Armenian Language Corner

The Many Meanings of Life

Every language has its unique expression when raising a glass for a toast. While English speakers say “Cheers,” which is meant to inspire courage, hope, life, or animation, or all of them together, Spanish speakers say “Salud” and just mean “health,” which is the basis of life.

What do Armenian speakers say? They say Genats (Կենաց). If you are sitting at a table in Armenia, the first toast is usually Hay zhoghovrtee genatseh (Հայ ժողովրդի կենացը), which basically means “To the Armenian people.”

While genats seems to be related to the verb genal (կենալ “to stop, to stay”), actually it is not. The word is a Classical Armenian declined form from geank (կեանք), “life.” Thus, when you make a toast, you are making it “To the life of…”

Now, the root of geank and of many other words where “life” is involved is the Classical Armenian verb geal (կեալ) “to live.” This verb is not used in Modern Armenian, where we simply say abril(ապրիլ), which is written exactly the same as the name of the month of April (Abril/Ապրիլ).

Among the above mentioned words we have the third person in singular, future tense of the verbgeal, which gives a very usual word in Armenian: getseh (կեցցէ) “will live.” This is the equivalent of the English expression “Long live.” Thus, when you want to say “Long live Armenia,” you just say Getseh Hayastan (Կեցցէ Հայաստան), which is… one syllable shorter than in English! And if you hear someone telling you getsehs (կեցցես), then you are getting a “Bravo!”

The same as genats and getseh, our third example also comes from Classical Armenian:gentanee (կենդանի). While any person knowledgeable in Armenian may point out that the word means “animal” and a dog is a gentanee, let us remind him or her that God too is a gentanee, according to the Bible.

How come?

Matthew 16:15 calls Christ «Vorti Astudzoh gentanvoh» (Որդի Աստուծոյ կենդանւոյ), which in Modern Armenian is read gentani Asdudzoh Vorteen (կենդանի Աստուծոյ Որդին) and in English “Son of living God.”

The difference is only grammatical: the noun gentanee refers to any live being (“animal”), including humans; the adjective gentanee refers to the fact that someone (including God) is “alive” or “”living.”

Warning: if someone tells you that you are a gentanee, be assured that he or she is comparing you to a non-speaking, two-legged or four-legged being. Not a nice thing to say!