Armenian Language Corner

Old Words that Took a New Life

From the sixth century B.C. to the beginning of the nineteenth century, Armenia was under Iranian domination for lengthy periods of its history. The kingdom of Armenia even had a dynasty of Iranian origin, the Arshakuni or Arsacids, for almost four centuries (I-V centuries A.D.). Therefore, it is not casual that Armenian vocabulary conserved many words of Iranian origin from different periods of its history, both in written and colloquial language.

Some of those words reached our times and took new meanings. One such case is that of the word նախարար (nakharar). During ancient and medieval times, it designated a hereditary title of highest rank given to members of the nobility. Its source was an Iranian term, nāfaδāra, meaning “chief or head of the clan.” The Iranian f would give h in Armenian, and thus, the Armenian term should have been նահարար (naharar). However, sometimes people think of words as having a different meaning than the one existing in dictionaries or established knowledge. Sometimes, that different meaning imposes itself. The word naharar was confused with nakharar and thought to have the meaning of “first of assets or properties.” This happened because the word nakh, another loan from an Iranian source, means “first, original.” In the end, nakharar imposed itself.

The interesting point is that nakharar took a new life in modern times, when Armenian nobility had disappeared. It adopted the meaning “minister,” as in տնտեսութեան նախարար (dundesootian nakharar “minister of Economy”). However, this meaning was disputed in Eastern Armenian, where the loanword from Russian մինիստր (ministr) was used until the end of the Soviet Union. After the new independence of Armenia, nakharar displaced the foreign word and now it is used everywhere in Armenia. This also includes the word նախարարութիւն (nakhararootioon), which was մինիստրութիւն (ministrootioon) in the past.

The word nakh is frequently used in Armenian for many compound words, like նախագահ (nakhakah), which literally means “first seat” or “first throne.” This word also comes from Classical Armenian and in modern times it took a new meaning: “president.” It also became the basis for the verb նախագահել (nakhakahel “to preside”), which does not necessarily mean to have the functions of a president. However, the meaning of the word was again disputed in Eastern Armenian, which adopted the loanword պրեզիդենտ (prezident) from Russian. [1] Like nakharar, also nakhakah made a came back after the end of the Soviet Union, and since 1991 we have had several nakhakah in the newly-independent Republic of Armenia.

[1] Much of Russian specialized vocabulary derives from Western European languages, especially French, and that’s why you see words like minister or president with a look very similar to the English word.