to have done
…in the course of the years the study of foreign languages had become almost a mania with Chwostik, indeed a sort of collector’s mania (as exemplified by his acquiring Armenian as a particularly exquisite ‘piece’)…
– Heimito von Doderer
(The Waterfalls of Slunj, p. 144)
This is how we spent our morning: sitting on the floor next to the heater, poring canonically through our grammar books, finding here a rule and there an exception, and in yet another place something as yet incomprehensible. Of late, I have been particularly enjoying Armenian verbs1. For one thing, they are relatively simple to form, and for the most part extremely regular, with two conjugations and a few oddities. For another, they have these infixes that seem so minute (a letter or two) and yet change the meaning entirely, making this intransitive verb transitive, or that other one reflexive or passive; this seems to me, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, an economical and elegant way of putting together a language.
Take, for instance, the verb ‘to learn’: սովորել(soverel); add the causative infix –ցն (tsn) and you have ‘to teach’: սովորեցնել (soveretsnel).2 The way the infix creates associates between actions which one may or may not think of as connected is quite pleasing. To remember հիշել (hishel) can become to remind հիշեցնել (hishetsnel), to be happy ուրախանալ (urakhanal), to make happy ուրախացբել (urakhatsnel). That’s one thing.
Then there’s the reflexive or passive or medio-passive or the whatever you want to call it –վ (v) infix.3 So one has ‘to write’ գրել (grel) and ‘to be written’ գրվել (grvel), to read կարդալ (kardal) and ‘to be read’ կարդացվել (kardatsvel); ‘to shave’ սափրել (sap’rel), ‘to shave oneself’ սափրվել (sap’rvel). For -el conjugation verbs, one can also combine the causative and -v infixes for even more amusement and confusion.4 So ‘to make someone shave’ սափրեցնել (sap’retsnel) and ‘to make someone shave themselves’ սափրեցվել (sap’retsvel). I should here mention that this last is, although grammatically possible, not something that I’ve actually heard, and so one might say that it is not actually Armenian, but if it’s not Armenian, then what is it? I don’t know.
- I’ve also been enjoying Pimsleur’s version of Russian, but that’s another story.
- So saying that one simply adds the infix is a bit misleading: one adds the infix to the preterite stem. That is, one takes the infinitive, lops off the final -l, adds the infix and a terminal -el conjugation. This with the exception of verbs ending in -nel or -nal, in which case one lops off the -nel or -nal and replaces them with -tsnel. In the simple past the -n becomes an -r: սովորեցնում եմ (sovoretsnum em), I teach, becoming սովորեցրեցի (sovoretsretsi, I taught) except a bit more complicated, as most things are.
- Again with the simplifications. Really one adds -vel to the infinitive stem of -el conjugation verbs, and -tsvel to the preterite stem of -al conjugation verbs. I share this not so much because it’s terribly important as to be clear.
- For -al conjugation verbs, the reflexive/passive -v infix is already combined with -ts- so combining the two meanings is not possible in the same way. Probably if one wanted to say that something should be made to be read (for example) one would add the auxiliary verb տալ (tal), thus կարդացվել տալ: to have something be read.