Armenian Language Corner

Salty and Sweet

A previous column (April 28, 2016) explained how Armenian աղ (agh) and English salt were related to each other. Now it seems fit to explore how salt, in the end, may become… sweet.

Salt gives flavor to all sorts of food, and, of course, it may be used in a metaphorical sense, as Jesus did in the Sermon of the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men” (Matthew 5:13). Without salt, let aside all other condiments, food loses an essential nutrient and much of its actual taste.

The concept of flavor implies, by extension, that salt also provides taste, including “sweetness.” The Armenian language has reflected that in a few words. Classical Armenian had the word աղու (aghoo), which meant “tasty, sweet.” Villages and mountains in Eastern and Western Armenia were and are named Աղու (Aghoo). The name comes from the combination of the word agh and the suffix ու (oo), used in adjectives like հատու (hadoo, from had(el) “to cut” + oo, meaning “sharp”).

But we have more surprises: two common words that are only used in Western Armenian and also have agh as their source. One of them is the word աղուոր (aghoo + or = aghvor), with the meaning of “good, nice” (e.g. աղուոր աղջիկ / aghvor aghchig “nice girl”). The other is աղէկ (agheg), which means “good” (e.g. աղէկ պայմաններ / agheg baymanner “good conditions”).

Doesn’t it sound convincing? In such cases, comparative examples offer a solution. The Russian word for “salt,” from the same Proto-Indo-European source, is sol’ . Two surprising derivations of this word are “sweet” (sladkii) and “candy” (sladosti). Why? Such are the mysteries of language.