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PhD defence

Prehistoric loanwords in Armenian

  • R.T. Nielsen
Tuesday 7 November 2023
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden


  • dr. G.J. Kroonen
  • Prof.dr. A.M. Lubotsky


Armenian belongs to the Indo-European language family. However, already in the Old Armenian language of the Medieval, we do not find many words that descend from the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, called Proto-Indo-European. This is in large part due to the adoption of loanwords. Many words stemming from the Iranian languages, and from Syriac and Greek, have already received much scholarly attention. This dissertation, in contrast, takes a closer look at three lesser-known loanword layers. The first are the loanwords from Hurrian and/or Urartian, two closely related languages of the Bronze and Iron Ages. The second layer comes from the Kartvelian languages, which are still spoken close to Armenian. Finally, the dissertation investigates a particular layer of the so-called "unclassified substrate", that is loanwords from an unknown language (or languages) that were also loaned into e.g. Greek, Latin, and the Germanic languages (such as Dutch and English).

After carefully evaluating more than two hundred words, the dissertation also analyses the chronology of these three loanword layers. The unclassified substrate layer is clearly the most ancient, consisting of words that were borrowed soon after the ancestor of the Armenian language split off from its Indo-European siblings. The Kartvelian layer is proposed to be the second-oldest, as the Armenian-Kartvelian contact appears to have begun already in the late second millennium BCE. Finally, the Hurro-Urartian layer can probably be dated to a short period in the first part of the first millennium BCE, contemporaneous with the existence of the Urartian Kingdom in the area of historical Armenia.

On the backdrop of recent advances in archaeology and ancient DNA research, the linguistic findings support the hypothesis that the first Armenian speakers entered the Caucasus from the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 2000 BCE. This goes against the popular hypothesis that the Armenian speakers migrated from the eastern Balkans only after 1200 BCE. This dissertation thus raises new and important questions about the prehistory of Armenian, much of which is still obscure.

PhD dissertations

Approximately one week after the defence, PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

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