Speaking Armenian—Choice? Luxury? Bother?

I put down the pen and stared at the paper for ten minutes. I checked the dictionary, revisited my mind’s wordbook. Countless minutes passed. I was still unable to find what I was looking for. For a moment, I felt like I had lost a precious item; but in fact, I had found one.

The word I was looking for was the English equivalent of the Armenian word karot, a word which would complete a letter to my British friend. The physical dictionary and my cognitive wordbook suggested options such as “nostalgia,” “melancholy,” or “depression,” but none were suitable to express what I truly felt. The word “nostalgia” had an exclusively positive connotation, while “melancholy” and “depression” depicted solely the pain and the darkness behind my karot. I hoped to convey a mixture of feelings, both cheerful and sad, that would evoke memories of late-night exam preparations and popcorn movie nights. Meanwhile, the kar component of the karot would have gently described the nature of my contrasting feelings for kar itself literally means something that was, but is no longer.

Karot is a word used by Armenians who have had to leave their homes for something as simple yet difficult as survival. It is the nostalgia and melancholy all at once. It is the longing for the distant taste of homemade dolma, for the unbridled rhythm of Kochari, for “sea to sea Armenia,” and for everything else that kar. It is the anguish for what is lost, for the happiness that ever was and the yearning to have it again.

This summer, my parents and I were invited to a dinner with two other families in Armenia. One of them had just arrived to Armenia from the United States, after a twenty-year absence. They came in order to show their eight year-old daughter, Lusine, what Armenia looks, smells and tastes like, and to help her learn Armenian.

“We have a very large Armenian community in New Jersey, and we do everything to maintain its Armenian components–the language, the religion, the culture. We often listen to Armenian music, cook baklava.”

Shad gsirem baklava,” added Lusine to what her mother had said, trying to use her limited, yet beautiful Armenian vocabulary to express her fondness of this traditional, sweet pastry. During our conversations throughout the evening, Lusine did her best to express her thoughts and feelings in Armenian. She tried, sometimes failed, tried again and continued asking us for the Armenian translations for nearly all the dishes and objects around her․

“What is your favorite Armenian dish, Mary?” the woman from New Jersey asked the daughter of the other invited family in Armenian, organizing her astonishing vocabulary into correct sentence structures.

“My favorite dish is khorovats [barbecue],” answered Mary, unexpectedly in Russian.

“Why did you suddenly start speaking in Russian?” asked the woman, still in Armenian.

Mary’s mother interrupted the conversation, explaining that her seven year-old daughter speaks better Russian than Armenian. She said they always speak Russian at home because they want Mary to have an excellent command of that language. She said it so proudly, as if she expected us to give her and her daughter a round of applause. To her surprise, none of us did.

For a family living outside of Armenia but still doing their best to teach their daughter to speak Armenian, learning that there are families in their homeland who avoid teaching their children their mother tongue was a striking realization. For me, however, this discovery was not shocking, as many of my compatriots simply find it ‘cool’ not to know Armenian and to have the ‘advantage’ to communicate in Russian instead of their native language. Is it a means to show off, to seem more intelligent, more educated and distinguished? Is it a result of their infinite (yet non-reciprocal love) toward Russia? I cannot give an exact answer, but I can see that the issue is threatening, not only for individuals, but for Armenian society and culture as a whole.

what happens if you do not know the language of your people?

In fact, I can hardly imagine any Russian family teaching their child to speak Armenian before he or she is able to speak fluent Russian, but if I reach that superior level of imagination, the scene looks more like a comedy than reality. In Armenia, the case is a real tragicomedy for the foreigners, and a purposeless, painful tragedy for ourselves. It is a sign of disrespect toward our own language, culture and identity. It is insulting to members of the Diaspora, many of whom do their best to preserve the language we have inherited from our ancestors—the language that has helped us all throughout our history to achieve and maintain our well-cherished dream that we today call independence. For many of our compatriots living abroad, it requires a daily effort and appreciation to hold on to the treasure of owning, learning and communicating in their own language, teaching it to their children, while some of us in Armenia carelessly take this chance for granted.  

Of course, in the increasingly globalized world, learning a foreign language is invaluably beneficial for one’s personal development, career horizons and social life. I personally agree with the famous Armenian saying, “The more languages you know, the more of a person you are.” But, what happens if you do not know the language of your people? Well, you lose. You lose your chance to experience concepts and feelings as important and as relevant to you as karot. You lose an opportunity to connect with your past and with your people. You lose what you have not only the opportunity, but the right, to possess. Consequently, you lose a significant part of your identity.

It was while looking for the English equivalent of the word karot in the dictionary that I was exposed to one of the most important lessons in my life. Some words are impossible to translate exactly because there are certain concepts, emotions and feelings in some cultures, which are absent in others. It is the mission of language to maintain and transfer these messages, not only between individuals in the present, but also between generations: the past, present and future of a nation. It was through the word karot that I learned that there exists something in my nation’s history that was once, but is no longer. I realized that my compatriots’ willingness to return it has been strong enough to explode into the air and form a word as unique as the taste of Armenian dolma.


