Armenian Language Corner

Watermelons in Winter?

In the East Coast, we may be used to having summer fruits during winter time. However, can you imagine that the Armenian Plateau would have watermelons in freezing periods?
Actually, it did not. This is, nevertheless, something that the facts of language might suggest.
Let’s start with the name of “winter” in Armenian: ձմեռ (tzumerr). This word has an Indo-European origin and shares it with many languages (for instance, Russian zima “winter”). It was attested from the fifth century A.D. onwards, and like several others, including մուկն (mookn “mouse”), ձուկն (tzookn “fish”), or ամառն (amarrn “summer”), it had a suffix –ն (n) at the end. Such words maintained this suffix in some derivative words like ձմեռնային (tzumerrnayin “winterly”), ձկնորսութիւն (tzugnorsootioon “fishing”), ամառնային (amarrnayin “relative to summer”), and others. On the other hand, a phonetic rule of Classical Armenian established words like tzumerr, amarr, and others, which had a strong r (ռ, like in English “curriculum”) in their roots, were declined with a soft r  (ր, like in English “chores”) and lost their suffix –n in the process. There were also derived words that went through the same rule. This is how we have, for instance, the words ձմերանոց (tzumeranots “winter place”) and ամարանոց (amaranots “summer place”), where the ռ has been replaced by ր. In the same way, we have the Armenian word for “watermelon”: ձմերուկ (tzumeroog). Linguist Hrachia Ajarian, the author of a foremost five-volume etymological dictionary of the Armenian language, suggested that tzumeroog was derived from tzumerr (the suffix oog is a diminutive, like in the word արջուկ/archoog “little bear,” but there are also words formed with this suffix, without necessarily being diminutives; e.g. hեղուկ/heghoog “liquid”).
How did this happen? Ajarian said the reason for the connection between winter and watermelon was unknown; he assumed that it was because of the refreshing liquid of the fruit, which the villagers may have felt like ice during the hot summers in the Armenian Plateau. Nevertheless, he brought a comparative example: Georgian has the word zamtari (“winter”), from which the word sazamtro (“watermelon”) is derived (the Georgian language forms its words, unlike Indo-European languages, with prefixes).
Going back to the beginning of this conversation, Armenians did not enjoy watermelons in the winter, but the fruit brought some of the winter cold to their bodies. This was enough to give them the idea for the name.