Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Name Game

Early on in training (in fact, it may have been day 2 in Armenia) we had a language lesson with a quiz. We were shown a group of names and had to figure out if each was for a man or a woman. Unlike names we are used to, there are no none like Pat, Terry or Chris that can be either. But the quiz proved tougher than I expected as I had not yet learned how names are derived here.

Many of the men’s names are derived from ancient Armenian heroes, saints or even towns from the lands that once comprised Armenia (some now in Turkey). Some have Persian derivation, resulting from the periods when the area was under Persian control. Some of the women’s names are from saints or from feminine associated things (flowers, gems) but many are derivations of men’s names. Those ones are constructed with a man’s name plus “e” or “uhi”.

As is common is many cultures, children are often given names in remembrance of a relative or ancestor. But one thing I learned recently really surprised me. As I have mentioned before, when a woman marries, she typically moves in with her husband’s parents. It turns out that when she gives birth, she does not typically get to pick the child’s name – her mother-in-law does. And since there are female derivations of men’s names, if the mother-in-law wants to remember a dearly departed grandfather, the child’s gender doesn’t matter – a suffix can take care of it.

For various reasons, there are a helluva lot of names starting with A. Popular men’s names include Ara (a legendary hero and king), Aram, Ararat (for the mountain that is no longer in Armenia but is one of its symbols), Armen (commonly believed to be related to the name Armenia, although people here call the country Hayastan), Arman, Arsen, Ashot, Arshak, Artur and Alik. Women’s names derived from those include Arsine, Armine and Armenuhi. Other women’s names are Ana, Ani (the ancient capital), Anna, Arevik (little sun), Astghik, Aghavni (little dove), Anahit, Arpine and Anush (sweet).

Other common names that seem to travel in pairs are Karen (male – confusing to us) and Karine (or Karin), Narek and Narine, Tigran and Tigranuhi. Some westernized names have gotten established here such as Robert, and more names that we would find typical are creeping in as Western culture continues to expand its influence. No Jennifer’s yet that I am aware of but it may be just a matter of time. Others that are related to names we know are also common - Gevorg (George), Grigor (Gregory), Hovhannes (John), Davit (David).

Some sound more masculine or feminine and are easy to remember. Hayk is a male name, from the legendary founder of the Armenian nation. Tigran (male) was the mighty king who conquered the lands of Ancient Armenia. Sona, Nara, Gayane, Lena, Nune, Mariam, Siranush and Liana were easily recognizable as female names.

But then there are some that I was at a loss to guess. Razmik (male) means warrior while Hasmik (female) means Jasmine. Gohar (female) means pearl. Hamest (female) means modest. Karapet (male) means leader. Astghik (female) means little star but Gagik is a male name derived from a Persian one. Vahagn (male) was the god of war and thunder and Vahan may be a derivation of that. Hripsime (female) is an Armenian saint. Harut (male) is a short form of Harutyan which means rise from the dead (Armenian zombies!). Mher (male) is from a Persian god but Meri (female) is the same as Mary. Nshan (male) essentially means Mark. Gor (male) means proud. Gagik (male) was an ancient king. Mkhitar (male), while a very manly sounding name, means comfort, which you might think would lead it to be a woman’s name. Sargis (male) is an Armenian saint and is related to the Italian Sergio.

And then there are some that I can’t explain. I have met three men so far named Hamlet. Ruben is also pretty common.

Last names are usually derived from the men’s names as the –ian/-yan suffix essentially means “son of”, similar to the Irish/Scots “O’”, “Mc” and “Mac” and the Spanish/Italian “de” and “di”. As a result, there are a lot of Hovhannisyans running around. And someone in Cher’s family (full name Cherilyn Sarkissian as the Armenians like to point out) had to have been named Sargis.

Maybe following the Russian tradition (as a result I assume of the long periods as part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union) you often hear people called by diminutive versions of their names. Therefore, Hovhannes becomes Hovo or Hovik. Andranik (which already sounds like a diminutive but means “first born”) may become Ando. And some of the “ik” names are not diminutive (such as Rasmik and Hasmik). In those cases, people may just address them as Ras and Has.

In fairness, Armenians also have some difficulty with the names we find common. Mine, for example, is one of the most basic in the English language, ranking in the top five most common in the US for the past 100 years or so. But in Armenian, the way we pronounce it is the same way that an endearment is pronounced (“Tat jan” is how you would affectionately address an older woman, with “tat” meaning grandmother). I have to stress the “o” more so it sounds more like “Joan”. Many people here crack themselves up when they hear my name by immediately saying “John jan!” as if that were the first time I had ever heard that. It’s sort of like how people make fun of my feet by asking about water-skiing without skis – I just have to smile and move on.

Some names are difficult for Armenians to pronounce because the sounds do not exist in the language. There is no “th” sound, so names like Theodore come out more like its Russian counterpart Fyodor. But there are some names that I can’t understand why people here have trouble pronouncing, with William as a perfect example. While there is no “w” sound in the Armenian alphabet, many who speak English pronounce “v” as “w” (“I live in a willage”). But when it comes to pronouncing William, it comes out “Villiam”.

On the other hand, some people may just be embarrassed by the result. For example, fellow volunteer Lizzie couldn’t understand why people couldn’t pronounce her name even though the sounds all exist in the Armenian language. Recently, though, someone pointed out to her that the word in Armenian is how you would tell someone to lick something – suddenly it made more sense.

So the name game would be fun here - let's do Armen: Armen, Armen, bo Barmen....