables are self-assessments of language behaviour. The answers to the question “How often do you speak Russian?” lead to a mean value of 2.43 on a scale from 0 ‘never’ to 4 ‘always’, i.e., between ‘sometimes’ (2) and ‘often’ (3), with no informant speaking ‘never’ and five informants speaking ‘always’ Russian. The question regarding the contact groups reveals that only ‘Russians’ are typical interlocutors for almost all informants (95 %). But we obtained a notable proportion of positive answers also to the other contact groups we proposed: ‘foreigners not from Russia’ (35 %); ‘friends’ (46 %); ‘university’ (22 %); ‘family members’ (35 %). Additionally, the vast majority of informants consumes Russian mass media: 92 % of the informants state that they regularly watch Russian television (which can be viewed everywhere in Armenia) or listen to Russian radio news.

The final variable is the question of the transmission of Russian to the informants’ (future) children. Fig. 6 shows that the informants here have no common position. The number of ‘don’t know’ responses here is higher than in any other matter. However, the comparison with other variables reveals a correlation with their Russian language skills (the Russian language skills are better in informants who answered ‘yes’ to the question “Would you speak Russian to your children?”), and in particular with the family language (see Fig. 1). All informants who specify both Russian and Armenian as a family language want to transmit Russian to their own children. (The two informants who indicated only Russian as a family language selected ‘don’t know’ and ‘yes’.) Conversely, contact with Russia does ← 23 | 24 → not seem to play a role: informants with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers have relatives or friends in Russia to the same extent.

6.  Discussion and conclusions

The single results presented in § 5 will be related to the key questions of § 2 in the following discussion.

1. Do Armenians perceive Russian as a legitimate second language of Armenia, or exclusively as the language of Russia?

The question aims to clarify whether Armenians use Russian to construct their own Armenian identities, or whether the use of Russian constitutes foreign, Russia-related (in the sense of “российский”, not “русский”) identities. Our data suggest that Russian is not conceived as being a proper language of Armenia, i.e., Russian is used to construct identities that are not properly ‘Armenian’. Our data provide the following arguments for this position:

a)  There are virtually no native speakers of Russian in Armenia (Fig. 1). The results for our population can be generalized for the total of the Armenian population (Perotto 2003, p. 29 reports 1.6 % of ethnic Russians in Armenia, Pavlenko 2008, p. 10 only 0.5 % for 1999–2004). This constitutes a very different situation from that in Ukraine; for example, where 1999–2004 29.6 % of the population are native speakers of Russian (Pavlenko 2008, p. 10); in 1989 as much as 71.7 % of the Ukrainian population report speaking Russian fluently, cf. Pavlenko 2008, p. 15), although there was officially a one-language policy with Ukrainian as the only language until the Language Act of 2012 (which in principle gives any minority language official status if certain requirements are fulfilled, but which aims, in fact, at promoting Russian).

b)  The answers to the questions on attitudes revealed positive attitudes towards Russian and Russia (see Fig. 3), but at the same time the community is polarized regarding the presence of the Russian Army (Fig. 4). In our opinion, this polarization shows a clear consciousness of the distinction between ‘one’s own’, ‘Armenian’, and the ‘foreign’, even if the foreign aspects are positively evaluated. We want to relate these socio-political assessments on the linguistic level, and conclude that the symbolic function of the expression of Armenian identity can be fulfilled only by the Armenian language (cf. Perotto 2008).

c)  The fact that English is considered, in total, more important than Russian (Fig. 5) suggests that English and Russian compete as linguae francae for international communication. If Russian would be regarded as an expression of ← 24 | 25 → Armenian identity, it would probably not be rated lower than English, despite its minor importance as a lingua franca.8

2. Which identities are constructed by the choice of Russian in Armenia (staged and perceived identity)?

With the selection of Russian in Armenia, somehow ‘foreign’, ‘Russia-related’ (российский) identities are constructed. Armenians consciously adopt these identities in certain situations. Vandermeeren (2005, p. 1319) points out that “speakers can be subjectively committed to an ethnolinguistic group membership which is – objectively speaking – not theirs. Group consciousness moves between the two poles of group membership: objective group membership (e.g. by birth) and subjective group membership (by choice)”. The question “Who speaks Russian in Armenia?” shows a set of stereotypes for this foreign identity. In sum, Russian is associated with certain professional groups and, generally, a high level of education. According to Joseph (2010, p. 17, following Silverstein 2003), certain forms of speech are primarily associated with a real or perceived region of origin of the speaker, in the second place with the level of education (“’second order’ indices of ideologically loaded information, such as the eliteness of a speaker’s education”). Joseph’s concern is regional varieties (of English). However, we think that the concept also fits quite well for the situation ‘Russian in Armenia’. The professions ‘teacher’ and ‘doctor’, specified by the informants as identifying typical speakers of Russian in Armenia, imply prototypical Russia-related identities. Many members of these professional groups, who belong – in the classical understanding – to the educated élite, were trained during Soviet times in Russia. Even in today’s training of these professions in Armenia, mainly Russian literature is used. Doctors in Armenia continue to prefer Russian to Armenian in their technical communication. Answers to the questions regarding the functional domains show that Russian is considered a little less important for leisure in comparison to study/science and work/job. However, Russian still retains notable importance in the leisure sector, according both to the informants’ data and our observation of language choice in social media such as Facebook. The association of Russian with a high level of education – and of the national language with simplicity and clear national symbolism – is typical for many successor states of the Soviet Union. In the Ukraine, Ukrainian is widely regarded as ‘provincial’ and ‘rural’. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian language is a symbol of ← 25 | 26 → national consciousness of such importance that even Kievan russophones try to improve their Ukrainian language skills in order to dissociate themselves from Moscow, and modern pop culture is increasingly staged in Ukrainian (Bilaniuk/Melnyk 2008, p. 86). In Belarus, the use of Belarusian is even almost limited to this symbolic function. Belarusian is losing its prominence even in the countryside, in favour of Russian (Giger/Sloboda 2008, p. 46).

