Thursday, August 23, 2018

When Being Free Becomes Risky

English has two words for the same concept, “freedom” and “liberty,” the former coming from Old English and the other from French. Armenian has only one, ազատութիւն (azadootioon), which has Iranian origin. Indeed, the adjective “free” is ազատ (azad), and when you hear or say “Free Armenia,” with “free” used as an adjective, that is ազատ Հայաստան (azad Hayasdan).

As any speaker of English knows, there is another use for “free,” which entered the language in the sixteenth century from the notion of “free of cost,” that is, not requiring an expense. The sweet sound of being told that something is free of charge does not probably get lost on anyone.

Of course, this meaning of “free” has nothing to do with freedom or liberty. You do not say that you enjoy freedom of charge, do you? This should give a hint to avoid falling into the abyss of funny translations.

If we go to a lecture and we do not have to pay for attending it, the advertisement will probably say that it is “free of charge.” The Armenian translation for that is մուտքը ազատ է (moodkuh azad eh), which means “access is free.” As you see, we do not use a literal translation like վճարումէ ազատ է (vujaroomeh azad eh), which does not exist in real life.

The adverb “gratis,” another word for this meaning of “free,” is much less used indeed. However, its Armenian translation, the adverb and adjective ձրի (tzuri), is very common. We use it any time that we do not have to pay for something or we do something without expecting a payment. We also use it to say that we did something for no reason.

Other than that, if they ask you when you are available to go out for dinner, think twice before saying “I am free on Friday” as « Ուրբաթ գիշեր ձրի եմ » (Oorpat kisher tzuri em) . To the casual listener, you might be implying that you do not charge on that day.

Since you actually wanted to say that you do not have any other engagements on that day, then the real answer should be « Ուրբաթ գիշեր ազատ եմ » (Oorpat kisher azad em).

Otherwise, get ready for a Homeric laughter (you may want to read the Iliad or the Odyssey to find out why it is called “Homeric”).

Thursday, August 9, 2018

How Do We Take Neither Side?

When something does not grammatically belong either to the masculine or the feminine gender, we say that it is of the neuter gender. The word “neuter” is a compound word derived from two Proto-Indo-European roots, ne (“not”) and uter (“either of two”). From this adjective we have the more commonly used “neutral,” meaning “taking neither side.”

Now, it is not unusual that the English word is composed of two roots. It is more unusual to find out that its Armenian counterpart is composed by five roots, especially because it has… five letters.

The word in question is չէզոք (chezok) “neutral.” This is one of those words that even some readers who do not know Armenian may identify. Twentieth-century Armenian politics and its interminable quarrels brought forward the concept of the chezok, namely, those community members who did not identify themselves with any political party or ideology, and took pride in being equidistant from all sides.

Whether you have known it or not so far, the word is quite common and covers everything you can imagine when thinking of the concept of “neutral” and its derivations.

Where does chezok come from?

Of course, from Classical Armenian, as the ending – k might indicate. The ք (k) was a plural ending that still survives in many modern words. For instance, we have գիր /kir “letter,” and the plural գիրք /kirk “letters,” which also generated the word kirk “book” (a plurality of letters).  

Here, we have the word ոք (vok, pronounced ok in Classical Armenian), meaning “one, a person,” which is still used in Modern Armenian when we say ոչ ոք (voch vok), meaning “nobody.” The root is the indefinite pronoun ո (vo). The word vok is preceded by the preposition զ (z), which was attached to words in the genitive declension and is still used in Modern Armenian (e.g the personal pronoun զիս /zis “me , from z + is ).

The letter չ (ch) is, indeed, the negative particle, and the է (e) is the third person, singular, of the verb “to be,” namely, չէ (che), means “is not.”

As a result, chezok literally meant, in an approximate translation, “not anyone.” The word probably appeared in the sixth century, the period called of the Hellenistic School, as a translation of Greek oudeteros (“neither, neuter”) and, of course, Latin neuter.

You have to appreciate the ingenuity of the translators by putting together five meaningful roots and come up with a short word. Perhaps you will also give a different value to the idea of taking neither side… in Armenian.