UCLA International Institute, June 9, 2022S. Peter Cowe, a highly esteemed scholar of medieval and modern Armenia, didn’t set out to study Armenian. As a secondary school student in Scotland, he enjoyed learning French and German and was contemplating a career as a diplomat.

While studying for his A-Level (U.K. college entrance) exams in Latin and struggling with the Roman poet Virgil, Cowe decided to take a break by the seashore in his native Scotland. He brought along a volume of Ovid, intending to read a few pages as an experiment.

“Virgil was using a Greek meter in order to write Latin. And Greek and Latin are very different languages, so it was a real struggle for Virgil to fit the Latin language into the Greek meter,” he says in hindsight. “As a result, when you’re studying Virgil, it’s complete torture.”

Ovid, however, was something altogether different. “Suddenly, I realized, ‘Oh, I understand this, and it’s actually very beautiful. It makes a great deal of sense. I like this.’”

And his educational plans changed right there. Instead of studying modern languages, he majored in the classics (Latin and Greek) at Aberdeen University.

In a telltale sign of his extraordinary gift as a linguist, Cowe began his university studies with only a month’s work of self-taught ancient Greek. “I was really plunged into the deep end,” he says about learning that the Greek of Homer differed greatly from the classical Greek of Plato.

The road to Armenian studies goes through Jerusalem

As Cowe began to think of a scholarly career, he realized that Latin and Greek had already been studied for millennia.

“What are you going to be able to say that hasn’t been said? So I started casting around for a related culture, but one which was much less studied. Ultimately, I came to Armenian, an Indo-European language with a very long history. All sorts of Greek and Latin authors write about Armenia — Xenophon is an excellent example, and so is Tacitus, among the Latin authors.”

Cowe moved to Oxford to study Armenian when he completed his undergraduate degree. Learning that Hebrew University of Jerusalem was the best place to pursue graduate studies in the language, he soon enrolled in a doctoral program there.

“There is an Armenian community in Jerusalem that began in something like the fourth or fifth century C.E. and is still around. That community gave me the opportunity to develop a good background in Western Armenian,” he recounts.


Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, located in the Armenian Quarter of the city.
(Photo: Jorge Láscar via Wikimedia Commons, 2012; altered.). CC BY 2.0.

Because he was required to spend a year in Soviet Armenia, Cowe also learned Eastern Armenian during his doctoral program, in addition to continuing his study of classical Armenian, together with Biblical and modern Hebrew.

For non-specialists, modern Armenian has two forms. Western Armenian is spoken by Armenians who lived in the Near East (mostly Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, where few Armenians now remain). The diaspora population of Western Armenian speakers is found primarily in Western Europe, Australia and the United States.

Eastern Armenian is spoken by Armenians living in Iran and present-day Armenia (a former Soviet republic), who have created a growing diaspora population in the West over the past four decades.

“Clearly, both forms emerged out of the classical language, but their profile is rather different,” explains Cowe. “If I were to simplify, I would say that eastern Armenian maintains more of the nominal structure of the classical language, and Western Armenian preserves more of the verbal structure of the classical structure.

Teaching the next generation of Armenian experts in the West

Upon completing his Ph.D., Cowe taught at Hebrew University, University of Chicago and Columbia University before joining the faculty of the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in 1996.

The Armenia expert is also a faculty member of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture and CMRS Center for Early Global Studies, and as of 2018, director of the UCLA Center for World Languages. From 2015 to 2018, he was director of the Research Program in Armenian Archaeology and Ethnography at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.


Republic of Armenia. (Photo: Gohar Grigorian.)

UCLA has one of the oldest and strongest Armenian studies programs in the U.S., established in 1969 with the creation of the Narekatsi Chair in Armenian Studies (the oldest endowed chair at the university). It offers an undergraduate major and minor, as well as M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, together with comprehensive instruction in classical, Western and Eastern Armenian.

The Narekatsi Chair in was named by its first holder, UCLA professor Avedis K. Sanjian (1921–1994), in honor of the great medieval Armenian monk, scholar and poet, Grigor of Narek (Grigor Narekatsi). Cowe became the second holder of the chair in 2000 and is a revered professor among his students, past and present.

An intriguing breadth of intellectual endeavor

The UCLA professor has written on topics ranging from medieval Armenian theology and intellectual history to modern Armenian theater and nationalism. “I allow myself a certain breadth because the position I have is in ‘Armenian studies,’” says Cowe with a twinkle in his eye.

In addition to publishing articles in and serving on the editorial boards of major scholarly journals (including the Journal of Armenian Studies, Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, Armenian Review, Proceedings of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Armeniaca: International Journal of Armenian Studies and History and Culture: Journal of Armenian Studies), Cowe is the author of a number of monographs, commentaries, translations and book chapters.

Among those publications are “Modern Armenian Drama: An Anthology” (Columbia, 2001); “Medieval Armenian Manuscripts at the University of California, Los Angeles”* (UC Press, 1999); “Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library” (Peeters, 1994), “The Deaconess in the Armenian Church” (Saint Nersess Armenian Seminary, 1994), “Mxit’ar Sasnec’i’s Theological Discourses” (Peeters, 1993), “The Armenian Version of Daniel” (University of Pennsylvannia Armenian Texts and Studies, 1992) and “Commentary on the Divine Liturgy of Xosrov Anjewac’i” (St. Vartan Press, 1991).

“One of the things that I don’t think has been fully understood is that a major source for the development of Armenian literature was the school system in Armenia,” says Cowe about one of his ongoing research projects.

