What about the language?
Before we dive into the similarities between the Urartian and the Armenian languages, it is important to stress that an ethnicity is never defined by language alone. One of the most common mistakes that I often hear (and read) regarding the Urartian identity is this overemphasis on the poorly defined Hurro-Urartian language family where the prevailing hypothesis is that Urartian isn’t an Indo-European, while the Armenian is, therefore Urartians could not have been Armenians. Although language is an important factor of ethnic identity, as said before, it cannot alone define ethnicity. If it did, then Mexicans would be considered Spaniards and Brazilians Portuguese.
Court language or Colloquial?
Another problem with overemphasising language when speaking of ancient identities, is the fact that in the antiquity writing was mainly an endeavour of the elite. The written administrative language, especially that of an empire, wasn’t necessarily the language of the people, not to mention the fact that the vast majority couldn’t even read nor write. The Persians, for example, after their conquest of Mesopotamia used Imperial Aramaic, rather than their own, as the official language of their empire, making it the lingua franca of the entire region at some point.
When speaking of the Urartian writing we must also always keep the following limitations of the cuneiform (adopted from Assyrian) in mind.
- The exact pronunciation of sounds are uncertain. We don’t know for example if “B” and “P” are interchangeable.
- Like in Akkadian there was no sign for the letter “O” (usually substituted with “U”).
- “I” and “E” were used interchangeably.
- The sign gi 𒄀 has the special function of expressing a hiatus, e.g. u-gi-iš-ti for Uīšdi.
- There was no sign for the “H” sound
Urartian records, with their limited vocabulary and unevolved grammar, their quick historic appearance and just as rapid disappearance without any evidence of large population shifts on the Armenian Highlands suggest an administrative court language as opposed to a local native language. Let’s put it this way; if your ambitions are to untie the Highland tribes and create an empire that might include different language speakers and yet remain distinct from your competitors like Assyrians, Akkadians, the Elamites and others, why not use an old lingua franca like the Hurrian for official purposes? It would sufficiently separate you from your competition and at the same time be familiar across the region as opposed to a language isolate such as the Armenian spoken only in the Highlands? It is clear that the Urartian elites were not afraid of adopting foreign elements, after all, they have adopted Assyrian cuneiform for their writing too.
Furthermore, while Hurrian was anciently attested among many neighbours of Armenia like the Hittites, Mitanni, Ugarites and even Egyptians, it’s actually strikingly absent from the Armenian plateau itself up until the emergence of the Urartian kingdom of course. Which again suggests a theory of Urartian adoption of Hurrian rather than expression of their native tongue.
The Hurrians are often assumed to have intruded into Greater Mesopotamia from the highlands from the third millennium B.C.E. on, although their presence is only documented south of the Taurus. Whereas attempts to link their movements with specific pottery styles, like Kura-Araxes Ware in the third millennium or Khabur Ware in the second millennium B.C.E. are problematic on archaeological grounds.P. Zimansky (2011), Urartian and the Urartians, The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, S. Steadman and G. McMahon, eds. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Zimansky further argues:
…archaeological and historical evidence for an abrupt emergence of Biainili together with the speed and totality of its disappearance argue for minimizing the number of Urartian speakers. The kingdom of Biainili, to which native inscriptions only indirectly applied the name Urartu toward the end of its history, is associated with cultural characteristics that were imposed from the top down at the end of the ninth century B.C.E. Some, like the writing system and decorative arts, were clearly inspired by Assyria and Greater Mesopotamia generally.P. Zimansky (2011), Urartian and the Urartians, The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, S. Steadman and G. McMahon, eds. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
This is further supported by the fact that the earliest of the Urartian kings didn’t even write in the Urartian script, but rather the Akkadian. Suggesting that the Hurrian, that is now known as Urartian, could have been a later adoption of the Urartian court as their power consolidated and demanded a stronger distinct language and religion for their polity. Hence also the emergence of the national deity Haldi.
Urartian literacy was strongly tied to the central government of Biainili, and was probably otherwise quite superficial (Zirnansky 2006). In this context, the branch of the Hurro-Urartian family that we know as Urartian may well have arrived in the Van area with the new rulers and have nothing to do with the area that the Assyrians called Uruatri in the second millennium B.C.E.P. Zimansky (2011), Urartian and the Urartians, The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, S. Steadman and G. McMahon, eds. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
The Armenian language, however, has always been a colloquial language. It was never attested anywhere outside of Armenia, nor used by any royal court prior to the invention of the Armenian alphabet in the 5th century AD. Even the post Urartian-era Armenian courts didn’t use the Armenian language for official purposes. The Yervanduni, Artaxiad and even the Arsacids used just about any language (including Greek, Persian, Aramaic, Roman) except for the Armenian.
