The eudæmonist is studying Armenian, and has a typically irresistible entry about the “little words, of clear and unclear meaning, these adverbs, these prepositions, these postpositions, these nebulous, numinous specks upon the (in)certitude of syntax” that “trip you up in supposed subtleties.” This is exemplified by the word “էլի (eli), which one dictionary helpfully glosses as ‘adv. 1) again. 2) more.’”

A more helpful dictionary observed that eli also means ‘again, anew, more, some more, still, now, well’. This is not the half of it. For instance, when someone asks you what you’re eating, you can say: կաբտռֆիլ 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’.

It reminds me of Russian уж [uzh], which a dictionary will tell you = уже [uzhé] ‘already,’ but which is actually stuck in all over the place for all kinds of emphatic and ironic purposes. (Ancient Greek is full of such things, and the eudæmonist apparently takes the same pleasure in browsing Denniston as I do.) Neither of my (admittedly small) Armenian dictionaries even has an entry for էլի/eli, and I’m guessing the Armenian/English bilingual dictionary situation is pretty dire in general. Checking my Guide to World Language Dictionaries, I find that “The major Armenian dictionary, though it is hard for non-Armenians to use, is the etymological dictionary by Adjarian,” of which Dalby says “In citing forms in other languages, Adjarian used Greek, Latin, Arabic, Georgian, Hebrew, Syriac and even cuneiform script, but, mercifully, he added a transliteration of the cuneiform!” There’s an Armyansko-russkii slovar’ (Yerevan: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk Armyanskoi SSR, 1987; 724 pp.) that’s probably pretty good if one could find a copy of it (assuming, of course, one knows Russian). At any rate, I wish the eudæmonist the best of luck in navigating the tricky waters of a foreign language with such shaky lexicographical support!


  1. I have to wonder, though, how much of this is lexical meaning in Armenian and how much is the vagaries of Armenian culture. Consider the numinous little English word “no”. You can expect a dictionary to tell you that it is used to give a negative reply to a question (now that English, alas! has abandoned its old clear distinction between “no” and “nay”), and perhaps even that it is a blunt (nay, rude) way of refusing a request. But you cannot expect the dictionary to inform you that when pronounced with an overlong vowel and a falling tone in response to a statement, it means “No one could be expected to consider that statement in any way remarkable or noteworthy.”

  2. komfo,amonan says

    I too thought of Ancient Greek, as soon as I got to “unclear meaning”; although Greek was the sixth language I started studying, those little words gave us all fits, and to this day, 25 years later, I think of Greek as having dropped in from the moon. Eventually we made peace with them & greeted each other “Hey, gar” (ἡ γὰρ) in the halls.
    Er anyway I think JC’s right. These little words, in many languages, become laden with meaning in speech. The internet will probably allow for easier tracking of these shades of meaning even given their somewhat rapid rate of change.

  3. I don’t remember who it was, but someone said that Russian poetry was full of three types of evil vermin: “вши, ужи, и каки.” That is, lice, water-snakes, and poop, but also words with “вш,” random sprinklings of “уж” (which, being essentially meaningless, are used by bad poets to fill out their meter) and, presumably, the equivalent of “Oh, how..[the slithy toves gimble in the wabe, or whatever]!”

  4. John Emerson says

    I think that every language has these things. In English I think that “just” is one, and the modals. In Chinese the aspect particles (le, ne, ah, ya, etc.) are it.

  5. The author of an excerpt I recent posted about Armenian merchant networks noted that letters between the merchants relied on the word dardzeal to mark paragraph breaks. The author translated it ‘again’, but I suspect it also has a fuller range of meaning: ‘more’, ‘anew’, etc., just like eli.

  6. John Emerson says

    “Now” often has the function of introducing a new topic or subtopic.

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    Doesn’t Yiddish (and I believe also Russian) “nu” operate in the same polyvalent way?

  8. There are no good Armenian – English dictionaries. I looked at all of them when I was teaching field methods with Armenian. It was a year-long course and in second semester the students were allowed to look at anything on Armenian. The best grammar I found was in French (fine for me, not for the students) and when we wanted some light relief from elicitation we handed the Oxford Armenian dictionary over to our consultant and he would point out errors. It was an unorthodox but fun way of doing lexical elicitation.

