Armenian Language Corner

Two Is Company

When you say, “We have company tonight,” one of the implications might be that one or more people are expected for dinner. (You’re Armenian; you can’t just serve coffee!). In this context, since you are having guests, you would express it in Armenian as «Այս գիշեր հիւր ունինք» (Ays kisher hyoor oonink). Otherwise, you would have used the word ընկերութիւն (ungerootyoon), and coined the phrase «Այս գիշեր ընկերութիւն ունինք», which sounds utterly un-Armenian.

The funny thing is that, when you use the word “company” in English in this context, you may be referring to the original meaning of the word (the actual meaning shifted over time). “Company” has been said to have its ultimate origin in the Late Latin word companio, “bread-fellow,” from companis (com “with,” panis “bread”; the Latin word entered English through Old French compainie). So, in the end, tonight’s company would necessarily mean making dinner!

Now, it is even funnier that the Armenian word ungerootyoon implies, etymologically, the exact same thing: “bread-fellowship.” Its root, the frequently-used ընկեր (unger), is actually a compound word, ընդ (unt) + կեր (ger), which etymologically means “[those] who eat together”; over time, the word * ընդկեր (untger) lost the դ (t) letter and also changed its meaning. This happened before the fifth century A.D., since the word already appeared in the Armenian translation of the Bible in its current form and meaning of “companion, friend.” (The word ընդ was a very ubiquitous term in Classical Armenian: it had more or less twenty different meanings, including “instead of,” “with, “though,” “between,” “against,” “below.” It is a cognate –has common origin—with the Greek anti “against” and the Latin ante “before,” which we use widely in everyday English.) Today, unger means a variety of things, according to its context: “companion,” “comrade,” “friend,” “partner,” “mate.” The suffix –ուհի (oohi) adds the feminine dimension to these words—for instance, ընկերուհի (ungeroohi “girlfriend”)—while the suffixes –ական (agan) and –ային (ayin) bring the adjectives “comradely” or “friendly” (ընկերական, ungeragan), as well as “social” (ընկերային, ungerayin). If you attach the suffix –ութիւն (ootyoon), you obtain the abovementioned word ընկերութիւն (ungerootyoon), which means “companionship,” “camaraderie,” “friendship,” “partnership,” but also “company” and “society.” There is a gallery of derived and compound words formed with unger at its core.

But the enigma remains: How come both the Armenian ընկեր (unger) and the English companion have the same original meaning? The possible answer is again in the Latin language. Bread was an essential staple in the diet of Roman soldiers, who apparently carried grain and made their own bread. Famous French linguist Antoine Meillet (1865-1936) suggested that companio went with Roman soldiers to Armenia, where there were Roman military permanent garrisons during some periods of the first and second centuries A.D., and became the model for the formation of our word ընկեր. If this was the case (this may have happened before the invention of Armenian writing), ger “food” never meant “bread,” but until today bread plays such a role in the Armenian diet, that it is common to hear the expression հաց ուտել (hats oodel, “to eat bread”) with the meaning “to eat food,” instead of ճաշ ուտել (jash oodel) or կերակուր ուտել (geragoor oodel).