Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Armenian Word for Easter

The Armenian word for Easter, Զատիկ (Zadig), does not appear in the translation of the Bible. However, it appears in other works of the fifth century A.D. and initially designated both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.

It is possible that Zadig attempted to interpreted the meaning of the Jewish Pesach (Armenian Պասեք/ Basek), which celebrates the delivery (the “separation”) of the Jews from the captivity in Egypt and their crossing of the Red Sea. The word pesach actually means “passage,” hence English Passover . As the biblical story tells, the Red Sea opened its waters to allow the fugitive Jews passage to the Sinai Peninsula, thus saving them from Egyptian persecution.

It seems that the word has an Armenian origin, since it derives from the verb զատել/zadel (“to cut, to divide, to separate”), which is actually the combination of the prefix զ ( z ) and the verb հատել (hadel), with the same meaning as zadel. (The Classical Armenian form of the verb hadel was հատանել/hadanel). The use of the prefix z to create new words is not uncommon. For instance, we have the word զեռուն/zeroon, “snake; insect,” which came from the Classical Armenian verb զեռալ (zeral “to boil”), derived from the combination of z + եռալ (yeral “to boil”).

The word zadig has a colorful secondary use. It is the Armenian name for the ladybug. As it is well-known, the ladybug is linked to the Virgin Mary (hence the “lady” part of the name in English and the reference to Mary or God in other languages, like German and French). There are many theories for this linkage, and we can also make our own theories about why this useful insect, of which there are seventy-three species in Armenia, has been linked to Easter in our language. Perhaps because of its red color, one may ask, which is used to paint eggs in Easter?

Incidentally, Zadig was also used as male name in Armenian. However, the most famous Zadig in history was not Armenian. One should be reminded of Zadig, the main character of Zadig, or the Book of Fate (1747), the work of philosophical fiction by Voltaire (1694-1778), the famous French philosopher. As it happens, the plot of this novella was set in Babylon, and Zadig was… a Babylonian philosopher.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Double Speak

Spoiler alert: the title of this article does not refer to the perennial use of euphemism, ambiguity, or inversion of meaning so common in political language. It actually makes reference to a very common linguistic phenomenon called “reduplication” (in Armenian կրկնաւորում / gurgnavoroom ).

Reduplication happens when you repeat part or all of a word to express a meaning. You have plenty of examples in English, from “walkie-talkie” to “zig-zag,” which mostly appear in colloquial language and then sometimes go into a more formal expression.

Unlike English, in Armenian you have entire words repeated. For instance:
տեսակ - տեսակ պտուղներ (desag-desag budooghner) “variegated fruits”
զանազան մարդիկ (zanazan martig) “different people”

In the first case, you have an adjective repeated and connected with a hyphen. In the second, you have the suffix զան (zan) , meaning “form, way, mode,” loaned from Old Persian. The repeated word has been linked by the very common connective ա (a) .

You can also have two words that have meaning and rhyme with each other (“rhyming reduplication”), like English “super-duper.” However, the Armenian cases are more formal. For instance, the word ախ /akh (interjection of affliction) is combined with the word վախ /vakh “fear” and the result is ախ ու վախ (akh oo vakh) “sigh.”

There are various reduplicated words that are connected by prepositions from Classical Armenian. Such is the case of գոյնզգոյն /kooynuzkooyn “multicolor,” with the word գոյն /kooyn “color” repeated and glued by the connective զ /z , and խառնիխուռն /kharnikhoorn “mixed, confused, pell-mell,” where two words of relatively similar meaning ( խառն /kharn “mixed” and խուռն /khurn “confused”) are put together with the connective ի /i.

You have other cases that remain in the colloquial level and constitute the funny part of it. One of the components usually has no meaning: 

a)     The rhyming reduplication that comes from the use of the sound m, either by replacement or addition, as in գաւաթ - մաւաթ (kavat-mavat), with kavat meaning “glass, cup,” or արեւ - մարեւ (arev-marev), with arev  meaning “sun.” (In English, we have the case of shm-reduplication, as in “fancy-shmancy.”)

b)     The emphatic reduplication in nouns, like սեփ - սեւ ( sep-sev ), where sep turns sev (“black”), or adjectives, like ճիփ - ճիշդ (jeep-jeesht), with jeep underscoring jeesht (“precise, correct”).
These last cases have their parallel utilization in Turkish and should be regarded as part of the long coexistence of both languages in the Ottoman period.  

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Perils of Misspeaking

A translator or an interpreter has a very delicate function: to convey ideas into another language. That function is manifold, because it is not only about what you convey, but how you convey it. (Let’s leave aside why you convey it and to whom you convey it.)

The matter of “how” is always a thorny issue for someone who translates from Armenian into English or vice versa. We have previously referred to some tricky cases, such as the familiar idiomatic expression էշուն սատկած տեղը (eshoon sadgadz deghu), a figurative way to say “in a faraway place.” While we will leave to the reader the task of finding the appropriate English equivalent for this expression, we can only reassure him or her that it would be very unfortunate, not to say ridiculous, to translate it literally as “the place where the donkey died.”

The thorny issue, of course, also becomes painful to whoever speaks or writes in Armenian, when you find yourself struggling to offer a correct expression that does not smell as English translated into Armenian. Although such cases sometimes may pass inadvertently, in others what goes around, comes around, and you may become a laughing stock. Of course, communication is what matters and it is not polite to laugh or to chide someone for a language mistake. However, it also matters for a conscientious speaker that communication improves over time and does not remain forever on an elementary school level (public examples should be brushed aside as anomalies). Here are two examples—not literally reproduced—that sometimes appear in spoken language:

1) “I serve under…”
Unless you are self-employed, you always work or carry out responsibilities under someone else’s directions. The English language has an idiom for that: “to serve under” (“I served under General X”). We all understand that you served under the command of General X, even if it is not stated. Since this is an idiom, if you needed to express the same idea in Armenian, you should not translate it literally. If you said «Ես ծառայեցի զօրավար Ք.-ի տակ» (Yes dzarayetsee zoravar K-i dag), it would literally mean… that General X was standing or lying over your body while you served, which, incidentally, would probably lead to charges of sexual harassment or physical distress.
Since you want to avoid such costly misunderstandings, it would be more proper to say: «Ես ծառայեցի զօրավար Ք.-ի հրամանին տակ» (Yes dzarayetsee zoravar K-i huramaneen dag ). This would mean “I served under the command/orders of General X,” and it would save you a trial for defamation and/or a court-martial trial to the poor general.

2) “Connect me to…”
This one will appear, for instance, when you answer to a call and the caller, at some point, asks you to kindly patch the communication over to one of your colleagues. In English, of course, you would say “Please connect me to…” (or “Please transfer me too…”). In Armenian? Not quite so. If your interlocutor said «Հաճիս Պօղոսին կապէ»  (hajees Boghoseen gabeh), what did he mean? To go right away and tie Boghos to his desk? Although the phrase is grammatically inaccurate, because the verb կապել/gabel (“to tie, connect, link”) is transitive and the phrase should be «Հաճիս Պօղոսը կապէ» (Hajees Boghosuh gabeh ), the meaning does not change: “Please tie Boghos.” 

Thus, to avoid this absurdity, you need to use the correct sentence. Unlike English, it is not “connect me to…” but “connect me with …” The solution is: «Հաճիս Պօղոսին հետ կապէ» (Hajees Boghoseen hed gabeh), “Please connect me with Boghos.” Then you will be patched over to your colleague and Boghos will not be under any risk…