Thursday, September 29, 2016

Twins Are Not a Couple

The number two is derived from an Old English word (twa), which comes from Proto-Germanic (the “mother” of all Germanic languages). The ultimate source is the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed word *duwo (“two”), which originated the same word in many other languages, such as duo in Latin (English words like duo, duet, duplicate, duplex, for instance, come from this Latin root).

Can you imagine that the Armenian word yergoo (երկու “two”) also comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root *duwo? It means, then, that there is a family relationship with two!

The relationship is complicated, but real, even though both words do not seem to have anything in common.
In linguistics, particularly, appearances tend to be misleading. As we have seen many other times, the relation of two words may be obscured by odd linguistic patterns and the passing of time. The Proto-Indo-European initial *p yielded Armenian h; the typical example is *pater > hayr (հայր “father”). Thus, in a similar fashion, *dw became erk (երկ) in Classical Armenian (now pronounced yerg / երգ in Western Armenian). Although none of the various explanations for the evolution *dw > erk has been universally adopted, the relation between both roots is generally accepted. 

Since two and yergu are far cousins, so are the words double (which has a French origin, but ultimately comes from the same *duwo) and grgeen (կրկին “double”). The latter is actually krkin in Classical Armenian (from erk + kin).

The relationship between two and yergu brings another interesting couple to the fore: twin and yergvoriag (երկուորեակ “twin”). Our interest derives from the fact that it is not uncommon to replace them in colloquial language with another, actually false couple: twin and zooyker (զոյգեր). 

True, zooyk (զոյգ) is a word relatively close to twin; it means “couple,” “pair,” “duo,” and also “double.” However, be advised that every time someone refers to a couple of twins as zooyker (զոյգեր), he or she is on the wrong track. Unlike twin, the word zooyk does not have the meaning of two people born together from the same mother, and the use of zooyker (plural of zooyk) looks like a literal copy of English twins. 

Incidentally, if you meet “two couples of twins” (i.e. four people) in a place, it would be ridiculous to call them… yergoo zooyk zooyker / երկու զոյգ զոյգեր. The only Armenian word for twin is yergvoriag, and thus, the accurate phrase would be yergoo zooyk yergvoriagner (երկու զոյգ երկուորեակներ).

In order to make it crystal-clear, a) if you get married, you form a zooyk; b) if you have twins, they are yergvoriagner. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Honey and the Bees

The words honey (English) and Honig (German) are cousins; together with other similar words in Swedish, Dutch, etcetera, they both descend from their grandfather, Proto-Germanic, which had the word *hunagam (the asterisk shows that the word does not come from a written source, but from linguistic study), whose origin is unknown.  

However, this is not the term some Indo-European languages have used or still use to call the sweet product of the hardworking bees. For instance, Latin called it mel and Greek meli, while Armenian called it meghr (մեղրin Classical Armenian melr). These and some other related words come from the common Proto-Indo-European root *melit. 

Armenian and Greek share one interesting trait: they both have used the same root*melit to designate not only the product, but the producer. Who produces honey? In Armenian, “bee” is meghu (մեղուin Classical Armenian melu); in Ionic Greek, “honeybee” is melissa (melitta in Attic Greek), from which derives the feminine nameMelissa in English (and other languages). 
Coming to proper names, Armenian also has its own share of names related to honey, such as Meghrig (Մեղրիկand Meghri (Մեղրի). The latter actually comes from the homonymous city, located in the south of the Republic of Armenia (region of Siunik or Zangezur), but, of course, the name itself is derived from the same source. 

To be fair, there are a couple of words that people with well-developed literary senses still use in English: mellifluent and mellifluous. They share the same common origin with meghr, since they both come from Late Latin, and ultimately their meaning “sweet” is derived from mel (“honey”).

To recap, there is an even more interesting example, which shows that the root *melitexisted at some point in Proto-Germanic before being superseded by *hunagam. It is also unexpected: who would think of mildew and relate it to honey? As a matter of fact, the association of Proto-Germanic *mili (honey) + *dawwō (dew) originated the Old English word meledēaw (“honeydew”)and this is how we have the terror of tiles, rugs, and paper: mildew. Frankly, who would associate mildew with honey?

Friday, September 2, 2016

How Do You Spell Love?

As it happens in English (the example of cheese, please, sleaze, and freeze should be never forgotten) the Armenian language also has words that present problems when you try to spell them. This problem is more obvious in Western Armenian, particularly in those series of consonants where the three different sounds have become two:
  • բ-պ-փ (p-b-p’)
  • գ-կ-ք (k-g-k’)
  • դ-տ-թ (t-d-t’)
  • չ-ճ-ջ (ch-j-ch’)
In these three series, the apostrophe indicates an emphatic sound of the consonant, as in the English pronunciation of p, k, t, which we do not follow in Western Armenian. Speakers pronounce բ and փ, գ and ք, դ and թ, չ and ջ in the same way. Therefore, if you do not follow orthographic rules, the semantics of the word in question, or, simply, memory (in the same way that you memorize how to write tʃiːz [cheese] and do not confuse it with pliːz [please]), then you will be in trouble.

The same happen with another trio, ձ-ծ-ց (tz-dz-ts), where ձ and ց sound exactly the same, and with the couple ռ-ր (r’-r), where the first should be a strong r (double rr as in curriculum) and the second is a soft r (single r as in care), but both are pronounced as a soft r.

Most of these confusions do not happen in Eastern Armenian, which has kept more closely the phonetics of Classical Armenian, including the pronunciation of բ as b, գ as g, դ as d, ջ as j, etcetera. However, in Eastern Armenian also not all words follow the three different sounds; for instance, the word “girl” is pronounced aghchig, and not aghjik, and the listener might get confused about how to write the word, աղջիկ –the right one—or աղչիկ.

Another problem is that of the confusion for the h sound (հ or յ) and the e sound (ե or է). Eastern Armenian “solved” it by changing the spelling. Thus, when you hear e or h in Eastern Armenian, you write ե (with minor exceptions) and հ. Needless to say, the spelling “reform” cut the linguistic tradition to the point that today an untrained Eastern Armenian speaker has difficulties to read aloud and understand sentences in Classical spelling, which reads to its rejection.

All languages have these kinds of conundrums, and of course, you solve the problems with rules, common sense, and memory. If not, ask those foreign speakers who learn the English language.
Here are two examples easy to memorize and hard to forget:
  1. անձ means “person” and անձնագիր (antsnakir) means “personal document.” However, անց (ants) is the root of the verb “to pass” (անցնիլ – antsnil) and անցագիր (antsakir) means “passport.” Both roots are used in a lot of words, but as soon as you remember what անձ means and what անց means (in the same way that you remember what “write” means and what “right” means), you should never write անցնագիր, in the same way that you do not say Ernest Hemingway is a… “righter.”
  2. The meaning of սեր is “cream” and the meaning of սէր is “love.” However, ensure to remember that է in many monosyllabic words becomes ի (i) when it is combined with a suffix or another noun. In this way, you will always write that “God is love” (Աստուած սէր է) and not… “God is cream.”
  3.  A similar story is that of վարել (varel) and վառել (varrel). Memory is again important here, because if you write “Ես ինքնաշարժը վարեցի” (Yes inknasharje varetsi), we are all sure that you said “I drove the car.” However, if you write “Ես ինքնաշարժը վառեցի” (Yes inknasharje varretsi), that may spell disaster. Did you mean “I burned the car”?

The list is big. The will to learn should be bigger.