Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Choice Is Not Just One

The conjunction or may become a tricky one in Armenian. Unlike English, where you use or to give alternatives, the Armenian language has two different choices.
When someone gives you indications about where to look for something, the sentence is: 

            You can look either here or there.
            Դուք կրնաք նայիլ հոս կամ հոն:
            Took gurnak nayil hos gam hon.

In this case, the word gam (կամ) marks the alternative.
However, let’s say that you are in doubt about where to look. In such a case, you would say:

            I did not know where to look: here or there?

Many people are inclined to use gam here, which is wrong, because it is only suitable for affirmative sentences like the previous one. If you are in an interrogative mood, the only correct answer is te (թէ):

            Չէի գիտեր ուր նայիլ՝ հո՞ս, թէ հոն։
            Chei kider oor nayil՝ hos, te hon?

All languages, including English and Armenian, have their subtleties. It takes time and effort to get used to them.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Treasury that Became a Museum


We all know what a museum is. The –um ending of the English word museum sounds like Latin, and, indeed, the word comes straightforward from Latin museum. However, museum did not originate in Rome, but, like many other things, in Greece. The nine Muses, the patron divinities of the arts in Greek mythology, had their own place in Alexandria (Egypt), which was built at the beginning of the third century B.C. It was called Mouseion (Μουσεῖον) and was, in modern terms, an institute of scientific research where hundreds of scholars were hired to conduct research, publish, lecture, and gather sources. Unlike the current museums, the Mouseion did not harbor artifacts or artistic objects.
As it happens in more than one case, the Armenian language invented its own term for museum: թանգարան (tankaran). Many readers may think that the root tank (t’ang in Classical Armenian) may be a modified version of the root tang (թանկ/ t’ank in Classical Armenian), which means “valuable; expensive,” especially since a museum gathers valuable items. The suffix –aran (արան) indicates place (դասարան/tasaran “classroom”)
This was the view of linguist Hrachia Adjarian in his multivolume etymological dictionary of the Armenian language. However, a contemporary linguist, Nerses Mkrtchyan, has shown that the word tankaran is not related to tang (“valuable”). The word թանգար (tankar, Classical Armenian tangar) appeared a few times in Armenian literature of the fifth century A.D. with the meaning “merchant,” but this was not an Armenian word. Its ultimate origin was Akkadian tamkaru “merchant”; Akkadian was a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia in the third and second millennium B.C. The word seems to have entered Armenian via another Semitic language, Aramaic, where it was spelled taggaru. (We will leave to linguists to explain how tamkaru became taggaru and then tangar(u).)
Merchants trafficked in valuable commodities, sometimes from exotic places. Wherever tangar came, the interesting fact is that the word tankaran was also used in the fifth century A.D. with the meaning “treasury.” It is also useful to remember that there is a suffix –an (ան) in Armenian (հօրան/horan “sheepfold”). The millennia-old word tankar, via its Armenian derivation, tankaran, returned in modern times to become the modern Armenian word for “museum.”  

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.