Armenian Language Corner

An Old Ship that Looks to the Stars

Both English terms that designate vessels, boat and ship, have Germanic origin, and both are possibly from old Indo-European roots. The same happens with a third term that does not designate a vessel, but is sea-related: navy. While navy comes from Old French navie (“fleet”), the ultimate origin of this word is navis (“ship”). This Latin word is also behind other English words, like naval or navigate, while the Greek naus (“ship”) is behind the English word nautical.

More importantly, Latin navis and Greek naus belong to a widespread family of Indo-European sister words (the term is also present in Sanskrit and Iranian languages, among others) that include the Armenian word նաւ (nav) “ship.” The ultimate source for all of them is a word that theoretically existed at the time when a single Indo-European (also called Proto-Indo-European) language existed. That word has been reconstructed as *nau “ship” (the asterisk symbolizes that the word does not exist in any written text, but it is only a reconstruction).

Historically, Armenia did not have seashores (except on the Caspian Sea and, during the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, on the Mediterranean Sea), and Armenians were not great seafarers—even though they traveled quite a lot over the seven seas from ancient times. But the Armenian language had a wide collection of words related to nav since the fifth century. We will mention just three of the many words from that time that are commonly used today:

նաւակ (navag): “small boat”
նաւորդ (navort): “navigator” (there you have a possible way to say “GPS” in Armenian)
նաւահանգիստ (navahankisd): “port”

Therefore, all sea-related English words starting with nav– or naut– are actually related to their Armenian distant cousin nav. And even if one day you prefer to go to the stars instead of the sea, remember that an astronaut is called… աստղանաւորդ (asdghanavort) in Armenian.