Analysis - Tuesday, March 1, 2011 0:05 - 0 Comments

Gender Asymmetry (Androcentrism) in Karabakhi Armenian Dialect: The Power of Nomination


The mental regulation of gender reality is also realized by verbal means through language categories shaping gender identity. In this paper an attempt will be made to reveal the extent to which the Karabakh dialect of the Armenian language is inclined towards masculinization and androcentrism. How are gender stereotypes constructed and reproduced in the culture of Karabakh Armenians through linguistic practices? I will try to illustrate that the Karabakh dialect (as in classic Armenian and many other world languages) reflects the relationship of dominance and subordination.

There is an opinion that the social world can exist only as a nominal one, in other words as something defined by language categories. Therefore, manifestations that are defined as “dominance” and “subordination” are inalienable from those categories in which they are described and perceived. Perceptions of “dominance” and “subordination” shape and legitimize human behavior. Eventually, reality and life are regulated in the minds of people based on those perceptions. On the given background the question of the power of nomination happens to be most essential. The one who has the right to nominate exercises power, calling the nominated phenomena to life through nomination itself.[i] In the case in question, the entire society from top to bottom and on levels is involved in the social act.

In a number of scientific papers by specialists in gender linguistics, the focus is on the correlation of the meanings of the words “person/human being” and “woman,” “person/human being,” and “man.”[ii] Supposedly, the words “human being/person” and “man” are quasi-synonymous by default.  However, as admitted by many specialists, “in different languages this type of a semantic parallelism is expressed at different levels of intensity.”[iii] As in many other languages, in the Karabakh dialect the fact of the woman’s exclusion from the society is expressed through the equivalency of the words “human being” and “man,” as they are identical (transliterated as mard). In this dialect, there also exists a separate word, which serves to signify the category of the “human being” without gender specification (i.e., juvar). Scholars trace this word to different etymology. According to A. Mkrtchyan, it literally means “master/manager of water.” However, despite the neutral sense of the word that occurs nowadays, juvars that used to manage the distribution of water resources in Karabakhi villages were exclusively men, who stood out as being honest, kind, compassionate, and fair (interview with L. Harutyunyan). “… based on its economic activities the community would choose the persons that would manage water resources based on their personal qualities.”[iv] Therefore this neutrality is dual in its character.[v]

The abundance of similar examples expressively demonstrates that language norms comprise the masculine power setup. The identification of the masculine and human that is typical for many cultures is based on the dichotomy of mentality that opposes culture to nature, active to passive, rational to irrational, masculine to feminine.

The deeply rooted attitude in Karabakhi Armenian tradition towards a woman (girl, young girl) as being someone “temporary” in the ancestral home (it is verbalized through the metaphor “the candle of an alien family hearth,” where “hearth” stands for “home,” or “the charred log of an alien family hearth”), as well as to someone “alien” (in indirect speech sometimes she is called that way) in her husband’s home, condemns women to eternal marginalization.

Social insignificance of the woman (daughter), her marginal status within the society as opposed to the glorification and exaltation of men (son), is distinctly illustrated in lullabies. It is expresses through separation of texts for girls and boys.

Below is a common lullaby for girls, transliterated from the Karabakhi dialect:

Axč’ik onim, saz axč’ikä

Ašker čal-čal axčikä

Pürt’ perek’ pežink’ kapim

Ołter pernink’ tanink’

The same lullaby translated into English:

I have a daughter; she is the real goods,

She is bright-eyed,

Fetch me some fleece, I will prepare her dowry,

We shall load it on camels and take it away.

Once again, we come across the connotation of the temporality, which is highlighted from cradle and throughout the life of the girl in the ancestral home. Hopes and expectations from a boy, a son, are totally different. Lullabies for boys express the traditional attitude towards a boy as of one who is the successor and who is to continue the family, the heir, the master. This can probably be traced back to those times when in terms of providing the family with all the necessary things for living, the activities performed by men were of far more significance than that of women. Economic prosperity and the prestige of the family and the clan depended solely on the activities performed by men and their status.

The subordinate and auxiliary position of women is reflected in a great number of metaphors and associations. “A family is like a millstone, the woman is the bottom stone and the man the top stone.” ∂ntanik’∂ – arkank’a: k∂neg∂ – t∂kak’arna, mard∂ – eřak’ar∂” (interview with L. Harutyunyan, village Ashan). However, some of the metaphors and proverbs also contain the realization of the complementarity of the roles and functions of men and women.

The language also explicitly fixes the difference between the statuses of younger girls (positive characteristics) and of women (more negative). There are no bad girls, yet there are no good women (wives). Več pis axč’ik tēsenk’, več’ l’av k∂neg. The next proverb reflects the attitude towards marriage as of a transition into a different state and the necessity to utterly adjust to new conditions and rules of the new family – “As you get married, you change the shirt you wear next to your skin/ undershirt.” (Mart’uv∂s k’in’um – halav∂t p’oxum∂s). Here again we witness the connotation of an unconditional shift in the identity and a complete loss of touch with the initial family.

