Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Armenian Carpet

British polymath Sir William Jones (1746-1794) enunciated for the first time the existence of the Indo-European family of languages in 1786. It already comprised languages from England to India. In the early nineteenth century, the Armenian language was also incorporated into the family, and in 1875 German linguist Heinrich Hübschmann (1848-1908) demonstrated, contrary to generally held belief, that Armenian was not part of the Iranian branch, but was an independent branch.

For the past hundred and thirty years, extensive research has been carried to study the Armenian language and its relations with its relatives within the family. It has been shown that Armenian has the closest relation with Iranian and Greek, to the point that we may consider them first cousins.

Similar to other Indo-European languages, English is a distant cousin to Armenian. This would not be surprising, if we consider the geographic distance between the lands where Armenian and English were and are spoken. But it is surprising to find out that both languages, despite that distance, share a few words with practically the same phonetics and meaning.

One of them is our familiar term carpet. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from Middle English carpet “coarse cloth” (late 13th century) and was derived from Middle French carpite “heavy decorated cloth”(< Old Italian carpita “thick woolen cloth” < Italian carpire, Latin carpere “to pluck”).

Let’s go to Armenian. Classical Armenian (krapar) had a word, capert (կապերտ; the Western Armenian pronunciation is gaberd), which already appears in the Bible and means“piece of cloth.” It may or may not be related to the word cap “knot” (կապ, Western Armenian gab); the etymological dictionary of famed linguist Hrachia Adjarian (1876-1953) says nothing about that, which means that he did not consider it possible.

The colloquial form of capert was carpet, said Adjarian, and brought forward a collection of words in Armenian dialects very close to the English one: carpet (կարպետ) in Salmast, Van, Yerevan, and Tiflis, the same as in Kharpert and Sepastia (accented on the last syllable). They call it carpret (կարպրէտ)(accented on the first syllable) in Gharabagh, and called it garpet (կարբեդ) in Alashkert and Moush. The Armenians from Tigranakert (Diarbekir) used the word cârpit (գարբիդ), and the Armenians in Hamshen say carpit (գարբիդ). Interestingly, all of these words mean “rug without hair.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the German linguist Erich Berneker published an etymological dictionary of the Slavic languages in two volumes (Heidelberg, 1908-1914). He noticed that the Armenian dialectal words were the same as the abovementioned European words, and also German karpet, Hungarian and Serbian karpit (“curtain”), and Serbian krpita (“rug to cover the table”). Adjarian took note of this and asked himself whether the source of these words was not, instead of Latin carpo “to knit wool or thread,” the late Armenian form carpet. In the end, the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia had been one of the main commercial venues for European traders in the Middle Ages, including carpets. Florentine merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti reported that carpets were imported from Sis, the capital of Cilicia, and Ayas, its main port, to Florence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. What could have been a “thick woolen cloth” in Italian, if not a rug?

Thus, the ubiquitous carpet may have flown from Armenian, through Italian and French, into the English language, and centuries later, when Persian carpets were introduced in Europe, the word carpet went down to the floor.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Only One Way to Say All

“All peoples have the right to self-determination,” says article 1 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. How would you translate the beginning of this sentence into Armenian?

If you open Thomas Samuelian’s English-Armenian dictionary, you will find that the word “all” in Armenian is բոլոր (polor). Polor is a plural word, the same as “all.” Hence, the natural translation would be: Բոլոր ժողովուրդները ... (Polor joghovoortnere).

However, many people seem to believe that the word ամէն (amen) is a synonym of polor and, thus, we find, both in oral and written language, «ամէն ժողովուրդները» (amen joghovoortnere). This is grammatically incorrect. For starters, amen is a singular word. The root of this confusion is that amen actually means “every” and “each,” but just as you do not say “every peoples have the right” or “each peoples have the right,” you do not say «ամէն ժողովուրդները իրաւունք ունին» (amen joghovoortnere iravoonk oonin).

Therefore, the correct and indisputable use of both words is:
Ամէն ժողովուրդ (amen joghovoort)
Բոլոր ժողովուրդները (polor joghovoortnere)

Similarly, the word ամբողջ (ampoghch, “whole” is frequently mistaken with polor. Some English-Armenian popular dictionaries translate “all” as ampoghch and we have even come across one recently published English-Armenian student dictionary that translates “all” as amen, polor, and ampoghch. However, ampoghch is a singular word used only in connection with a collective noun (a singular word which indicates a plurality), such as աշխարհ (ashkharh, “world”), աշակերտութիւն (ashagerdootioon, “student body”), մարդկութիւն (martgootioon, “humankind”), and so on. You cannot say “polor ashagerdnere”and “polor ashagerdootioone,” and you cannot say “ampoghch ashagerdootioonnere” either.

You can only say, in conclusion:
amen ashagerd = “every student” / “each student”
polor ashagerdnere = “all the students” (or “all students”) ampoghch ashagerdootioone = “the whole student body”