By Sarah McMonagle and Lisa Marie Brinkmann
Even the most blasé observer will be struck by Armenia’s linguistic landscapes. Written Armenian applies the Armenian alphabet – a unique writing system developed some 1600 years ago. To assist those not au fait with this script, street and informational signage is often rendered in the Latin alphabet. Having been part of the Soviet Union, the Cyrillic script is also highly visible throughout Armenia. It is very common to see all three scripts side by side.
Around Yerevan – Armenia’s capital city – urban business and activities are codified in Armenian, and typically, Russian and English. Russian is the first foreign language taught and learned in schools, while English is (usually) the second. Moreover, English as the language of globalisation, appears alone on some signs, such as those of the numerous coffee stands around the city. Interestingly, retail brand names are reproduced on signs in the Armenian alphabet – examples from Yerevan are the ecco and Clarks shoe stores.
Other languages and multilingual displays are visible in places of learning, for example the National Children’s Library boasts an Arabic Corner and a Chinese Corner. A further striking element of Yerevan’s semiotic landscape are the many and varied sculptures dotted around the city. Directly in front of the library, a bronze stack of books announces what lies ahead.
Multilingual displays are also common at tourist attractions. Visitors to the Garni Temple are greeted with information in Armenian, Russian, English and Farsi. As Iran is a neighbouring country, many Iranians come to visit Armenia. At the Sevanavank monastery, multilingual information (Armenian, English, Russian, Italian, French) is also presented in Braille. This multimodal example is exemplary in intersecting linguistic/cultural background and accessibility.
At Geghard monastery, we were invited to experience Armenia’s religious soundscape as our guide performed a traditional hymn. Click on the audio file below to hear how this singing resonates in the acoustics deriving from the complex architecture of the monastery chapel, transmitting both spiritual and artistic vibes.
In parts of Yerevan that attract visitors, there are signs with up to eight displayed languages. For example, the History Museum of Armenia is announced in French, Russian, Italian, Armenian, Chinese, German, Farsi and English. For space and artistic reasons, some translations of the name are mentioned more often than others.
In this museum, we became keenly aware of Armenian’s sense of their own history. On display are bronze statuettes that have been dated to several millennia BC. These statuettes are especially striking in their gendered fashioning – and are reproduced on signs indicating the museum’s lavatories, showing a neat past-present connection.
Armenia, its language and culture, can be experienced at marketplaces. There you can find many local products, including carpets, clothes, jewellery, wooden carvings and instruments (such as the national duduk flute), religious artefacts and games (especially chess boards), all representing Armenian’s material culture.
Finally, Armenia’s sensescape is as striking as its linguistic landscape. A common symbol in Armenian architecture, religious crafts and memorabilia is fruit – grapes, pomegranates, apricots – that grows extensively in the natural landscape.
The richness of Armenia’s linguistic and semiotic landscapes divulges an even richer history and contemporary culture that can be experienced in many ways and with many senses.