Thursday, January 26, 2017

How Did You Cut the Plate?


“I cut the plate?”

“What did you do?”

“I cut the plate.”

This is how you would understand the action if you literally translated «Ես պնակը կտրեցի» (Yes bunaguh gudretsee) from Armenian. So, what did your interlocutor do? Did he take a saw and cut the plate into halves? Answer:

“No, the plate fell on the floor.”

Now it becomes clear. This person did not cut the plate. He/she broke it!

The fault lies with the speaker, not with the language. The same as in English, there are two different words for “to cut” and “to break” in Armenian. If you get your facts straight, nobody will get confused:

a) “To cut” = կտրել (gudrel): «Ես պանիրը կտրեցի» (Yes baniruh gudretsee / “I cut the cheese”).

b) “To break” = կոտրել  (godrel): «Ես պնակը կոտրեցի (Yes bunaguh godretsee / “I broke the plate”).

Both verbs are, of course, related. Their root is the word կոտոր (godor), later turned into կտոր (gudor), which means “piece.”  

Interestingly, godor is not used as a single word anymore, but it has been kept in the noun կոտորած (godoradz “massacre”) and the verb կոտորել (godorel “to massacre”). The latter originally meant “to cut into pieces,” and its synonym ջարդել (chartel “to massacre”) has kept that meaning too.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How the Chestnuts Showed Up from Nowhere?

There are no-words in different languages that become words by a stroke of the pen. We have discussed such a case in the past: շերամ (sheram), the Armenian word for “silk.” Something similar happened with “chestnut.”
The story starts with the word շահդանակ (shahdanak, in Classical Armenian), which appeared in the Atlas of geographer and astronomer Anania Shirakatsi (seventh century A.D.). As all compound words starting with shah (“king”), this one had Iranian origin: it came from Pahlavi—the language spoken during the kingdom of Parthia (250 B.C.-224 A.D.)—shahdanak (Persian shahdana), literally “royal grain,” which actually meant “grain of hemp.” The manuscripts of this work showed nine variants of the Armenian word, due to the work of the scribes, ranging from շաղդանակ (shaghdanak) to շատանայ (shatana) to շագանակ (shaganak).
The Haigazian Dictionary (Հայկազեան Լեզուի Բառարան), spearheaded by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), was the first project to compile the entire Armenian vocabulary. Mekhitar wrote and saw to the publication of the first volume (1749) in his death bed. The second volume was compiled by five of his disciples and published in 1769. Its authors selected the word շագանակ (pronounced shakanag in Western Armenian) from the manuscripts of Shirakatsi’s work as the most reasonable variant and attributed it the meaning “chestnut.”
They were wrong. The accurate word was շահդանակ (pronounced shahtanag in Western Armenian) and its meaning was “grain of hemp.” However, the following dictionaries of Classical Armenian in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including the authoritative New Haigazian Dictionary ( Նոր Հայկազեան Լեզուի Բառարան) , published in 1836-1837, adopted the same word shakanag with the meaning “chestnut.” As a result, the inexistent word and its inexistent meaning entered the literary language. Today, if you need to pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire (i.e. do something difficult for someone else), you will say շագանակները կրակէն դուրս հանել ( shakanagneruh gragen toors hanel “to take the chestnuts out of the fire”). The word shahtanag has lost the train of language history.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Do You Print Money?

You may just earn a salary or be on the way to become a millionaire. In both cases, the English language has the same way to say that: “you make money.” Whether it is money or coffee, it allows you the use of the same verb: “to make.”


However, as you know, when you make money you obtain it, regardless of the way you do that. It means that “to make” is used as a figure of speech. You can make a cake, but the power to actually make money belongs to the U.S. Federal Reserve.


This may already give you the hint about why the expression դրամ շինել ( tram shinel ) is nothing more than a slavish Armenian-American translation of “to make money.” The word shinel has 14 different definitions, according to the latest dictionary of the Armenian language (Beirut, 1992). The most basic meanings are “to built” and “to create.” However, the meaning “to obtain” does not exist.


