Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sweet in Every Language

There are words that have an ultimate common source from another language, but have found their way through different itineraries. Such is the case of the word sugar.
The sugarcane was originally from India. The soldiers of Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, after reaching India in the fourth century B.C., brought back to Europe “honey bearing reeds” that produced a product called sharkara (“ground sugar”) in Sanskrit, which they transcribed as ζάκχαρι (sacchari). The Indian product spread to different Asian regions and reached Iran, where it was called shakar. The word was borrowed straightforwardly from Persian into Armenian, where it first appeared in the seventh-century Atlas ascribed to Anania Shirakatsi as շաքար (shakar). Another Iranian language, Kurdish, borrowed it as sheker, which is the likely source for the Turkish word sheker.
However, the actual expansion of the sweet substance to the West occurred when Arabs began to cultivate it in Sicily and Spain, while the Crusaders did their part too. The Arabic word sukkar entered Europe and spread through various languages: Medieval Latin succarum, French sucre, Spanish azucar, Portuguese açúcar, Italian zucchero, and German Zucker. The ultimate source for English sugre > sugar was, most probably, the French language.
One of the many Voskeporik (Ոսկեփորիկ, “Miscellanea”), collections of useful and not-so- useful material of various origins compiled during the Middle Ages, included  the following phrase quoted by the most important dictionary of Classical Armenian, the New Haigazian Dictionary of 1836-1837 published by the Mekhitarist Fathers: «Յիմաստուն ձեռացս ի՛նչ առնուս՝ շաքար է». Whether said in Classical Armenian or in Modern Armenian («Ինչ որ առնես իմաստուն ձեռքերուդ մէջ՝ շաքար է»), the phrase has not lost its eternal meaning: “Whatever you take in your wise hands, is sugar.” Sweetness comes with wisdom, at all times.

Why Is She the Queen of the House?

In Armenian the word “woman” has various meanings; կին (gin, pronounced kin in Classical and Eastern Armenian), can be used to mean either “woman” (հայ կին, hay gin “Armenian woman”) or, by extension, “wife” (կինս, gins “my wife”). It has the same double meaning as the Greek word γυνή/gyné (“a woman, a wife”), and both have a common origin: the Proto-Indo-European root *gwen (“wife, woman”).

By now, you may have intuitively grasped that gin/kin is related to the English word gynecologist and all other words compounded with gyn. But perhaps more unexpectedly, it also comes out that the Armenian gin has the same source as the English queen, derived from Old English cwen “queen, female ruler of a state, woman, wife,” which of course has its ultimate origin in the same Proto-Indo-European root. Thus, when they talk of the “queen of the house,” it is not only an honorific title, but also a literal meaning.

For those who are familiar with the intricacies of Armenian grammar, the word gin has an irregular declension (հոլովում, holovoom), which has its origin in Classical Armenian: nominative/accusative կին (gin, “woman/wife”), genitive/dative կնոջ (gnoch, “to the woman/wife”), ablative կնոջմէ (gnochme, “from the woman/wife”), instrumental կնոջմով (gnochmov, “with the woman/wife”).

This reminder is important, because colloquial Armenian has a very common word, կնիկ (gnig), which means “married woman” and “wife.” It comes from the combination of կին and the diminutive/affective suffix իկ (ik). The word was also used in most Armenian dialects. However, it is strongly advised not to use it in literary Armenian (Armenian writers have always used the word for literary reasons, not because of grammatical accuracy), as it has a certain derogatory flavor, and above all, it is incorrect to use the genitive/dative կնիկին (gnigin) or կնկան (gngan) in sentences like Ես կնիկին ըսի (Yes gnigin esi, “I told the woman”), instead of the accurate form: Ես կնոջ ըսի (Yes gnoch esi, “I told the woman”).