Original illustration by Weekly design apprentice Masha Keryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan is a graduate from UWC Changshu China. Since the age of 11, she has been writing articles for a local newspaper named Kanch ('Call'). At the age of 18, she published her first novel on Granish.org and created her own blog, Taghandi Hetqerov ('In the Pursuit of Talent')—a portal devoted to interviewing young and talented Armenians all around the world. Baghdasaryan considers storytelling, traveling and learning new languages to be critical in helping one explore the world, connect with others, and discover oneself. Milena currently studies Film and New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi.
Milena Baghdasaryan

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  1. Ask any psychologist and they’ll tell you that if you want a child to be bilingual one parent should speak one language and the other parent another. Children can handle it. It’s the parents who have difficulty with this, get frustrated and give up. How can a child in Armenia NOT learn Armenian? Trust me, when they are outside playing with the other children they’ll pick up the language very quickly, with or without the parents intervention.

    • I am multilingual, but both of my parents have always been speaking Armenian at home, and I can assure you that my strong command of the Armenian language has helped me a lot to learn other languages.
      Furthermore, the article is not about not knowing Armenian at all, but about the choice and the use of language as a path to Westernization (in this particular case – Russianization).

  2. Karot = Yearning

    Also, baklava and dolma are Greek.

    I agree with your general point that knowing your own language is key to understanding yourself.


      Baklava is not from mainland Greece. Granted, the Greeks had something to do with it, but so did Armenians, and most likely it was a joint effort by Armenian and Greek chefs of the Ottoman Empire. This is why the Turks have attempted to take over this dish as supposedly “Turkish”, capitalizing on the fact that people ignorantly assume that “Ottoman Empire” automatically means Turkish. Turks do not have a single authentic dish, not even manti.

      Most importantly, do not ever touch our Dolma as being of any origin besides Armenian. Dolma/Tolma is 100% Armenian. Not even 99%. 100%.

  3. Dear Andre, yearning has a rather negative connotation and is often accompanied by sadness, while the kar component of karot encompasses what I truly felt.
    Greek people would say baklava and dolma are Greek, Turkish people would say these food are Turkish, people from Iran would label them as Persian. As an Armenian, I consider baklava and dolma to be Armenian, and, especially after having tasted the Arabic baklava and witnessing its baking process, I can assert that ours is unique, both in its preparation process as well as in its taste.

  4. Yearning is perfectly accept as the word “longing” which you use in your text: garodtsay/karottsay, I longed/yearned [for you].

    • As mentioned in my previous comment, yearning implies a rather negative feeling , whereas karot does not necessarily involve sadness, and is purely the emotion for something that “kar.” Also, please take into consideration that “karot” (which was chosen based on a real-life situation) is not the only and the best example of what my article is aiming to address, and we all know that there are many words in Armenian which do not have any direct (and even indirect) translations in other languages. And this is relevant not only to the Armenian language, but to Russian, French, Spanish and other languages as well, given the different and unique contexts of their production/creation and development.

  5. As a fluent Western Armenian speaker the word “karot”, transliterated in Western Armenian as Garod, did not a ring a bell for me to mean “melancholy,” or “depression,” may be a bit of “nostalgia”. “Garod” also means , quoting *Nayiri” , “Needy, necessitous, in want of, poor, indigent, destitute; out at elbows; want, need, necessity.”. Yes, words have profound cultural nuances that at times cannot be truly translated. No wonder it is said that “translation is a sin” but a necessity at that.

  6. A very sad reality indeed ‘ that a majority of our compatriots do not value our mother tongue’ our heritage of the Armenian language’ …
    I wonder how casually the parents’ the role models come up with excuses’ – I wonder how their conscious does not bother them’ to forget the sacrifice our exiled’ deported ancestors endured to keep and transfer the language and culture to the next generation …
    I wonder if all ethnic communities are this careless about the survival of their unique language and heritage …
    As Mr. Mirakian mentions’ learning Armenian’ learning one’s own mother tongue does not prevent the child being fluent in other languages … Specially so much research is proving the plasticity and the skills of the brain …
    Just a matter of commitment and acknowledgement of the importance of our rich and ancient Armenian language on the part of the role models …


  7. I applaud you Milena, keep up your great work and keep writing. Written words are very powerful. You have a goal; go for it!! Too bad some of these individuals who commented above completely and sadly have missed your main point,, instead they are nitpicking at the minute details. Cannot wait to read more of what your creative mind has to offer.

  8. As mentioned in the article and in the text by D. Kouymdjian, above. The best translation to Karot, garod depends on the speller, the best translation is longing. i don’t know Turkish except for some words, both my parents were Genocide survivors I have heard someone said in Turkish dolma means to fill and Sarma means to wrap

  9. “I have heard someone said in Turkish dolma means to fill and Sarma means to wrap”


    I have also heard that Turks came from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia, where there were not grapes or grape leaves or any other foods and ingredients used in Armenian Cuisine, and eventually raped, pillaged and plundered their way into an “empire” on Armenia’s ancestral lands through acts of Genocide, Theft of Culture and Appropriation of Identity.

    Did that person who taught you the history of Dolma and Sarma forget to teach you that as well?

  10. “karot” btw is exactly the same word as “saudade” in Portuguese and has equivalents in other languages as well…

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