  9. Sounds kind of like Spanish “ya”

  10. I did not know of the difference between yea/nay and yes/no! Actually Danish, too, has a special word for giving an affirmative answer to a negative question: “Er du ikke profet?” – “Jo.” As opposed to “Er du profet?” – “Ja.”
    “kartofil” made me finally look up “kartoffel”. Apparently it’s from Italian of all things: “tartufolo” from “tartufo” – “truffel”!
    Speaking of dictionaries: One of the last second hand bookshops here is closing and is selling the stock at half price. And I have no money … I really need to find about £220, though, so that I can get “Ordbog over det Danske Sprog”, even if it is just the original volumes without the supplementary ones.

  11. Actually Danish, too, has a special word for giving an affirmative answer to a negative question
    I believe the same is true of Finnish Swedish, but not Rikssvenska. Or, quite possibly, the other way around.
    As for the sale, is there any chance of a reasonably priced decent grammar of Danish?

  12. Actually Danish, too, has a special word for giving an affirmative answer to a negative question
    Norwegian does as well.

  13. mollymooly says

    The Germans seem especially proud of their discourse particles.

  14. John Emerson says

    Yes, I had the feeling that I could spend many happy hours figuring out “noch” “doch” etc.
    German’s “So……then.” construction (or just “So…..” or “…..then.”) is quite common in in Minnesota English. I believe it was heard in “Fargo”. It’s taught in textbooks as something English speakers have to learn, but not around here. I assume that it’s a borrowing, like “Ja”.

  15. Actually, in Chinese I think words like 就 fit the bill better.

  16. “Now” often has the function of introducing a new topic or subtopic.
    It’s interesting that the mistranslation of words like “now” can impact on the way things are translated.
    For example, the English version of “Voici mon secret” from Le Petit Prince goes “Now here is my secret”. In Chinese, quite a few translators get misled and translate this as 现在. But 现在 sits quite poorly in “Now here is my secret” — it sounds like: “At the present time my secret is…”, which just doesn’t sound right. So most of these translators end up translating the sentence as “Now I’ll tell you my secret” (现在告诉你我的秘密), rather than “This is my secret”.
    Just a small way that translation and translators can get the simple things quite wrong.

  17. Is there a learnèd term for words that are difficult to translate or difficult for nonnative speakers to grasp? Words which are highly polysemous and whose definitions are nebulous?

  18. John Emerson says

    They tend to be in categories: aspectuals, modals, discourse markers, etc. They’re not well analyzed or described in conventional school grammars. Many are lumped as adverbs.

  19. Sir Arthur Crown, O.M. says

    “Er du ikke profet?” – “Jo.” As opposed to “Er du profet?” – “Ja.”
    I have found this one of the more difficult things to get right in a foreign language because when it occurs in the middle of a conversation it requires a spontaneous — knee-jerk, really — reaction that I’m unused to giving in English.

  20. A Russian translator friend says that modals, tense and articles are the bane of translators from English into Russian, but “all those little words and phrases” are the bane of translators of Russian into English. I have to agree. It’s one thing when people are speaking and you hear the intonation, it’s another thing when you are reading. I think I once found something like 14 meanings of ничего and almost as many of как. Not to mention да, which can mean yes, even, and, but, also, besides, however, indeed, after all, if, by. Not to mention simple emphasis or expression of desire.

  21. In accord with the comments above, the Hindi word तो, “to”, is very fluid in meaning and hence difficult to translate. It’s another of the learners’ little nightmares, like the many listed already.

  22. John Emerson says

    In school I did a little paper on the articles “a”, “an”, “the”. I had had no conscious idea of when to use the definite article and when the indefinite, though I automatically used them properly. Furthermore, neither teaching grammars nor most reference grammars discussed the question. Chinese, like Russians,have a lot of trouble with articles, but in part it’s because they simply aren’t taught.
    And of course, they have multiple uses that don’t mesh well, notably the use of articles to refer to actual horses and the use of articles in generalizations: “The horse is a noble creature”. But in turn, that usage is different for mass nouns: you don’t say “The water is necessary for agriculture”.
    It was interesting, but I could never be a real linguist, making things explicit like that and then theorizing them.

  23. “Actually Danish, too, has a special word for giving an affirmative answer to a negative question”
    So does Romanian, ba da.

  24. I hate to say this, but even the phrase “affirmative answer to a negative question” is, at least at the pragmatic level, hopelessly ambiguous, and I am left not knowing what “jo” and “ba da” mean … nor do I even have any confidence that they mean the same thing.
    Add to this the difficulty that there are different levels of “negative questions”. In English, “Didn’t you go?” and “Would I be lying if I said you went?” mean very different things. Answering “yes” to the first question could mean that I went, while answering “yes” to the second question couldn’t.