Therefore, to say «Ես դրամ շինեցի» (“Yes tram shinetsi”) as translation for “I made money” is basically wrong. If someone heard you saying that out of America, s/he would think that you are in some shady business of printing money.  When you want to speak real Armenian, the actual way to say that is «Ես դրամ շահեցայ» (Yes tram shahetsa). The verb shahil literally means “to win,” and you can literally say that when you came out from the casino, for instance, with something extra in your pocket. Since when you win money, you earn it, then you can use it to make us understand that you get a paycheck. Therefore, Armenian speakers “win” money, while English speakers “make” it.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Very Prolific Vowel

It is not usual that a vowel may also be a very meaningful word in a certain language. Such is the case of the vowel է (e), the seventh letter of the Armenian alphabet.
Its most fundamental function is to be… the third person singular present of the verb “to be”: ան է (an e) = he/she is. This indication of existence has given origin to an interesting series of words.
The word է (e) itself appeared from very early as synonymous with Աստուած (Asdvadz = “God”). Since e indicates existence, it was natural that it could be adopted to symbolize God as “existing.” It appeared in the Armenian Bible, in the fifth century, in the expressions որ է (vor e), որ էն (vor en), and որ էնն (vor enun). For instance, we have the passage «Արդար է՝ որ էնն եւ է» (Artar e vor enun yev e), meaning “You are just, the one who is and who was” (Revelation 16:5). From here, ecclesiastic documents such as bulls by Catholicoi, letters, or notes had as their letterhead the letter Է (E), meaning “In the name of God.” The letter is also found in the front of churches or above the altars.
E also became the basis for several nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, such as the noun էակ (է+ակ, eag), by the addition of the suffix ակ (ag), meaning “creature, being” (մարդ էակ/mart eag “human being”).
Another word, by addition of the adjectival suffix ական (agan), is էական (eagan), which means “essential” and express existence (the verb “to be” is a էական բայ/eagan pay “existential verb”).
The adverbial suffix ապէս (abes) has helped create the adverb էապէս (eabes “essentially”).
Another interesting word is մանրէ (մանր+է, manre), where the word e has been combined with the adjective manr (“little, small”) to form this noun, which designates “virus” and “bacteria.”
Finally, the negative prefix ան (an) has generated the adjective անէ (ane), meaning “inexistent,” and the verb անէանալ (aneanal “to vanish”). While the former is a word more used in poetry, the latter can be used in less literary fashion.
It is fitting to end with a stanza from Taniel Varoujan’s poem “To My Muse,” which he wrote when he was barely 20-21 years old. It was published in his first collection of poetry (1906).

...Կ'ուզեմ ծովուն հետ սիրտ սըրտի ես hարիլ,
Իմ անհունիս մէջ այդ անհունը թաղել,
Բուռն իղձն ունիմ մըրըրկին հետ մաքառիլ
Եվ գլուխս Է-ին գաղտնիքներուն դէմ բախել


(I want to collide heart to heart with the sea,
To bury that infinite in my own infinite;
I have the strong wish to fight with the storm
And to hit my head against the secrets of God).

Those who read Armenian will notice that Varoujan wrote his wish to decipher the secrets of E (Է), instead of saying “God.” He was allowed just a decade to try to decipher those secrets through his poetry before he became one of the most precious victims of the Medz Yeghern (the Great Crime/Great Genocide).

Thursday, December 1, 2016

“Joyful Thanksgiving”­?


Thanksgiving is over. Among the myriad of “Happy Thanksgiving” greetings going all over the place, did you hear anyone saying “Joyful Thanksgiving”?
Of course not. Everyone said “Happy Thanksgiving,” because this is what the English language mandates to say. Happiness is a temporary feeling (and the celebration of a particular day is temporary), while joy has a lasting, more abstract connotation. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” would have taken a different meaning if it had been entitled “Ode to Happiness.” Not by chance, the eighteenth-century Christmas carol says “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and not… “Happiness to the world…”
Now, how did you say your wish in Armenian? Did you say Ուրախ Գոհաբանութեան օր (Oorakh Kohapanootian or)?
If you did, you were utterly wrong, because you were saying… “Joyful Thanksgiving.” You cannot use oorakh to say “happy” when you are giving good wishes, but only yerchanig.
It is true that some dictionaries may use “happy” to translate both oorakh and yerchanig (երջանիկ). Unfortunately, dictionary authors may be very skillful at putting words together, but very sloppy at thinking how those words are actually used in a sentence. The fact that Google Translate offers the same alternative is, of course, negligible: you are dealing with something called “statistical machine translation,” not a human translator sensible to language nuances.
The Armenian language offers yet another alternative: the word շնորհաւոր (shunorhavor), which indicates your wishes of grace (շնորհք/shunorhk) for a happy event; e.g. Շնորհաւոր տարեդարձ (Shunorhavor daretartz). You could have also used it for Thanksgiving, as in Շնորհաւոր Գոհաբանութեան օր (Shunorhavor Kohapanootian or).
Incidentally, you can still use shunorhavor during the forthcoming holidays to say “Happy New Year”:  Շնորհաւոր Նոր Տարի (Shunorhavor Nor Dari). It would sound awkward to say yerchanig for Christmas, even though we say Merry Christmas (and not “Happy Christmas”). Exceptions confirm the rule: we say Շնորհաւոր Սուրբ Ծնունդ (Shunorhavor Soorp Dzunoont) and not Երջանիկ Սուրբ Ծնունդ (Yerchanig Soorp Dzunoont). If you want to make your wishes in one shot, then it is Shunorhavor Nor Dari yev Soorp Dzunoont. As you see, it does not have more words than Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Salty and Sweet