3. Are there tendencies to maintain or further develop Armenian-Russian bilingualism in Armenia?

Schulze (2003, p. 898) believes that in the medium term, “das Armenische in der Republik trotz aller Fördermaßnahmen im Erziehungswesen und in Bezug auf die öffentlichen Medien hinter dem Russischen, jetzt verstärkt auch dem Englischen als Mittel des öffentlichen und politischen Diskurses zurückbleiben wird” (‘In the Republic of Armenia, Armenian will fall behind Russian, and nowadays also English, as means of public and political discourse, despite all support measures in education system and public media’). We are of the opinion that this situation at the moment is not yet in sight. However, above all we advocate a perspective that does not interpret the linguistic situation in Armenia as a language battle. Armenian-Russian bilingualism (enriched by English in particular functional domains) is rather an important resource of the Republic of Armenia at the crossroads of Europe, Russia and the Middle East. (In many post-Soviet countries, the positive evaluation of bi- and multilingualism as a valuable resource is not yet shared by certain national élites that consider the use of Russian a threat to the development of the national languages; cf. on this point Pavlenko 2008, pp. 32–33.) Our data supply two arguments in favour of the opinion that Armenian-Russian bilingualism in Armenia could evolve in a positive manner (cf. the similar position in Perotto 2014, p. 168). First, there is a widespread positive attitude towards the Russian language: people like to speak Russian (Fig. 3). Russian is especially popular among young women, who are decisive for the transmission of the language in the family. Second, Russian is the family language in a notable number of cases, although it is rarely specified as a native language (19 % of the informants indicate [not only, but] also Russian as a family language; Fig. 1). Such families also generally intend to pass Russian to their own children (cf. Fig. 6). This is not the case for English; hence, in the medium term it is not expected that English in Armenia will acquire a position which is beyond the – obviously remarkable and increasing – importance as global lingua franca (the situation in Georgia is different, see § 3). It is true that there is a significant reduction in Russian language skills as compared to Soviet times (cf. Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 287), a fact that in our opinion threatens the status of Russian as language of science (contrary ← 26 | 27 → to Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 301 who believe: “Русский язык продолжает оставаться языком науки.” ‘Russian remains the language of science.’). On the other hand, Russian could get new support by a potential – although politically very controversial – customs union between Russia and Armenia, which was negotiated in autumn 2013. Chruslov (2006, p. 145) summarizes: “Применение [русского] языка в качестве эффективного средства межнационального общения и мирового языка неставится под сомнение.” ‘The use of Russian as an effective means of interethnic communication and as a world language is not in doubt.’

Note: In the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine (Spring 2014), the authors wish to point out that the recognition of the importance and usefulness of Russian in the post-Soviet countries does not constitute a justification for illegal territorial claims of the Russian Federation (e.g., annexation of Crimea).


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Fig. 1:  Native language of the informant and family language


Fig. 2:  Comparison of language skills in Russian and English


← 30 | 31 →

Fig. 3:  Answers to the question: “Do you like to speak Russian?”


Fig. 4:  Assessment of the presence of the Russian Army in Armenia for border security


← 31 | 32 →

Fig. 5:  Evaluation of the importance of Russian in comparison to English


Fig. 6:  Answers to the question: “Would you speak Russian to your children?”


← 32 | 33 →

1  The protection of minority languages in Armenia is considered exemplary for the former Soviet Union, cf. Pavlenko 2008, p. 30.

2  According to Martirosyan 2003, p. 61 (quoted from Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 290) Russian occupies in the Armenian school system “своеобразное положение между родным, т.е. армянским, и иностранными языками”; i.e., ‘a particular position in between the mother tongue, i.e. Armenian, and the foreign languages’.

3  Keep in mind that bilingualism only in rare cases means complete mastery of both languages on the same level. There are many different constellations and, hence, different types of bilingualism, cf. on this point Mackey 2005, pp. 1486–1487 and passim. According to Lazumova 2010, p. 119 about 70 % of the Armenian population has ‘communicative skills’ in Russian. For Grigoryan/Danielyan 2010, p. 278 real bilingualism is limited to the cities. According to our personal observation and comparison the degree of active command of Russian in Armenia is lower than, e.g., in the Ukraine, cf. also Bilaniuk/Melnyk 2008, pp. 72–73.

4  Eastern and Western Armenian show differences on all grammatical levels, and the lexical differences are so important that they justify a dictionary with 380 pages (Sak’apetoyean 2011). The issues which arise from this contrast cannot be discussed here. This contribution is on Eastern Armenian only.

5  For the authorization of the survey and help in the preparation we would like to thank the Rector of the State Engineering University, Prof. Ara Avetisyan.

6  Strictly speaking, the calculation of the arithmetic mean of ordinal-scale values is not a valid statistical method. However, since it is debatable whether in the social sciences the interval scales, in principle necessary for the determination of the mean, do exist at all, we adopt the widespread practice to accept a risk of error which does exist but is manageable due to the simplicity of the variable. Cf. on this point Schnell et al. 2011, pp. 137–141.

7  This method is, strictly speaking, also not admissible. But according to our point of view the results are nevertheless valid, again because of the simplicity of the variables. For statistical calculations we would like to thank Prof. Alfred Lameli (Research Centre Deutscher Sprachatlas, Philipps University Marburg).

8  Aronin/Singleton 2012, pp. 137–138 depict a “hierarchy of languages” in which Russian (alongside with, e.g., German) is one of worldwide 12 “supercentral languages” whereas English is the only “hypercentral language”.