Thursday, May 10, 2018


There are people who are in favor of evolutionary change, while others are prone to revolutionary change. After years of waiting for an “evolutionary” change that never arrived, the citizens of Armenia spoke up and the recent political upheaval became the “Velvet Revolution,” an exemplary series of peaceful demonstrations that led to the change of government and a new atmosphere of freedom and hope.
In English, the difference of one letter in the pair “revolution”-“evolution” indicates their common source, as well as their common meaning. The former originates from Latin revolutio, meaning “the act of revolving, rolling” and the latter, from Latin evolutio “unrolling.” 
Their Armenian counterparts, curiously, are also separated by one letter. We have two different pairs:

Revolution                                                          Evolution
յեղափոխութիւն (heghapokhootioon)         եղափոխութիւն (yeghapokhootioon)
յեղաշրջում (heghashurchoom)                     եղաշրջում (yeghashurchoom)

(Additionally, we have a third word for “evolution”: բնաշրջում / punashurchoom)

The Armenian pair, however, is a compound word: hegh + pokh + ootioon (suffix) and yegh + pokh + ootioon. It should be noted that the letter յ sounded “y” in Classical Armenian, and ե sound “e”; then, it was originally yeghapokhootioon and eghapokhootioon.
Interestingly, enough, while the English pair revolves (pun intended) around the concept of rolling, the Armenian pair derives from a Proto-Indo-European root, *g’el, meaning “to turn.” However, they modified their meaning over time, which became “change,” exactly the concept behind both revolution and evolution. Both hegh and yegh are primary and secondary forms of the same root, and, thus, the words are formed by a duplication of the same meaning, since pokh is the root of the verb փոխել (pokhel) “change.”
To sum up, people in Armenia were not simply asking to turn around the same tune, but… to change the tune.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Don’t Build an Appointment

It is anyone’s guess: the word “appointment” must be related to “point,” right?

Indeed. As it would be expected, it comes from French. The original French verb appointer comes from a point (“to the point”).

How do you say “appointment” in Armenian?

It depends on the meaning, since there is not a single word.

If you are going with the original meaning of “assigning a position to someone,” then you have the word նշանակում (nushanagoom), whose root is the noun նշանակ (nushanag “sign; signal”), and has a structure similar to the French word désignation (dé-sign-ation “appointment”) and the English word “assignment” (as-sign-ment, which used to mean “appointment to office” starting in the fifteenth century).

If you are having a scheduled visit to a doctor’s office or some kind of official business, then you cannot say Ես նշանակում մը ունիմ (Yes nushanagoom muh oonim (“I have a …”), because that would be a clumsy attempt at translating the word with a dictionary without thinking about the meaning. The Armenian language has created a different word for that, combining the concepts of “time” and “fixing,” which is what an appointment is. The result is ժամադրութիւն (jamatrootioon), and then you may say Ես ժամադրութիւն մը ունիմ ատամնաբոյժին հետ (Yes jamatrootioon muh oonim adamnapoojin hed “I have an appointment with the dentist”), and everything will be all right, both your appointment and your command of the language.

Talking about clumsy attempts, if you want to make an appointment, please use your common sense. You cannot build an appointment in English (one of the meanings of “make”), right? Then, do not think that you are entitled to do it in Armenian and then you can happily say: Ես ժամադրութիւն մը շինեցի (Yes jamatrootioon muh sheenetsee). That does not mean “I made an appointment,” but “I built an appointment”! Unless an appointment is a Lego toy, rest assured that you have simply killed the language with a single shot…

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Chess: Armenian Has Two Names for Everything

Most scholars agree that chess originated in India during the first centuries of the Christian era with the name chaturanga, which translates as “four divisions (of the military),” today symbolized by the pawn, knight, bishop, and rook.

The game went to Persia, where the name became chatrang and they started calling shah (“king”) when attacking the opponent’s king, and shah mat (“the king is helpless”) when the king could not escape from an attack. The call became known worldwide, and today we say “check” and “check mate” in English.

But how did “chess” and “check” come into English? Arabs took up the game everywhere, including the calls, and the word shah entered Medieval Latin as scaccus . It went from here to Old French eschec, which meant both “game of chess” and “checkmate,” and its plural eschés (in Modern French, “chess” is échecs , in plural, while the singular word échec means “defeat”). As it happened with most English vocabulary, both Old French words entered Middle English: the plural eschés became “chess,” and the singular eschec became chek, chekke, and then “check.” While in most of Europe the name of the game came from shah, the Persian name chatrang, modified after the Islamic conquest of Persia as shatranj, went to North Africa, where the Moors turned it into shaterej. The word entered Spanish (ajedrez ), Portuguese (xadrez ), and Greek (zatrikion ).

What happened in Armenian? Here, of course, because of Persian influence, the route was much straightforward. The word chatrang became ճատրակ (chatrak in Classical Armenian), and this is how we call it in Western Armenian (pronounced jadrag) to this day. Interestingly, St. Krikor Datevatsi (fifteenth century) had the word սատրիճ (satrij), which was derived from Arabic shatranj, but this did not enter the literary language and remained in some dialects as satrinj .

