Armenian Language Corner

How Do We Take Neither Side?

When something does not grammatically belong either to the masculine or the feminine gender, we say that it is of the neuter gender. The word “neuter” is a compound word derived from two Proto-Indo-European roots, ne (“not”) and uter (“either of two”). From this adjective we have the more commonly used “neutral,” meaning “taking neither side.”

Now, it is not unusual that the English word is composed of two roots. It is more unusual to find out that its Armenian counterpart is composed by five roots, especially because it has… five letters.

The word in question is չէզոք (chezok) “neutral.” This is one of those words that even some readers who do not know Armenian may identify. Twentieth-century Armenian politics and its interminable quarrels brought forward the concept of the chezok, namely, those community members who did not identify themselves with any political party or ideology, and took pride in being equidistant from all sides.

Whether you have known it or not so far, the word is quite common and covers everything you can imagine when thinking of the concept of “neutral” and its derivations.

Where does chezok come from?

Of course, from Classical Armenian, as the ending – k might indicate. The ք (k) was a plural ending that still survives in many modern words. For instance, we have գիր /kir “letter,” and the plural գիրք /kirk “letters,” which also generated the word kirk “book” (a plurality of letters).

Here, we have the word ոք (vok, pronounced ok in Classical Armenian), meaning “one, a person,” which is still used in Modern Armenian when we say ոչ ոք (voch vok), meaning “nobody.” The root is the indefinite pronoun ո (vo). The word vok is preceded by the preposition զ (z), which was attached to words in the genitive declension and is still used in Modern Armenian (e.g the personal pronoun զիս /zis “me ,” from z + is ).

The letter չ (ch) is, indeed, the negative particle, and the է (e) is the third person, singular, of the verb “to be,” namely, չէ (che), means “is not.”

As a result, chezok literally meant, in an approximate translation, “not anyone.” The word probably appeared in the sixth century, the period called of the Hellenistic School, as a translation of Greek oudeteros (“neither, neuter”) and, of course, Latin neuter.

You have to appreciate the ingenuity of the translators by putting together five meaningful roots and come up with a short word. Perhaps you will also give a different value to the idea of taking neither side… in Armenian.