Thursday, June 25, 2015

From Paradise to Yettem, California

The word for “garden” in Classical Armenian was bardez (պարտէզ). It came from the language of the old Iranian sacred book, the Avesta, which had the word pairidaeza (“park”). This word has kept the same meaning in our current language. However, it is interesting to note that English paradise and Armenian bardez are actually first cousins, but with different meanings. The English word came from Old French, which at its turn had Latin paradisus as its source. The source for Latin was Greek paradeisos, and the latter came again from Avestan pairidaeza.

However, we do not say bardez in the case of the Paradise. The book of Genesis tells us that Eden was actually a region where God planted a garden and placed Adam (Gen. 2:8). The Armenian word corresponding to “garden,” in the translation of the Bible, was trakhd (դրախտ), which was borrowed from the Iranian languages, where it actually meant “tree.” In the same way that the “garden of Eden” became, over time, Eden (Paradise), its Armenian equivalent trakhd yetemagan (դրախտ եդեմական) became simply trakhd (“Paradise”), and gradually lost its meaning “garden.”

Nevertheless, we also have the Armenian word Yetem (Եդեմ), which is the same as the English Eden. You may recall that the Californian town of Lovell, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was renamed Yettem due to the overwhelming presence of Armenians there. Yettem, located 18 kilometers north of Visalia, has a population of 211, according to the U.S. Census of 2010, and few, if any, Armenians nowadays, but St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church, founded in 1911, is still active there.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Please, Bear in Mind

We have spoken in the past about the risks of thinking in English and speaking in Armenian. Sometimes this creates impossible situations. For instance, when you try to use a very plain sentence like, “Please, sit down.”

We have to always remember that English has only ONE pronoun for the second person: you, both for singular and for plural. When we read the sentence “You’re right,” we cannot be sure whether the “you” in question is one person or a dozen, a family member or a complete stranger, and, therefore, how that “you” applies. However, in other languages, like French, Spanish, or Armenian, there is no such problem. They have TWO pronouns for the second person, and then it is very easy to understand to whom one is addressing. In the case of Armenian, we have tun (դուն) in singular and tuk (դուք) in plural, and each has a totally different way of conjugation.

To give only one example, if you want to say “please”:
a. When you address your friend, you say hajis (հաճիս);
b. When you address a stranger or a crowd, you say hajetsek (հաճեցէք).

This also means that you cannot mix the singular to address a friend with the plural to tell him what to do. For example, if you intend to say, “Please, sit down,” you HAVE to say Hajis, nsdeh! (Հաճիս, նստէ՛), you can NEVER say Hajis, nsdetsek, which is a very common mistake among American-born Armenian speakers. (Of course, you can also say Khntrem, nsdeh [Խնդրեմ, նստէ՛]).

Otherwise, if you want to address a stranger or a crowd, you HAVE to say Hajetsek nsdil (Հաճեցէք նստիլ), where instead of the imperative nsdeh we use the infinitive nsdil. Why? It is a matter of style. If you were to say Hajetsek nsdetsek (Հաճեցէք նստեցէ՛ք), it would sound utterly ridiculous. (Otherwise, you can say Khntrem, nsedetsek [Խնդրեմ, նստեցէ՛ք], which sounds perfectly normal).

Language is communication, but the better you speak a language, the better it reflects on you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What Happens When You Misread a Word?

Greeks went up to Oriental Asia to get a very valuable fabric from the Seres, and called it Serikos. The Roman borrowed the name from them and turned it into sericum. As many other Latin words, this one also traveled up to the British Islands and entered Old English, where the sound r turned into l. The resulting name, seoloc/sioloc, later became the well-known silk of today.

The same Oriental source for silk also gave an Armenian word that, interestingly, does not mean “silk,” but “silkworm”: sheram (շերամ). However, it is assumed that the function of middleman was not carried by the Greek language, because Greek does not have the sound sh. It was probably Syriac, which has the word šeraya (š=sh) “silky material.”

The Armenian language, it appears, borrowed the word in the fifth century A.D. and applied it to the insect that produced the “silky material.” However, the Armenian word appears in all manuscripts until the eighteenth century as շերաս or շէրաս (sheras). The same word was also used in some Western Armenian dialects, such as Akn and Kharpert, until 1915. How did it become sheram?

Sometimes, new words (or old words with a different look) are created by human mistake. The first attempt at a complete dictionary of the Armenian language was undertaken by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation, and his disciples. The massive, two-volume Dictionary of Classical Armenian Language (Բառգիրք Հայկազեան լեզուի) was published in 1749 and 1769. The first volume was authored by Mekhitar himself (it went off the press a few days before his death). The erudite monk, who collected much of his materials from unpublished manuscripts, appears to have found the word in a sentence where sheras was followed by the punctuation sign put (բութ)—ՇԵՐԱՍ՝—and misread it as ՇԵՐԱՄ (SHERAM).

Almost a century later, the New Dictionary of Classical Armenian Language (1836-1837), prepared by a new generation of Mekhitarist monks, superseded the work of Mekhitar. The second volume printed the word as sheras. However, for some reason, subsequent authors chose to follow Mekhitar’s dictionary and this is how the Modern Armenian word for “silkworm” was artificially created.

Of course, after two centuries, it is a little late to make changes.