Armenian Language Corner

In the Beginning, the Ass Was a Horse

Asses have had bad publicity since ancient Greek times, and anyone with some exposure to English colloquial language may hear one of many combinations of the word “ass” (or the word itself) on a daily basis to typify clumsiness and stupidity. The same happens with Armenian speakers, even though there are not that many combinations of the word էշ ( esh). However, you may find a wide (someone would also say fine) collection of phrases including esh in Armenian. One should add that asses were highly esteemed in ancient Armenia for their usefulness.

Intriguingly, “ass” and esh do not sound that far from each other. The English word is cognate with a series of Germanic and Slavic languages, and it is likely that all of them ultimately derive from Latin asinus (e.g. Spanish asno, Old French asne ). Apparently, the form of the Latin word indicates that the ultimate source was a language of Asia Minor. On the other hand, the Sumerian language (a non-Indo-European, non-Semitic language spoken in southern Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.) had the word anshe (“ass”).

The Armenian word esh is native Indo-European. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ek’wo (“horse”), from which we have, among others, the Latin word equus (“horse”; compare English “equestrian,” “equine,” and other horse-related terms). If you are puzzled by the transformation of k’ into sh, we also have Sanskrit ashva and Farsi asp (both “horse) , among others.

Despite their formal closeness and meaning, Armenian esh is not the source for Turkish eshek (“ass”), which had its cognates in other Turkic languages of Central Asia. However, it is not impossible that it could have been the unidentified language of Asia Minor that became the initial source for Latin asinus and, in the end, for English “ass.”

There is another puzzle to conclude: Armenian esh did not keep the original meaning of “horse,” for which we have another word of Indo-European origin, ձի (tzi).

As Mr. Spock, of “Star Trek” fame, would have said, “fascinating.”