Armenian Language Corner


You can say “snowy” or “milky,” but you know that those are not straightforward synonyms for “white.” They are a case different from, say, “forest“ and “wood.” In Armenian, however, we have two straightforward synonyms meaning “white”: ճերմակ (jermag) and սպիտակ (sbidag).

 Interestingly, the pair jermag and sbidag belongs to a category of words, where one of the members is of common use in one branch of the language, while the other is pretty much uncommon, if not unknown. The curious fact is that both words have been recorded in the Armenian language since the fifth century.

Practically all words ending in –ակ (ag/ak) are of Iranian origin. Sbidag (spitak in Classical Armenian) (*) was clearly derived from the Pahlavi word spetak (“white”), while jermag (chermak in Classical Armenian) came from another Pahlavi word, čermak, whose existence has been reconstructed through the Farsi word čarma (“white horse”).

Today, jermag is the common word for “white” in Western Armenian, and the uncommon one in Eastern Armenian. The opposite happens with sbidag. However, this has not always been the case. In Western Armenian, jermag and sbidag were used interchangeably. This is  why the White House is called Սպիտակ Տուն (Sbidag Doon) in Western Armenian and not Ճերմակ Տուն (Jermag Doon). This is also why Hamasdegh (1895-1966), the Armenian American writer, gave the title Սպիտակ ձիաւորը (Sbidag tziavoruh “The White Horseman”) to his two-volume novel about the Armenian liberation movement. Many Armenian textbooks starting at the end of the nineteenth century explained the divisions of the human race using the traditional concept of սպիտակ ցեղ (sbidag tsegh “white race”).

In many other cases, it is common to use jermag, rather than sbidag. The same happens with compound or derived words. When you take the whites to the washing machine, those are called ճերմակեղէն (jermageghen), while սպիտակեղէն (sbidageghen) is only used in Eastern Armenian. If you eat egg white, that is called ճերմկուց (djermugoots), while the same thing in Eastern Armenian is called սպիտակուց (sbidagoots). Interestingly, the word for “protein” in Eastern Armenian is also sbidagoots!

Why this division over time between two words that had a common origin? The mysteries of language are sometimes difficult to understand. Or to explain.


(*) You will surely recognize it as the name of the town of Armenia that was the epicenter of the catastrophic earthquake of 1988. Of course, it sounds Spitak in Eastern Armenian.