For example, dozens of stelae up to one meter high, with three-teethed or rounded upper parts were found in Armenia belonging to the Artaxiad dynasty of Armenia. The frontal side of these stelae contained carved inscriptions consisting of several lines in Imperial Aramaic writing. These Artashesian boundary stones contain royal decrees on delimitation of the land between villages.
If we to apply the same logic, some do for the kingdom of Urartu, we would have to conclude that Armenians didn’t exist at all before the emergence of the Armenian script in the 5th century AD. Of course, such a conclusion would be deemed absurd, yet this simple reasoning unfortunately isn’t always extended to the Urartian period by some modern historians.
Hurrian = Indo-European?
To make the matter even more complicated some linguists have started to make the argument for a common origin of Hurrian and Proto-Indo-European. Arnaud Fournet and Allan R. Bomhard for example have published several works on the subject, among which an extensive book titled: The Indo-European Elements in Hurrian (2010), in which they argue for a genetic relationship between Hurrian and Proto-Indo-European. Now, they do not claim that Hurrian constitutes an Indo-European language, however they do show quite convincingly that Hurro-Urartian has a strong relation to Indo-European perhaps even a common origin. In other words:
In the course of this book, we have attempted to show, through a careful analysis of the relevant phonological, morphological, and lexical data, that Urarto-Hurrian and Indo-European are, in fact, genetically related at a very deep level, as we indicated at the beginning of this chapter…Arnaud Fournet and Allan R. Bomhard (2010), The Indo-European Elements In Hurrian.
The Indo-European relationship with Hurrian has also been attested from the kingdom of Mitanni, where Indo-European deities, royal names, and place names appear side by side with those of the Hurrian. Some scholars have therefore suggested that there must have been some Indo-European elite ruling over a Hurrian population. However, the actual nature of the relationship between Proto-Indo-European and Hurrian remains a mystery to this day. Armenian language seems to be a likely candidate of a typical bridge language between the two, being an odd separate branch within IE.
And if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Urartians actually wrote in several languages and scripts, one of which the so called “Urartian hieroglyphic” remains undeciphered to date.
Cuneiform was not the only writing employed in Biainili. A hieroglyphic script, which employed characters similar to and in some cases identical with Luwian hieroglyphs, was in general use as well. Most of the examples of this consist of a few symbols scratched onto clay vessels, often with accompanying notations of quantity. They also appear on seals and bronze plaques, and one clay tablet with incised glyphs is known. Although Urartu’s hieroglyphs were perhaps more widespread than its cuneiform, they remain largely undeciphered; they may not have constituted a full writing system, and contribute nothing to our understanding of the underlying language.P. Zimansky (2011), Urartian and the Urartians, The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, S. Steadman and G. McMahon, eds. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
The Urartians also wrote on different kinds of bronze objects (Salvini 2001c), and even on golden objects mostly with dedications to god Haldi. Difficult to explain is the fact that writing on clay (tablets and bullae) was used only during the seventh century, the last period of Urartian history. Furthermore, both on bronze and on clay, a different kind of script appeared, besides cuneiform (Salvini 2001b; Seidl 2004).
Two distinct local hieroglyphic or linear systems were used, one of them incomprehensible, the other very elementary, which can be interpreted thanks to parallel cuneiform notations.
No one really knows what language was recorded using the hieroglyphic script, it wouldn’t however be impossible if this script would represent a more colloquial early form of Armenian.
What about the relation to North Caucasian languages?
