Armenian Language Corner

How Art and Craft Came Together

We have seen many times how certain words have unexpected origins. For instance, the Proto-Indo-European word *ar  (“to fit together, to join”) generated a derivative word *ar-ti, which gave origin to a series of cognate terms in various Indo-European languages, including Latin ars (“work of art; practical skill; a business, craft”).  The latter’s declined form artem entered Old French as art and then reached English as the same word, which meant “skill as a result of learning or practice” in the thirteenth century and started being used with the meaning “skill in creative arts” three centuries later.
However, despite what you might think, the Armenian word արուեստ (arvesd) does not come from the same root *ar. This word was abundantly used in Classical Armenian (pronounced arwest), starting in the fifth century, with different meanings, such as “skill, mental or manual art,” “handicraft, object skillfully made,” “miracle,” and “deceptive trick.” Much later, the parallel form արհեստ (arhesd) appeared. In Modern Armenian, arvesd and arhesd went separate ways: arvesd means “art” and arhesd means “craft.” Today, we know that a sculptor is an արուեստագէտ (arvesdaked  “artist”), and a carpenter is an արհեստաւոր (arhesdavor “craftsman”).
Where does arvesd come from, then? There is not a definite answer, but it is probable that the source was Iran, as it happened for many words borrowed into the Armenian language after millennia of political domination and/or cultural interaction. Old Persian language, at the time of the Achaemenid dynasty, had the word aruastam, whose meaning is debatable, but probably meant “activity, physical prowess,” and Pahlavi (during the Arsacid dynasty, which later had a branch in Armenia) had the word rwst (vowels were not represented), which meant “virtue.” It is possible that rwst actually sounded arwest, and the distance from “virtue” to “skill” was not very big.