Armenians have revealed themselves, as we know, brilliant chess players since the twentieth century. Suffice it to mention the names of Tigran Petrosian and Garry Kasparov. It is an intriguing fact that the name of the game in Eastern Armenian went on a completely different road. A Russian-Eastern Armenian dictionary published in Tiflis (1876) listed jadrag and satrinj as translation for the Russian word shakhmat (“chess game,” which also means “chessboard”) , which was a borrowing from German Schachmatt (“checkmate”). However, it appears that in the twentieth century the loanword from Russian շախմատ ( shakhmat “chess game”) totally overtook jadrag, becoming the term of choice in Eastern Armenian to this day. Even if Armenian modern dictionaries list jadrag and shakhmat as synonyms, Western Armenians consider jadrag an authentic Armenian word and shakhmat a loanword, which is not far from the truth, since the former, despite being also a foreign word, entered the Armenian language a thousand years ago or so.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Armenian Word for Easter

The Armenian word for Easter, Զատիկ (Zadig), does not appear in the translation of the Bible. However, it appears in other works of the fifth century A.D. and initially designated both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.

It is possible that Zadig attempted to interpreted the meaning of the Jewish Pesach (Armenian Պասեք/ Basek), which celebrates the delivery (the “separation”) of the Jews from the captivity in Egypt and their crossing of the Red Sea. The word pesach actually means “passage,” hence English Passover . As the biblical story tells, the Red Sea opened its waters to allow the fugitive Jews passage to the Sinai Peninsula, thus saving them from Egyptian persecution.

It seems that the word has an Armenian origin, since it derives from the verb զատել/zadel (“to cut, to divide, to separate”), which is actually the combination of the prefix զ ( z ) and the verb հատել (hadel), with the same meaning as zadel. (The Classical Armenian form of the verb hadel was հատանել/hadanel). The use of the prefix z to create new words is not uncommon. For instance, we have the word զեռուն/zeroon, “snake; insect,” which came from the Classical Armenian verb զեռալ (zeral “to boil”), derived from the combination of z + եռալ (yeral “to boil”).

The word zadig has a colorful secondary use. It is the Armenian name for the ladybug. As it is well-known, the ladybug is linked to the Virgin Mary (hence the “lady” part of the name in English and the reference to Mary or God in other languages, like German and French). There are many theories for this linkage, and we can also make our own theories about why this useful insect, of which there are seventy-three species in Armenia, has been linked to Easter in our language. Perhaps because of its red color, one may ask, which is used to paint eggs in Easter?

Incidentally, Zadig was also used as male name in Armenian. However, the most famous Zadig in history was not Armenian. One should be reminded of Zadig, the main character of Zadig, or the Book of Fate (1747), the work of philosophical fiction by Voltaire (1694-1778), the famous French philosopher. As it happens, the plot of this novella was set in Babylon, and Zadig was… a Babylonian philosopher.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Double Speak

Spoiler alert: the title of this article does not refer to the perennial use of euphemism, ambiguity, or inversion of meaning so common in political language. It actually makes reference to a very common linguistic phenomenon called “reduplication” (in Armenian կրկնաւորում / gurgnavoroom ).

Reduplication happens when you repeat part or all of a word to express a meaning. You have plenty of examples in English, from “walkie-talkie” to “zig-zag,” which mostly appear in colloquial language and then sometimes go into a more formal expression.

Unlike English, in Armenian you have entire words repeated. For instance:
տեսակ - տեսակ պտուղներ (desag-desag budooghner) “variegated fruits”
զանազան մարդիկ (zanazan martig) “different people”

In the first case, you have an adjective repeated and connected with a hyphen. In the second, you have the suffix զան (zan) , meaning “form, way, mode,” loaned from Old Persian. The repeated word has been linked by the very common connective ա (a) .

You can also have two words that have meaning and rhyme with each other (“rhyming reduplication”), like English “super-duper.” However, the Armenian cases are more formal. For instance, the word ախ /akh (interjection of affliction) is combined with the word վախ /vakh “fear” and the result is ախ ու վախ (akh oo vakh) “sigh.”

There are various reduplicated words that are connected by prepositions from Classical Armenian. Such is the case of գոյնզգոյն /kooynuzkooyn “multicolor,” with the word գոյն /kooyn “color” repeated and glued by the connective զ /z , and խառնիխուռն /kharnikhoorn “mixed, confused, pell-mell,” where two words of relatively similar meaning ( խառն /kharn “mixed” and խուռն /khurn “confused”) are put together with the connective ի /i.

You have other cases that remain in the colloquial level and constitute the funny part of it. One of the components usually has no meaning: 

a)     The rhyming reduplication that comes from the use of the sound m, either by replacement or addition, as in գաւաթ - մաւաթ (kavat-mavat), with kavat meaning “glass, cup,” or արեւ - մարեւ (arev-marev), with arev  meaning “sun.” (In English, we have the case of shm-reduplication, as in “fancy-shmancy.”)

b)     The emphatic reduplication in nouns, like սեփ - սեւ ( sep-sev ), where sep turns sev (“black”), or adjectives, like ճիփ - ճիշդ (jeep-jeesht), with jeep underscoring jeesht (“precise, correct”).
These last cases have their parallel utilization in Turkish and should be regarded as part of the long coexistence of both languages in the Ottoman period.  

