Armenian Language Corner

The Treasury that Became a Museum

We all know what a museum is. The –um ending of the English word museum sounds like Latin, and, indeed, the word comes straightforward from Latin museum. However, museum did not originate in Rome, but, like many other things, in Greece. The nine Muses, the patron divinities of the arts in Greek mythology, had their own place in Alexandria (Egypt), which was built at the beginning of the third century B.C. It was called Mouseion (Μουσεῖον) and was, in modern terms, an institute of scientific research where hundreds of scholars were hired to conduct research, publish, lecture, and gather sources. Unlike the current museums, the Mouseion did not harbor artifacts or artistic objects.

As it happens in more than one case, the Armenian language invented its own term for museum: թանգարան (tankaran). Many readers may think that the root tank (t’ang in Classical Armenian) may be a modified version of the root tang (թանկ/ t’ank in Classical Armenian), which means “valuable; expensive,” especially since a museum gathers valuable items. The suffix –aran (արան) indicates place (դասարան/tasaran “classroom”)

This was the view of linguist Hrachia Adjarian in his multivolume etymological dictionary of the Armenian language. However, a contemporary linguist, Nerses Mkrtchyan, has shown that the word tankaran is not related to tang (“valuable”). The word թանգար (tankar, Classical Armenian tangar) appeared a few times in Armenian literature of the fifth century A.D. with the meaning “merchant,” but this was not an Armenian word. Its ultimate origin was Akkadian tamkaru “merchant”; Akkadian was a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia in the third and second millennium B.C. The word seems to have entered Armenian via another Semitic language, Aramaic, where it was spelled taggaru. (We will leave to linguists to explain how tamkaru became taggaru and then tangar(u).)

Merchants trafficked in valuable commodities, sometimes from exotic places. Wherever tangar came, the interesting fact is that the word tankaran was also used in the fifth century A.D. with the meaning “treasury.” It is also useful to remember that there is a suffix –an (ան) in Armenian (հօրան/horan “sheepfold”). The millennia-old word tankar, via its Armenian derivation, tankaran, returned in modern times to become the modern Armenian word for “museum.”