One of the classic examples of gender dichotomy is the accepted phrasing that is used to denote a bachelor (äzäp’) and a woman that is late with getting married, “an old maid” (tan∂ mnac’ac) – literally, ‘the one who remained in the home’, that in its nature is explicitly valuating. The first, “male” characteristic is positive, and the “female” characteristic presupposes that there exists an anomaly in the situation, implying that in collective consciousness it is the man that decides to refuse the burden of the bonds of wedlock, whereas with women it is a matter of being outside the choice zone.

Behind the militaristic and heroic rhetoric of the last decade a great deal of attention has been paid to emphasizing such qualities in people as courage and valor. In praising women that have these qualities they are often called tłamard-kneg’, which literally means “a man-woman.” In a similar situation, when this concerns a courageous man, a tautology tłamard-tła – “man-man,” which comes to mean “real man” both biologically and spiritually, is used. This type of denotation marks the rooted opinion that courage and valor by their nature are exclusively masculine.

The brightest and most positive characteristics of a woman are “she is not a woman, but a sea” (Kneg č‘i – cov a). All the pathos of the sacrificial, tolerant, and obedient nature of a woman, which again is there to serve the man, family, and clan, is concentrated in this proverb. There are other positive characteristics of a woman, which again reflect all the depth of the man-woman hierarchy: a strongly canonized woman that meets all the commonly circulating perceptions is called kadriēl kneg (the existence of the concept itself is of great significance). There is also another word that reflects the same meaning – nstc’rac kneg (literally, a woman put down, pacified, tamed, and adjusted to all existing criteria). Usually, this refers to women that have an absolute sense of their place, with a distinct, precise, and subtle realization of the “position that she occupies within the social structure.”[vi]

It is typical that more often than not women themselves are the channels of these ideas taking an active part in the generation of an andocentric discourse and the retranslation of the phallocentric way of thinking of the younger generation, thus in fact, shaping public conscience. At the same time, the fact that women very often use “male” language is not surprising: in a number of spheres simply no other language exists, therefore no choice. In indirect speech a woman calls her husband the “master” (tar). In many villages, a widow is still referred to as a “headless woman” (anklox kyneg). According to discourse a young girl is of no significance as an individual, but is attached to her family name, clan, and father, and very often marriage strategies strongly depend on these categories.

In their discourse women say, “If the husband (man) says to his wife (woman) that the yogurt is black, she must agree that it is black.” (Mard∂ ver asuma macun∂ seva, k∂neg∂ bidi v∂zyav one ver tiya). “A woman without a husband is like a dog without a master.” (Anmard k∂neg∂ hanc’a andar šon ∂ni).

For domestic violence, compelling justifications are made, like “ if he beats, it means that he loves” and “he beats because he is the man, that is the order of things.” “there was this woman in our village called Mina from the neighboring village Pirgjamal. Her husband was a frail, undersized man called Atun, that was nicknamed Papachist (a small bird). He would beat her black and blue. At the same time, she was a woman of an astonishing strength… the fellow villagers would keep asking her: “ why do you tolerate all this beating up, for you to beat him down is as easy as it can be?” in response she kept repeating “ that is the way things are established, the husband is the one who beats up his wife, and I was born a woman” (Ädät’na – mard kngan kt’akē, de es ēl’ knegum cnval)”.[vii]

An authentic mourning song sung by the mother at the grave of her son goes “my dear son, didn’t I tell you not to marry L., she doesn’t have brothers, and you will have no one to back you up when hard times come. My unfortunate, miserable son you condemned yourself to loneliness by marrying her. If you had a brother in law, you would have someone to rely on. And now that you are gone, he would take care of your children…” However, in the given case it is the discourse of survival that is revealed more distinctly, rather than the actualization of the gender-based dominance-subordination. And this might be a new angle in studying language practices. Meanwhile, there is a presupposition that only a man (the brother) can back up the family and help them out, as he is “free,” which means he is active, and not a woman (the sister) as she already belongs to a different home and is “not free,” therefore is passive.

However, in contemporary post-war society where life brings forth new perspectives and values, a different gender standard is gradually called for, which will have the capacity of realizing the peculiarities and values of both genders. This process, as all other similar processes that are related to public consciousness, is long going and quite controversial by nature, which always comes across resistance to innovations. The war in which women demonstrated self-forgetful inspiration and valor, played the role of a catalyst for these transformations. Television through the transmission of values of western culture also has had its impact. The promotion of these priorities leads to the establishment of new gender paradigms, which appreciate intellect, competency, high working capacities, purposefulness, and consistency irrespective of the gender.