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Perils of Misspeaking

A translator or an interpreter has a very delicate function: to convey ideas into another language. That function is manifold, because it is not only about what you convey, but how you convey it. (Let’s leave aside why you convey it and to whom you convey it.)

The matter of “how” is always a thorny issue for someone who translates from Armenian into English or vice versa. We have previously referred to some tricky cases, such as the familiar idiomatic expression էշուն սատկած տեղը (eshoon sadgadz deghu), a figurative way to say “in a faraway place.” While we will leave to the reader the task of finding the appropriate English equivalent for this expression, we can only reassure him or her that it would be very unfortunate, not to say ridiculous, to translate it literally as “the place where the donkey died.”

The thorny issue, of course, also becomes painful to whoever speaks or writes in Armenian, when you find yourself struggling to offer a correct expression that does not smell as English translated into Armenian. Although such cases sometimes may pass inadvertently, in others what goes around, comes around, and you may become a laughing stock. Of course, communication is what matters and it is not polite to laugh or to chide someone for a language mistake. However, it also matters for a conscientious speaker that communication improves over time and does not remain forever on an elementary school level (public examples should be brushed aside as anomalies). Here are two examples—not literally reproduced—that sometimes appear in spoken language:

1) “I serve under…”
Unless you are self-employed, you always work or carry out responsibilities under someone else’s directions. The English language has an idiom for that: “to serve under” (“I served under General X”). We all understand that you served under the command of General X, even if it is not stated. Since this is an idiom, if you needed to express the same idea in Armenian, you should not translate it literally. If you said «Ես ծառայեցի զօրավար Ք.-ի տակ» (Yes dzarayetsee zoravar K-i dag), it would literally mean… that General X was standing or lying over your body while you served, which, incidentally, would probably lead to charges of sexual harassment or physical distress.
Since you want to avoid such costly misunderstandings, it would be more proper to say: «Ես ծառայեցի զօրավար Ք.-ի հրամանին տակ» (Yes dzarayetsee zoravar K-i huramaneen dag ). This would mean “I served under the command/orders of General X,” and it would save you a trial for defamation and/or a court-martial trial to the poor general.

2) “Connect me to…”
This one will appear, for instance, when you answer to a call and the caller, at some point, asks you to kindly patch the communication over to one of your colleagues. In English, of course, you would say “Please connect me to…” (or “Please transfer me too…”). In Armenian? Not quite so. If your interlocutor said «Հաճիս Պօղոսին կապէ»  (hajees Boghoseen gabeh), what did he mean? To go right away and tie Boghos to his desk? Although the phrase is grammatically inaccurate, because the verb կապել/gabel (“to tie, connect, link”) is transitive and the phrase should be «Հաճիս Պօղոսը կապէ» (Hajees Boghosuh gabeh ), the meaning does not change: “Please tie Boghos.” 

Thus, to avoid this absurdity, you need to use the correct sentence. Unlike English, it is not “connect me to…” but “connect me with …” The solution is: «Հաճիս Պօղոսին հետ կապէ» (Hajees Boghoseen hed gabeh), “Please connect me with Boghos.” Then you will be patched over to your colleague and Boghos will not be under any risk…

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The “Art” of “Ironing” Out the Issues for the Sake of “Justice”

Would you ever think that the English word “art” is related to the Armenian word for “iron”? For once, art and artug (արդուկ “handheld implement to smooth clothes”) sound similar and have a relationship. In the same way, artug and artarutiun (արդարութիւն “justice”) are also related.
You will probably ask in your most casual way: “Stop. Are you kidding me?”

No, it is not a joke. As many times in the past, we go once and again to the fact that both Armenian and English are Indo-European languages, and thus, they share some common vocabulary, which may produce either similar words with a similar meaning or, in this case, words with a totally disparate meaning.

Of course, like so much English vocabulary, “art” derives from Old French art , and like so much French vocabulary, the source was a Latin word, artem (you may be familiar with the nominative form, ars, as in ars nova “new art”), meaning "work of art; practical skill; a business, craft.” The Latin word itself stemmed from a Proto-Indo-European word, * ar(ə)-ti -, whose root was *ar (“to fit together”). To have a skill is to be able to fit something together, right?

The root for the Latin word was also the source for the Sanskrit word rtih (“manner, mode”) and the Greek ártus (“order”), among others. Among those “others” was the Armenian word արդ (Classical/Eastern Armenian ard, Western Armenian art ), with a wide collection of meanings: “manner, mode, order, form, done work, production.” This Armenian term left a very prolific set of derivations, both at the beginning and at the end of words (such as the interesting compound word խորանարդ / khoranart “cube,” which literally means “that has the form (art ) of an altar (khoran )”).

After you wash a shirt, you need to give “form” and “order” to the clean, but yet wrinkled piece of cloth. You need an artug to do that. 

What about artarutiun? This is even clearer. Justice is the way to make a decision about those issues that have turned to be against established order. Therefore, justice is called to establish “order.”