Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why “Organ” and “Crocodile” Are Slightly Different?

Languages constantly borrow words from each other. Sometimes, the words remain the same as in the original, or slightly changed, and sometimes there are other factors that make them change. We have a couple of words in English that have remained essentially the same:

- English organ, “musical instrument,” borrowed via French and Latin from Greek organon, "organ, instrument, tool"

- English crocodile, borrowed via Latin from Greek krokodilos.

However, the same Greek sources gave a different result when Armenian borrowed from them. 

The word organon, with the meaning of “organ,” should have been transliterated as որգանոն (organon) in Classical Armenian; as we all know, the letter օ did not exist in the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century A.D.

Instead, it became ergion (երգիոն) or ergehon (երգեհոն), which today we pronounce yerkion or yerkehon in Western Armenian. How the root changed? The reason has to be found in the influence of the well-known word erg (երգ) that meant “song” and “poem” in Classical Armenian, but also “musical instrument.” (Today yerk only means “song”).

Something similar seems to have happened with the Armenian for “crocodile.” The Greek krokodilos became kokordilos (կոկորդիլոս), which today we pronounce gogortilos in Western Armenian. Crocodiles have big mouths and the word kokord/gogort (կոկորդ) means “throat, gorge.” Perhaps whoever used the Greek word for the first time wanted to make sense for the Armenian speaker that the crocodile, actually, had a big throat.

Friday, July 10, 2015

You Always Call Someone

Imagine the following dialogue in Armenian: “The boy is outside.” “Call him now!”  How would you write it down?
- Dghan toorsn eh (Տղան դուրսն է)
- Hima .... gancheh (Հիմա ... կանչէ՛)

The ellipsis is your problem. What word should go there?

Most people would say Hima iren/anor gancheh (Հիմա իրեն/անոր կանչէ՛). Yes, the words iren and anor mean “him” and “her” (we will speak about their difference another time), but in this case, the use of either one is basically wrong. Why?

Because ganchel (the same as “to call”) is a transitive verb that requires a direct object, and both iren and anor are used to indicate indirect objects. In Armenian, as in English, you call someone, you do not call to someone.

Our problem, therefore, would be solved by writing Hima dghan gancheh (Հիմա տղան կանչէ՛), instead of the grammatically incorrect form Hima dghayin gancheh (Հիմա տղային կանչէ՛). We do not want to repeat dghan, since our interlocutor already used it. Then, the correct pronoun would be zink (զինք), and the sentence above should be Hima zink gancheh (Հիմա զինք կանչէ՛).

Someone may argue: “What about zayn (զայն)?” Indeed, zayn is another pronoun that accompanies transitive verbs. For instance, you have been assigned a book report. Pointing out to the book, you would say: Bedk e zayn gartam (Պէտք է զայն կարդամ “I have to read it”).

It is true that in the early twentieth century, when Western Armenian was still in its phase of development, zayn was also applied, like zink, to people. However, in contemporary Western Armenian zayn is used only for objects (“it”), while zink is reserved for people (“him/her”).

In conclusion:
a) You have to learn by heart a few Armenian verbs that require direct objects (which, unfortunately for the learner, are not exactly the same as in English), in the same way that you have learned that you call or love “someone,” and not “to someone.”

b) Most importantly, you have also to learn not to confuse a person with an object.