You reach a point in learning a language – usually sometime shortly after you can successfully ask and understand the way to the lavatory – when one word, usually a little word, will trip you up in supposed subtleties, tumble you into an ecstasy of confusion out of all proportion to its importance in actual use.1 The mention of this word in conversation, the delicate proportions of its appearance on the page, you greet with perturbation mingled with inexpressible2 delight. Oh these little words, of clear and unclear meaning, these adverbs, these prepositions, these postpositions, these nebulous, numinous specks upon the (in)certitude of syntax!
The current irritating particle is the Armenian էլի (eli), which one dictionary helpfully glosses as ‘adv. 1) again. 2) more.’3 A more helpful dictionary observed that eli also means ‘again, anew, more, some more, still, now, well’.4 This is not the half of it. For instance, when someone asks you what you’re eating, you can say: կարտոֆիլ էլի (kartofil eli) which doesn’t mean just ‘more potatoes’ or ‘potatoes again’, but seems to mean something more like, ‘potatoes of course, as you can see by looking at my plate, numbskull’. գնում ես էլի (gnûm es eli) which isn’t ‘you’re going again’ but is rather ‘you’re going aren’t you’ or ‘so you’re going, huh’. One speaker seemed to use eli in every sentence, much as an English speaker might say ‘like’, ‘well’ or ‘y’know’. Between the dictionary and what I was hearing I became a bit confused, so I looked in our textbook and found the following:
The ‘colloquial հա էլի (ha eli)expression is translated into English as Oh, yes, that’s right. The particle էլի softens the tone of the speech especially in the imperative sentences and could be translated with the word please. It has some other meanings, too. The expression լավ էլի makes a request stronger.5
This was a step in the right direction. I also checked A.V. Gevorkian’s East Armenian Course, but as it has no index and my Armenian browsing skills aren’t particularly good, I couldn’t find an entry on eli, though I did find several pages on էլ (el), which set me to thinking about the stress of eli. Most Armenian words (or all, depending on who you ask or what dialect you’re dealing with) are stressed on the ultima (unless the final syllable is a written or unwritten schwa), but eli is stressed on the penult. This might mean nothing at all, but it could also mean that eli was formed from el i, with the friendly modal word el meaning ‘also, too, as well’ and i being an archaic form of ‘to be’. It’s a comfort to speculate, anyhow.
Frankly I don’t know anything at all about eli and do not have sufficient language to ask the question and understand the answer even if I did know someone who would be able to answer.6 Someday I am sure I shall understand it, and be able to use it correctly and instinctively. For now, though, the Armenian I speak will sound a little odd, eli.
- The first of these words I can remember encountering is the Greek οὖν (indeed, verily, etc.); great was the pleasure in following its trail, and happy the desultory browsing in Denniston to further the languid acquaintanceship.
- Well, probably inexpressible in the language to be acquired, anyhow.
- Kh. Grigoryan. Yerevan: Ankyunacar, 2005. Allow me a digression on the subject of bilingual dictionaries; I am aware they are not ideal – indeed I quite agree that a simplified single-language dictionary is a far better choice for the average learner than the brutalized transpositions one commonly finds in the average bilingual dictionary, especially of the portable variety. However: I have the pleasure of saying that Grigo Chyukyurian’s English-Armenian/Armenian English Dictionary (2nd ed. n.l.: Simon Wallenberg, 2007 – the only Armenian dictionary I was able to find at Powell’s) – which does not have any entry at all on էլի or even էլ – is one of the worst specimens of the type I have encountered. The text, both Armenian and English might best be described as illegible, having been photographed from two ancient registers of glosses (thankfully of different vintages, so the Armenian-English is in some places decipherable, whereas the English-Armenian isn’t) which had done yeoman’s service in many an outbuilding before reaching the current compiler. Although it ‘has been revised and updated to cover all the latest vocabulary’, these revisions appear to have been included in another volume which was omitted from the copy I acquired, as the vocabulary covered includes the ever-useful ‘maunder’ (the Armenian is sadly illegible) and ‘shabrack’ (տապճակ – taptchak’?), which would probably have been helpful to Pushkin on his journey to Erzerum, but hardly makes this miscellany ‘Simply Indispensable, a trusted desktop companion’ (as per that noteworthy reviewer of lexica The Caspian Business News) unless one needs a trusted desktop companion to keep one’s random papers from flying out the window. It is the first dictionary I have seen with a warning and disclaimer denying liability for damages resulting from the use of the information therein.
- N. Baratyan, et al. Armenian-English Dictionary. Yerevan: Macmillan Armenia, 2006
- From Kamurj: A Text-Book of Colloquial Armenian for Peace Corps Volunteers (Yerevan, 2008), p.146.
- I asked my host family about it and they gave me the memorable potato dinner example, but mostly seemed to think I was a little strange for asking; perhaps, though, that was simply frustration at not being able to explain it to someone of my limited language ability. How would you explain the use of ‘well’ or ‘like’ to someone who hadn’t been studying English for very long?