  25. “Didn’t you go?” and “Would I be lying if I said you went?”
    Actually the difference in answering these two is grammatically based. The answer is quite easily derived from the grammatical form:
    Didn’t you go? Answer: YES, I DID go.
    Would I be lying? Answer: YES, I WOULD be lying. (In other words, I didn’t go).

  26. Sorry, that should be:
    YES, you WOULD be lying.

  27. As a native Finnish speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to foreign learners for the fact that we occasionally attach those little words at the end of other words.
    Saitkohan omenianikaan?
    Roughly: Is it true that you didn’t receive any of my apples either, I wonder.
    I don’t know if anyone has put -han, -kaan and others in the dictionaries, but it probably would work just about as well as glossing eli with a few words does.

  28. Crown, A. J. P. says

    As a native Finnish speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize
    Don’t apologize! Most of us find it absolutely fascinating and would love to be able to speak Finnish.
    If I understand your point properly, German and Norwegian do this by adding the word oder? and eller?, (literally or, but ‘or what?’, would be an English approximation) at the ends of sentences.

  29. michael farris says

    “For example, the English version of “Voici mon secret” from Le Petit Prince goes “Now here is my secret”. In Chinese, quite a few translators get misled and translate this ….”
    Why would Chinese translators translate an original French language work from English?
    This seems like really, really bad practice. It’s not like French is a small isolated language not commonly taught as an L2 like Estonian or Maltese (where translating a translation, if not ideal, makes at least some sense).

  30. Christopher Culver says

    “Why would Chinese translators translate an original French language work from English?”
    I’ve encountered plenty of Haruki Murakami novels translated from English into European languages that should have passionate scholars of Japanese of their own.

  31. Pekka: There’s also all the odd random uses of things like siis, elikkä, muka, etc., that don’t necessarily go along with their dictionary meanings. Elikkä siis niitä muka käytetään kai usein. 😛

  32. rootlesscosmo: one can have whole conversations in Yiddish by just saying “nu” in various intonations.
    Sili: The yes/yea, no/nay distinction has been dead since about 1600, so few people know it. There are only four instances of “yes” in the King James Bible (1611), all of them affirmative answers to negative questions — but the KJV is an update of older translations, not de novo.
    On the yeas and nays: French and German also have special words for affirmative answers to negative questions, si and doch respectively — doch is a special case of its more general use as a particle flagging something contrary to expectations. See my post on the subject.

  33. Crown, A. J. P. says

    German also has the oral “doch, doch” for English on the contrary.

  34. Ah! “Nu”! Anyone care have a go at this?
    By “negative question” I think I mean one where the premise is explicitly negated with “ikke” (“not”). But I’m no linguist.
    bulbul, I’ll try asking Monday. I only have a 1959 high school (prescriptive?) grammar, myself. I dare not vouch for it’s quality.
    Actually, if anyone else has specific requests feel free to drop them here (or email me – I don’t have a blog, I fear) and I’ll try to make a list and look around next week.

  35. Re “oooder?”/”eller?”
    My own idiolect (I got it from my mother) used “eller hur?” to that effect. A sorta faux Swedish.

  36. Crown, A. J. P. says

    Thanks for that joke, Sili. I’m going to get a mezuzah. I expect I’ll have to buy it on ebay; there are only 400 Jews in Norway, give or take the Israeli Embassy staff and a couple of tourists.

  37. John Emerson says

    In the movie “Fargo” there’s a place where a conversation consists of “ja / yeah” five times in a row.
    It’s probably in here. I don’t have sound so I can’t be sure.

  38. Crown, A. J. P. says

    That’s brilliant, Emerson. Good luck with the convention, I’ll be thinking of you.

  39. David Marjanović says

    So does Romanian, ba da.

    Balkan Sprachbund! Serbian-or-larger pa da(aaaa).

  40. David Marjanović says

    Nobody has mentioned colloquial French quoi yet.

  41. Armenian ‘eli’ seems strikingly similar to Persian دیگر (digar), particularly in its colloquial use (دیگه digeh). In fact, I could take every single usage of ‘eli’ listed in the eudæmonist’s entry and replace them with ‘digeh’ and they would work perfectly, right down to “ha eli” (just replace the Armenian informal yes ‘ha’ with the Persian informal yes ‘areh’). It’s likely just a coincidence, but considering the great extent of Persian influence on Armenian, I can’t help but wonder if Persian had influenced the use of this word at all.

  42. That’s an excellent point—people forget how pervasive the Persian influence on the languages of the south Caucasus was until relatively recently. I’ll bet there was indeed an influence there.

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