The result of the current analysis that describes the mechanisms of impacting on the “language-power” level, through commonplace discourses and folklore texts, is that language functions (and more broadly discourse functions) as tools for exercising power are revealed. These language games are more transparent in traditional societies, an illustrative example of which is Karabakhi Armenian society. The examples cited in this paper reflect the connection between the discourse and ideology of androcracy, the power of men. Hidden and explicit connotations that are perceived by public consciousness as a given tell us about the extreme polarization of that consciousness. At the same time, the recent events (and the discourses on the discussion of those events) reveal weak manifestations of alternative language practices that assess people irrespective of their gender. Meanwhile, the resistance of society is enormous.

It seems that traces of gender transformations of the last twenty years can be described only by means of voicing the stories of silent, mute groups, like women. Throughout a troublesome period of change, the social field of Karabakhi Armenian culture that is under consideration revealed itself in at least two different states: in the comparatively stable period and extreme realities of wartime. These conditions beyond any doubt have to a certain extent modified the discourse itself, which at the same time depends on the specific stance of every individual/author in his respective community. By saying this we mean that a cultural anthropologist “has to” take into consideration the “objective” character of the initial position. Sex/gender, background, neighborhood, bringing up, and personal stories of different people – all these factors define the vectors of possible life strategies. People move within this field, developing or reproducing their own discourses both on regular basis and as the field is “breaking down.” But they do this in spite of themselves. However, there is an “ideal” model, the rules for which most of the time exist as declarative preferences, but when tested strongly contradict the reality.

Upon concluding the analysis of discourses and the variety of female statuses in Karabakhi Armenian society, a contradiction is revealed: despite the fact that in the new social context women have significantly moved to the frontline both in military and economic spheres, the ideology on all significant levels continues to serve the needs of the power of men, filling in the entire semantic space of Karabakhi Armenian culture. On the level of commonplace consciousness the dominance of men continues to be perceived as natural, and the self-actualization of women, on the contrary, is perceived as unnatural, extreme, and accidental. Women’s vision of life, which is realized through the light of masculine values, hinders the establishment process of a more or less sound women’s movement for egalitarianism.


The full version of the article was published in Russian under the title: Language as the Marker of Correlation of Dominance and Subordination (Gender Aspect) in Bulletin: Anthropology, minorities, multiculturalism, No. 4, pp. 84-96. Krasnodar, 2003.



[i] Pierre Bourdie. The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups. Theory and Society, Vol. 14, No. 6 (Nov., 1985), pp. 723-744. Springer.

[ii]See.: Городникова М.Д. Гендерный аспект обращений как фактор речевого регулирования. Гендерный аспект перевода // Гендер как интрига познания. Сб. ст. М.: “Рудомино” 2000.

Лакофф Р. Язык и место женщины // Введение в гендерные исследования. Хрестоматия. Ч.2. Алетейя. Харьков, СПб. 2001; Попов А.А. Об учете гендерного аспекта в лексикографическом кодировании // Гендер как интрига познания. Сб. ст. М.: “Рудомино” 2000; Потапов В.В. Попытки пересмотра гендерного признака в английском языке // Гендер как интрига познания. Сб. ст. М.: “Рудомино” 2000; Спендер Д. Мужчина создал язык // Введение в гендерные исследования. Хрестоматия. Ч.2. Харьков, СПб.: Алетейя. 2001; Халеева И.И. Гендер как интрига познания // Гендер как интрига познания. Сб. ст. Изд. “Рудомино” М, 2000.

[iii] Weiss D. Kurica ne ptiza, (a) baba ne celovek // Slavische Linguistik. 1987. S. 413-443.

[iv] Мкртчян А. Общественный быт армян Нагорного Карабаха (вторая половина 19 – начало 20 вв.) Автореферат диссертации на соискание ученой степени кандидата исторических наук. Ереван. 1988. С. 13.

[v] Polish linguist and an expert in Armenian studies professor A. Pisovich gives a different meaning to this word, assuming that it stems from Persian. The Armenian-Karabakh word juvar comes from the Persian janvar (with a long first “a”); in colloquial Persian junvar means “an animal” (literally “animate”), where jan stands for “spirit,” and var initially was a suffix that denoted an attribute. A “resonant” beginning (in Karabakh Armenian dialect for most every cases the letter J is rarely used) attests to the fact that the word is borrowed. Later A. Pisovich expressed serious doubts with respect to the semantic aspect, as it was difficult to believe that a human being was identified with an animal. He suggested that probably within the context (distributing water) there might be another fitting etymology, i.e., “‘ju(y)’ means a brook, a stream, irrigation ditch, a channel, stream bed” (словарь Рубинчика, том 1, стр. 447, 1970 г.). the compound word (which cannot be found in dictionaries but is possible theoretically) “juy-avar” could mean “the one who channels an irrigation ditch.”

[vi] Pierre Bourdie. The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups. Theory and Society, Vol. 14, No. 6 (Nov., 1985), pp. 723-744. Springer.

[vii] Interview by the author.


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