One of the most common misconceptions that I often hear is the idea that the Urartian and Hurrian are somehow related to the North-Caucasian languages. This hypothesis has actually been largely rejected by scholars yet it remains a popular topic on the internet. The theory was initially devised by the Soviet linguist Sergej Starostin in the 1980ies and adopted by Igor Diakonoff. Starostin is known for postulating a number of fantastical theories most of which he connects with the North-Caucasian languages. For example, he claims that the North Caucasian languages are not only related to Hurrian and Urartian but also to Yeniseian languages, Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and even Native American languages. These theories however remain largely rejected in academia. Moreover, both Diakonoff and Starostin were not versed in Armenian making their judgment on Hurro-Urartian a difficult task. As the Cambridge University encyclopedia of ancient languages describes:
“A genetic relation between (reconstructed) Proto-Urarto-Hurrian and (reconstructed) Northeast Caucasian has been argued for, but it is not generally accepted.”Gernot Wilhelm (2008), The Ancient Languages of Asia Minor, Cambridge Books Online, Cambridge University Press 2009
A lot has changed since they proposed this hypothesis and much of the arguments including cognates on which the theory initially relied has actually been revised. See example below:
Relations to Armenian
That there is an undeniable relationship between Hurro-Urartian and Armenian is recognized by most Urartologists. The nature of the relation however, remains somewhat disputed. S. Ayvazyan for example in his extensive work (Urartian-Armenian lexicon and comparative – historical grammar, 2011) has demonstrated that Armenian and Urartian languages are very much related. He summarizes by saying:
Of the 230-250 Urartian words identified to date, 156 have their parallels in Armenian, thus comprising 62-68 percent of the established Urartian lexicon.
Of the 156 parallel words, 95, almost 61 percent, are native and, therefore, cannot have been borrowed from Urartian (if, indeed, such a separate language ever existed).
A large percentage of the parallel words are such that rarely infiltrate from one language to another (for instance, pronouns, basic (ad)verbs, subsidiary words, etc.)
Bearing in mind that the Armenian-Urartian parallel word(root)s are (1) ubiquitous, (2) present in all groups of the identified lexicon, and (3) mostly native Armenian words, we can without doubt claim that the language preserved in the Urartian texts (which in scholarly literature is known as Urartian) is cognate to Armenian or is the early stage of it.
Others are less generous and would argue that the relation of the Urartian-Armenian is merely a sign of a lasting contact between the languages rather than genetic. Whatever it may be, I personally have identified over 60 Urartian-Armenian word cognates (see slideshow below).
The similarities are not just limited to the words either, there are quite extensive grammar similarities as well. The Urartian, like the Armenian is very fond of suffixes, I’ve come to understand. Several suffixes are nearly identical between the two purported languages. For example, the possessive suffix -ni (in Urartian) is -in in Armenian. If someone were to say “sword of Aram” in Armenian, one would say “Aram-in sure“, in Urartian that would sound like “Aram-ni šure” (and yes ‘sure’ also means weapon/spear/sword in Urartian).
Just like the Armenian language (and unlike the North Caucasian languages) the Urartian, as well as the Proto-IE, did not have a grammatical gender for nouns except for animate and inanimate genders. Most modern Indo-European languages (except for the English, that apparently lost it), usually do assign masculine, feminine, and neuter genders to nouns. The Armenian however, does not and shows no evidence that it ever did.
“Research indicates that the earliest stages of Proto-Indo-European had two genders (animate and inanimate), as did Hittite, the earliest attested Indo-European language. The classification of nouns based on animacy and inanimacy and the lack of gender are today characteristic of Armenian. According to the theory, the animate gender, which (unlike the inanimate) had independent vocative and accusative forms, later split into masculine and feminine, thus originating the three-way classification into masculine, feminine and neuter.”From Wikipedia on Grammatical Gender.
Similarly, all Urartian nouns appear to end in a so-called thematic vowel – most frequently -i or -e. Something very similar happens in the Armenian language where (possessive) nouns usually end in -e. Like: shune (dog), ture (door), tune (house), hatse (bread), girke (book), mgrate (scissors) etc…
Same applies for the imperative (a grammatical mood that forms a command or request) in Urartian, it is formed by the addition of the suffix -ə to the root: e.g. ar-ə “give!” Interestingly enough “ar” in Armenian means “to take”, but the Armenian imperative mood is also -ə. If one were to command someone to eat, for example, they would say “ute!”, to call would be “zange!” and to sing, would be “yerke!”
Furthermore, the Urartian demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these and those) are ina and iša. Literally the same in Armenian “ina = that” and “isa = this”.
And I’m sure we’re just scratching the surface here.
I will conclude this section with the following. As I have outlined above, only focusing on the linguistics in an attempt to identify Urartians would lead us to a dead end. Not only because much is yet unknown of the nature of Hurro-Urartian, it’s relation to other languages, how widespread or not the language really was and the motives behind the usage of this language by the Urartian court, but most of all because an ethnic identity is never defined by language alone. We have to have a multifaceted approach in order to correctly understand who the Urartians were and what group today could be considered their rightful heirs. Let us therefore look at another important piece of the puzzle in the next chapter; The genetics.