“During the fourth through the ninth century C.E., Greek was the culturally dominant hemispheric language from an Armenian perspective. Fundamentally, we see the impact of Greek westwards on a whole series of other languages, right through to northern India.”

In Armenia, as in Europe with Latin, the Greek school system was appropriated and adapted to another language. “From the late fifth right through to the eighth century, Greek grammar, rhetoric and logic seems to have been the core for the production of Armenian literature,” explains the scholar.

“They were teaching a Hellenistic structure in Armenian, but in a bilingual context — the more advanced teachers in Armenia would have had their own education in Alexandria, where they perfected their Greek.”

The Hellenic period was simply one phase in Armenia’s sequential borrowing of cultures. “Before the Greek phase, there were several other phases,” explains Cowe. “In this period, we’re seeing Hellenic culture replacing Persian as the dominant culture in the broader region.

“It’s very interesting that Persian culture was largely oral in that earlier period, so the Persian impact on Armenian culture continues in an oral environment, such as poetry, folklore and folk epics.

“Whereas Greek culture is quintessentially literate, so we see the Greek impact on written works in Armenian. The Greek influence does not replace the Persian influence, but occupies a further niche alongside it.”

Another research project concerns the recovery of the publishing industry in the Republic of Armenia, which collapsed following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. For the next two decades, books in Armenian were generally published in limited runs of roughly 500 books — and only when an author’s supporters could provide the printing funds. Distribution was largely an individual affair.

The industry began to recover in the 2010s, when local funding finally made it possible to launch new works. “I think that some of the Armenian publishers have been enormously courageous in undertaking significant intellectual projects,” comments Cowe.

One publishing house, for example, has been putting out a series on European philosophy, including a recent book of the Greek Neoplatonic philosopher of the third century, Plotinus.

“I remember saying to the publisher, ‘I can’t imagine that this is going to be a best seller in modern Armenia.’ But the publisher said, ‘Well, we thought this was absolutely important. This is a crucial figure in the development of Western philosophy and this book will find its readers.’”

Heritage languages and modern Armenian

At the Center for World Languages, Cowe oversees the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) and co-administers the UCLA Russian Flagship Program with the department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian languages and cultures.


Epitaph in Classical Armenian for Jakub and Marianna Minasowicz, St. Hyacinth's Church, Warsaw.
(Photo: Adrian Grycuk via Wikimedia Commons, 2013; altered.) CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

Founded in 2006, the NHLRC was the first university center in the country dedicated both to research on heritage languages and the development of pedagogy and learning materials for heritage speakers (i.e., people who grow up speaking, but not reading or writing, a non-dominant language).

“It’s really crucial to be able to identify the abilities of a heritage language speaker and what is needed in order to advance him or her to a higher state of fluency,” says Cowe. “In a heritage context, you begin fundamentally with speech, then listening and then you move on to skills in reading and writing.

“Both in schools and universities, heritage students are now a significant constituency for language classes,” he explains.

“Unfortunately, in the U.S. there has been long been a stigma associated with immigrants speaking a language other than English. That stigma that was internalized very quickly in immigrant communities, starting in the 1880s and 1890s, who came to prioritize familiarity with English at all costs.

“And in the United States, in parallel with the U.K., foreign language capability is not regarded very highly,” he continues.

“This attitude is also often associated with a faulty perspective on the operation of the brain — as if it is a finite resource that you can’t clutter with a foreign language because it will reduce the amount of brain power needed to develop English. This idea raises uncertainty about the validity and importance of language immersion programs in public schools.

“Of course, in terms of brain health, it’s the opposite,” he says. “Today, it’s suggested that older people take up languages in order to maintain a source of stimulation for the brain.”

Cowe is particularly alert to heritage language issues because the vast majority of Armenian speakers in the diaspora today are heritage speakers. Roughly two and half million Armenians currently live in the Republic of Armenia, where Eastern Armenian in spoken. However, the majority of the Armenian population worldwide lives in a diaspora situation (estimated at about 8 million people).

“Fundamentally, there is no state where Western Armenian is the official language,” he points out. “As a stateless language, it’s always spoken in a bilingual or multilingual environment.

“One of the concerns of Armenian studies at UCLA is to revitalize Western Armenian within the local (Los Angeles) community and, more broadly, among Armenian diaspora communities in different parts of the world.”

For example, one of Cowe’s former students Tenny Arlen — a heritage speaker from California — was able, through intensive study at UCLA, to master the modern form to the point that she published a book of poetry in Western Armenian.

In fact, an intriguing phenomenon is taking place in the Armenian diaspora community of Southern California. Starting with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, successive waves of Eastern Armenian speakers have emigrated to historic communities established by Western Armenian speakers.

“Southern California (primarily Hollywood and Glendale) is the main area of the U.S. where speakers of both forms of modern Armenian are in frequent contact. This has been a fascinating process to watch,” says Cowe.

“The two forms are influencing each other and a large part of the local Armenian community is now bilingual: they are able to speak both standard forms. They grew up with one and now they have mastered the other. We’re seeing the impact of the forms on each other, particularly the impact of Eastern Armenian on Western Armenian.”

It is a tribute to Cowe and his colleagues in the Armenian Studies program and the NHLRC that UCLA has become the place to study and document how these two modern Armenian forms are interacting and the effect this interaction will have on the future of the language.

*This compilation was begun by UCLA Professor Avedis K. Sanjian before his death and completed by Cowe, with contributions by Alice Taylor and Sylvie Merian.