Armenian Language Corner

What’s In a Name?

While Christianism entered Armenia in the first century A.D. through the efforts of Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the presence of Christian communities has been documented in the following two centuries before St. Gregory the Illuminator’s time.

The lack of written references is an obstacle to know when the religious vocabulary associated with Christianism entered the Armenian language. However, we are in a better position to understand where it came from. The main two sources were, logically, Greek and Syriac, the languages that were used before St. Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet. It is assumed that the Bible was read in those languages and orally translated into Armenian between St. Gregory and St. Mesrop’s times.

If we focus only on the words of ecclesiastic positions, some of them have coincidentally the same origin in English and Armenian, like “patriarch” / պատրիարք (badriark / Classical Armenian patriark), “archbishop” / արքեպիսկոպոս (arkebisgobos / Classical Armenian arkepiskopos), “bishop” / եպիսկոպոս (yebisgobos / Classical Armenian episkopos). Their common source is Greek, with patriarkhes meaning “chief or father of a family,” arkh meaning “chief, first,” and episkopos meaning “overseer.”

We should not forget Armenian կաթողիկոս (gatoghigos / Classical Armenian katolikos), which also comes from Greek, where katholike means “general, universal; mother church” (hence we have the word “catholic”).

Other Armenian words are derived from Syriac, a Semitic language that today remains the liturgical language among its native speakers, who use Aramaic in conversation. We can point out to աբեղայ (“monk; celibate priest”) (apegha / Classical Armenian abelay), which comes from Syriac abila “monk”), and քահանայ (“married priest”) (kahana / Classical Armenian kahanay), from Syriac kahna (“priest”).

Interestingly, however, the influence of Iranian languages was so pervasive, that we have the word վարդապետ (“teacher”) (vartabed / Classical Armenian vardapet), which comes from a southwestern dialect of the Pahlavi language (* vardapati ) and adopted the meaning “archimandrite,” and the word դպիր (tbir “scribe, acolyte”), from Pahlavi dipir (“secretary, scribe”), which adopted the meaning “acolyte.”  The case of սարկաւագ (sargavak “deacon” / Classical Armenian sarkawag) is different. Its last part might be the word աւագ (avak “senior” / Classical Armenian awag), of unknown origin, but we do not know what sarg/sark means or its origin.

This brief discussion brings us to an interesting inference: the higher ranks of the Armenian Church have names derived from Greek (Catholicos, Patriarch, Archbishop, Bishop), and the lower ranks (celibate priest, married priest) derived their names from Syriac, with Iranian being the linchpin between the two with the probable origin for vartabed. It may reflect the historical fact that Western (Greek) influence overran its Eastern (Syriac) counterpart in the early Armenian Church.