Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some Armenian Words That Sound (Almost) Like English... Or Not

As Indo-European languages, Armenian and English share vocabulary that comes from the depths of history, from the time when a common grandparent was supposed to have existed someplace in Eurasia around 3000 B.C. Proto-Indo-European (P.I.E.)—the reputed grandparent of all Indo-European languages, from Farsi to Spanish—has not been attested in any ancient document and has been reconstructed on the basis of language studies. For this reason, scholars use asterisks, as a convention, to represent any of its words. This is why we will actually find a cluster of stars below.
Armenian and English have in common, for example, the words “father” and “mother.” Although the latter look somehow different to their Armenian counterpart հայր (hayr) and մայր (mayr), there is no doubt that both share the same ancestors: P.I.E. *pǝter and *mater.

P.I.E.  * pǝter > Proto-Germanic *fader > English father
P.I.E.  * pǝter> Proto-Armenian *hayer > Armenian hayr (հայր)
P.I.E.  * mater > Proto-Germanic *moder > English mother
P.I.E.  * mater> Proto-Armenian *mayer > Armenian mayr (մայր)

The replacement of *ter by yr (յր) in Armenian may look odd. Comparative linguistics has found out that most Indo-European languages have kept something closer to a *t, such as t, d, or th, to say “mother” or “father,” while it is only in Armenian where P.I.E. *t became y over a certain amount of time. Another example of this rule is seen in the word այրել (ayrel , “to burn”), whose root ayr comes from P.I.E. *ater.
It is not strange, then that Proto-Indo-European *p, after its division, yielded different sounds, such as a*f in Proto-Germanic and a*h in Proto-Armenian. This accounts for the relation between father and hayr (the first parts of mother and mayr are easy to relate). The same as its relatives, Dutch vader (it may well have inspired the name of the “dark father” of Star Wars, Darth Vader) and German vater, English father comes from their common parent, Proto-Germanic *fader.
This is not an isolated example. The oldest poem of Armenian literature, namely, the birth of Vahagn, god of storm, fire, and war, includes the following line in his physical description:
Նա հուր հեր ունէր (Na hoor her ooner, “Fiery hair had he”).
Today commonly used in poetic language, hoor (“fire,” hence “fiery”)—synonym to կրակ (grag)--has been or may have been the source for many proper and common nouns, such as the male names Հրաչեայ (Hrachya) and Հրայր (Hrayr), for instance, and standard words like հրշէջ (hrshech, “fireman”), հրաբուխ (hrapookh, “volcano”), and others. Both hoor and fire (< Proto-Germanic fōr) constitute another related pair, whose ultimate common source is P.I.E *puro.
Incidentally, someone might relate Armenian her and English hair; the latter is derived from Proto-Germanic *hera, which at its turn came from P.I.E. *k’er(s) (“stiff hair, bristle”):
  1. Both her and hair look alike and have the same meaning.
  2. Even though the standard Armenian word for “hair” is մազ (maz), we use her in compounds like շիկահեր (shigaher, “red-haired”) or հերակալ (heragal, “headband”).
However, this is an optical illusion. In the 1920s, Hrachia Adjarian had already stated in his etymological dictionary that the similitude between her—whose actual origin is unknown— and hair was just casual. Since then, it has been shown that the poem about Vahagn, where the word her is already present, reflected words and images belonging to the common Indo-European time (third millennium B.C.), probably long before the ancestors of the English language washed their . . . *hera.
The mysteries of language are still infinite.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

From Everything to Nobody

There are extremes, and there are middle points. This is how we have the words “everything” and “nothing,” but also “something” and “anything.” We have their equivalents in Armenian too, indeed, with two alternatives for the same word “thing.” The most common is բան (pan), which is a modern use of this word; the same word բան meant “word, speech” in Classical Armenian: «Ի սկզբանէ էր Բանն» (I sgzpane er Pann, “In the beginning was the Word”). 

Now, we have the following equivalences between Armenian and English
Armenian English
ամէն բան (amen pan) everything
բան մը (pan me) something
որեւէ բան (voreve pan) anything
ոչինչ (vochinch) nothing
The word vochinch mirrors its English equivalent: a combination of the words voch (“no”) and inch (“thing”). This reveals that we also have ինչ(inch) as the second equivalent of “thing.” This word already meant “thing” in Classical Armenian. It later evolved into ինչ “what” and the composite forms ինչպէս (inchbes  “how”), ինչո՞ւ (inchu?  “why?”), and others.
 You can use pan and inch interchangeably in the case of “everything” (ամէն ինչ, amen inch)and “nothing” (ոչ մէկ բան, voch meg pan, although stylistically vochinch is better), butit would be plainly wrong to say ինչ մը (inch me)for “something” or որեւէ ինչ (voreve inch) for “anything.”
 When we talk about people, we have the following equivalences:
Armenian English
ամէն մէկը (amen megue) everyone (*)
մէկը (megue) someone/somebody
ոեւէ մէկը (voyeve megue) anyone/anybody
ոչ մէկը no one/nobody

You can also say ամէն ոք (amen vok) for “everyone” or ոչ ոք (voch vok) for “no one.” It is less common, but it is still used, particularly in written language. The word vok is the plural of vo (ո), the Classical Armenian term for megue, from where the word voyeve is apparently derived.

The Classical Armenian ոմն (vomn, “someone”) is not used in Modern Armenian, except to note an anonymous donor, which until today is recorded as vomn). However, we often use the plural of vomn, which is ոմանք (vomank), to say “some people.” For example, «Ոմանք անօթի են» (Vomank anoti en, “Some people are hungry.”).

A final point that is the matter of much mistaken use: how do we use vochinch and voch megue in a negative sentence? The answer is: exactly as in English! 

You cannot use double negative in (Western) Armenian (except for understated affirmation). Therefore, you may say either Ոչ մէկը գիտէ (Voch megue kide) or Մէկը չի գիտեր (Megue chi kider) to mean “nobody knows,” but you cannot say ոչ մէկը չի գիտեր (Voch megue chi kider), which would be as grammatically correct as “Nobody doesn’t know.” 

Similarly, you may say «Ոչինչ ունիմ» (Vochinch ooneem) or «Բան մը չունիմ» (Pan me chooneem) to say “I have nothing” or “I don’t have anything” but «Ոչինչ չունիմ» (Vochinch chooneem) would be the equivalent of . . . “I don’t have nothing .”

 (*) In this collection, the word “everybody” stands out, as its Armenian equivalent is not ամէն մէկը (amen megue), but բոլորը (polore, “all”). If you wanted to say, for instance, “Everybody has fun tonight” in Armenian, the translation would be «Այս գիշեր, բոլորը կը զուարճանան» (Ays kisher, polore gue zvarjanan).