A previous column (April 28, 2016) explained how Armenian աղ (agh) and English salt were related to each other. Now it seems fit to explore how salt, in the end, may become… sweet.
Salt gives flavor to all sorts of food, and, of course, it may be used in a metaphorical sense, as Jesus did in the Sermon of the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men” (Matthew 5:13). Without salt, let aside all other condiments, food loses an essential nutrient and much of its actual taste.
 The concept of flavor implies, by extension, that salt also provides taste, including “sweetness.” The Armenian language has reflected that in a few words. Classical Armenian had the word աղու (aghoo), which meant “tasty, sweet.” Villages and mountains in Eastern and Western Armenia were and are named Աղու (Aghoo). The name comes from the combination of the word agh and the suffix ու (oo), used in adjectives like հատու (hadoo, from had(el) “to cut” + oo, meaning “sharp”).
But we have more surprises: two common words that are only used in Western Armenian and also have agh as their source. One of them is the word աղուոր (aghoo + or = aghvor), with the meaning of “good, nice” (e.g. աղուոր աղջիկ / aghvor aghchig “nice girl”). The other is աղէկ (agheg), which means “good” (e.g. աղէկ պայմաններ / agheg baymanner “good conditions”).
Doesn’t it sound convincing? In such cases, comparative examples offer a solution. The Russian word for “salt,” from the same Proto-Indo-European source, is sol’ . Two surprising derivations of this word are “sweet” (sladkii) and “candy” (sladosti). Why? Such are the mysteries of language

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Do Not Invent Words That Do Not Exist

Life is far from having a straight course. There are curves, shortcuts, reversals. Looking from outside, they are irregularities and exceptions to what one may consider rules.
Language is part of life. Therefore, it also has irregularities and exception to the rule (the rules of language, indeed) all the way.
One of those irregularities is the verb to fall, as any English speaker knows. The present is fall, the past tense is fell, and the participle is fallen.
“To fall” is also irregular in Armenian. The verb is eehnal (իյնալ) in Armenian, but the past tense loses the յ and acquires a g (կ). Thus, we have Yes eenga (Ես ինկայ, “I fell”) or Anonk eengan (Անոնք ինկան, “They fell”). Unlike English, the past participle remains in the same form: eengadz (ինկած, “fallen”).
A fake irregularity has been created in the colloquial language. For instance, in the case of the verb nusdeel (նստիլ, “to sit”), if we want to have someone sit down before the performance starts, we have to nusdetsenel that particular person (նստեցնել, “to make someone sit down”). It is a perfectly legitimate word, as it is in the case of the pairs vazel/vazetsunel (վազել/վազեցնել, “to run/to make run”), antsneel/antsunel (անցնիլ/անցընել, “to pass/to make pass”), and several others.
However, there is a false parity, which we find here and there in spoken language, particularly among Middle Eastern speakers of Armenian. It is the case of the ghost word eengatsunel (ինկացնել). For instance, you may hear someone who says:
Ան զիս ինկացուց/An zees eengatsoots/ “He(she) made me fall”
The verb eengatsunel, unlike vazetsunel or antsunel, does not exist in Armenian.
How do you properly say the abovementioned sentence?
If you want the short answer, you have Ան զիս տապալեց/An zees dabalets.
Too fancy? Then you have the long answer: Գետին ինկայ իր պատճառով/ Kedeen eenga eer badjarov / “I fell to the floor by his(her) cause.”
However, the questions may remain: Why eengatsunel does not exist?
There is no “why.” Sometimes, language, like life, has its own reasons