Armenian Language Corner

The Four Classical Elements

The Greeks listed four classical elements (air, water, earth, and fire) as the material basis of the physical world. The names of the four elements came from the reconstructed Indo-European mother language (Proto-Indo-European or PIE), showing that, although not exclusive to them, the concept seemed to be used by the speakers of that language before the ancient and modern Indo-European languages appeared.

Let’s consider “fire,” which comes from PIE *puro. The sounds of the reconstructed language were not always the same in the “daughter” languages, and this is why the Indo-European *p became ph and f in English. The Armenian word for fire, hուր (hoor), also came from *puro, and other Armenian words of Indo-European also show this pattern of *p > h, like for instance *pater > հայր (hayr).

If someone comes asking for կրակ (grag, which was krak in Classical Armenian), which is the common term in Modern Armenian (hoor is a much more literary term, so to speak), let’s explain that this is a later borrowing in Armenian, but linguists do not agree about its origin (the suffix –ak is of Iranian origin, so the word could be Iranian).

In the case of “air,” we have the Proto-Indo-European word *au (the u should be pronounced v), meaning “to blow, to respire.” This word had two derivations, *aue, from which came Greek aer and then English air, and *ue, from which we have the Latin word ventus (“wind,” compare English “ventilator”) and the English word “wind.”

The same Proto-Indo-European root *au, with the addition of the augmentative particle *dh, yielded the Armenian word աւդ (aud in Classical Armenian pronunciation). After the letter o entered the Armenian alphabet in the period of the kingdom of Cilicia, the word became օդ (od) “air,” which we pronounce ot in Western Armenian.

Therefore, English “air” and “fire” have their cousins in Armenian.

The case is a little more complicated for “earth,” in the sense of soil, and “water.”

The Armenian word հող (hogh) “earth” was originally closer to an l, and derived from Proto-Indo-European *pol. We do not have an English word with the same meaning, but we have a close one. The same root gave *pol-to, with the addition of the suffix *to, from which we have “fold” and “field.”

At its turn, the Armenian word for “water” is ջուր (choor, pronounced joor in Classical Armenian). The root of this word is the Proto-Indo-European *yuro, and this *y gives j in Armenian. We do not have an English word from this same root, but there a borrowing from Latin for a meaning related to liquid: the word “urine.”

Interestingly, the Armenian words for all four elements are indigenous, which means that, like in the case of the Greek words, they all came from the Indo-European mother language. It shows that, despite the impact of neighbor languages (Iranian or Greek), some of the core elements of Armenian thought remained in their original expression.