Proto-Armenian is the earlier, unattested stage of the Armenian language which has been reconstructed by linguists. As Armenian is the only known language of its branch of the Indo-European languages, the comparative method cannot be used to reconstruct its earlier stages. Instead, a combination of internal and external reconstruction, by reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European and other branches, has allowed linguists to piece together the earlier history of Armenian.
Proto-Armenian, as the common ancestor of only one language, has no clear definition of the term. It is generally held to include a variety of ancestral stages of Armenian between Proto-Indo-European and the earliest attestations of Classical Armenian.
The earliest testimony of Armenian is the 5th-century Bible translation of Mesrop Mashtots. The earlier history of the language is unclear and the subject of much speculation. It is clear that Armenian is an Indo-European language, but its development is opaque.
The Proto-Armenian sound changes are varied and eccentric (such as *dw- yielding erk-) and, in many cases, uncertain. That prevented Armenian from being immediately recognized as an Indo-European branch in its own right, and it was assumed to be simply a very divergent Iranian language until Heinrich Hübschmann established its independent character in 1874.
The Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops are aspirated in Proto-Armenian. That gave rise to an extended version of the glottalic theory that the aspiration may have already been subphonemic in Proto-Indo-European.
In certain contexts, the aspirated stops are further reduced to w, h or zero in Armenian: Proto-Indo-European (accusative) *pódm̥ "foot" > Armenian otn vs. Greek (accusative) póda, Proto-Indo-European tréjes "three" > Armenian erekʿ vs. Greek treis.
The Armenians according to Diakonoff, are then an amalgam of the Hurrians (and Urartians), Luvians and the Mushki. After arriving in its historical territory, Proto-Armenian would appear to have undergone massive influence on part the languages it eventually replaced. Armenian phonology, for instance, appears to have been greatly affected by Urartian, which may suggest a long period of bilingualism.
Diakonoff (1985) and Greppin (1991) etymologize several Old Armenian words as having a possible Hurro-Urartian origin:
- agarak "field" from Hurrian awari "field";
- ałaxin "slave girl" from Hurrian al(l)a(e)ḫḫenne;
- arciw "eagle" from Urartian Arṣiba, a proper name with a presumed meaning of "eagle";
- art "field" from Hurrian arde "town" (rejected by Diakonoff and Fournet);
- astem "to reveal one's ancestry" from Hurrian ašti "woman, wife";
- caṙ "tree" from Urartian ṣârə "garden";
- cov "sea" from Urartian ṣûǝ "(inland) sea";
- kut "grain" from Hurrian kade "barley" (rejected by Diakonoff; closer to Greek kodomeýs "barley-roaster");
- maxr ~ marx "pine" from Hurrian māḫri "fir, juniper";
- pełem "dig, excavate" from Urartian pile "canal", Hurrian pilli (rejected by Diakonoff);
- salor ~ šlor "plum" from Hurrian *s̄all-orə or Urartian *šaluri (cf. Akkadian šallūru "plum");
- san "kettle" from Urartian sane "kettle, pot";
- sur "sword", from Urartian šure "sword", Hurrian šawri "weapon, spear" (considered doubtful by Diakonoff);
- tarma-ǰur "spring water" from Hurrian tarman(l)i "spring";
- ułt "camel" from Hurrian uḷtu "camel";
- xarxarel "to destroy" from Urartian harhar-š- "to destroy";
- xnjor "apple" from Hurrian ḫinzuri "apple" (itself from Akkadian hašhūru, šahšūru).
Arnaud Fournet proposes additional borrowed words.
Vyacheslav Ivanov argues the complete fallacy of all the constructions of I. M. Dyakonov regarding the origin of the ethnonym "hay" and other issues of the Armenian ethnogenesis
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