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  • Leon Aslanov

The Language of Patriotism in Armenian and Azerbaijani


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Patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric bristle most conspicuously in times of war, when the base human instinct to group together in the face of the threat posed by the enemy takes hold and language becomes ever more of a tool to communicate this instinctual desire to form a robust group identity in both social and physical terms. Indeed, words and expressions used in this context of war do not spring forth out of a void, but have been developed and deployed as “rhetorical commonplaces” in order to legitimise certain actions in the name of a given ideology. I will proceed by outlining the rhetorical commonplaces and analytical concepts used in the Armenian and Azerbaijani languages to foment feelings and ideas of patriotism and nationalism. The outlined words and concepts are presented as rhetorical commonplaces used most frequently with exclusionary sentiments. I will also mention some of the etymological roots of words used to refer to patriotic and/or nationalistic concepts, not simply out of linguistic intrigue, but to show that sounds, words and meanings are shared across languages and that they can shift in meaning and use across cultures.

How to say Nation in Armenian and Azerbaijani

The standard word for nation in the Armenian language is ազգ [azg], which was borrowed from Middle Persian āzagh and originally had the meaning of “branch”, cognate with an Ancient Greek word for “branch” ὄσχος [oskhos]. This word has come to be the rough translation of nation, despite the difference in etymological roots, since the word nation derives from the Latin root for “being born” – in this sense, it is closer to the Greek word ὄσχος which also had the sense of “offspring” in addition to “branch”. Keep in mind the difference between the state (պետություն/petutyun) and the nation (ազգ):

«Մենք ունենք շատ հստակ առավելություն. փոքր պետություն ենք, բայց՝ համաշխարհային ազգ։։»

“We have a very clear advantage. We are a small state, but we are a global nation.” [Armen Sarkissian, President of Armenia – 01/01/2020]

The Armenian word ազգ is used in derivative concepts such as “nationalism” – ազգայնականություն (azgaynakanutyun) – which is considered to be the supposedly “neutral” term used in social science, in contrast to the loaded word ազգայնամոլություն (azgaynamolutyun) – մոլություն meaning “mania”, which denotes a negative form of nationalism based on xenophobic tendencies. Perhaps the zenith of nationalist ideology in post-Soviet Armenia can be considered an idea proposed in 2016 by former Defence Minister Vigen Sargsyan to create a “nation-army” - ազգ-բանակ [azg-banak]:

«Ազգ-բանակն անհամեմատ ավելին է, քան ազգային բանակը: Քանի որ ազգային բանակը ծառայում է ազգին, իսկ ազգ-բանակը հենց ինքը՝ ազգն է»:

“The nation-army is much more than the national army. The national army serves the nation, while the nation-army is itself the nation” [Vigen Sargsyan, Former Defence Minister of Armenia – October 2016]

In Azerbaijani, the standard word for nation is millət. Originally an Arabic word (ملة/milla(t)) meaning “a group of people tied by [mostly religious] tradition”, it was adopted by Persian and the Azerbaijani and Turkish languages, while it fell out of use in Arabic, which itself is rich in vocabulary related to group identification. As mentioned above, the word millət had connotations related to group identification based on religious identity, as was evident in the “millet system” employed in the Ottoman Empire. This word has nevertheless shifted semantically and has been secularised in the Azerbaijani context and has come to denote a nation in its modern form. This is evidenced in the modern concept of civic nationalism in Azerbaijani - millətçilik. This word is also often used in the expression bir millət, iki dövlət (one nation, two states) – a highly charged nationalistic proclamation (and very modern) uttered by Turks and Azerbaijanis who claim that they belong to the same nation and are brothers separated into two states.


“Heydər Əliyev Türkiyə-Azərbaycan əlaqələrinin inkişafı üçün böyük xidmətlər göstərmişdir. Daim çalışırdı ki, Türkiyə-Azərbaycan birliyi, qardaşlığı daha da möhkəm olsun. Onun məşhur kəlamı bizim hamımız üçün bir nümunədir. O demişdir: Türkiyə-Azərbaycan bir millət, iki dövlətdir.”

“Heydar Aliyev expended much effort in developing Turkish-Azerbaijani relations. He consistently worked to solidify the unity and brotherhood between Turkey and Azerbaijan. His famous words are exemplary for all of us. He said that Turkey and Azerbaijan is one nation, two states.” [Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan – 27/03/2015]

Nation in English can have both formal and emotional connotations, while the words ազգ and millət are more often deployed in non-emotive contexts and can be used to conceptualise the nation and/or for institutional purposes. For instance, the parliaments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are called National Assembly and use the adjectival forms of the words ազգ and millət - Ազգային ժողով [Azgayin žoghov] and Milli Məclis. This is not to say that ազգ and millət are never used in emotive contexts, because they are. Relatively more “neutral” words that can be used to characterise a group of people are ժողովուրդ [žoɣovurd] in Armenian and xalq in Azerbaijani. The latter is a word borrowed from Arabic, originally meaning “create” (i.e. God’s creation – people), which also exists in certain Armenian dialects as խալխ [khalkh].

«Ադրբեջանի ժողովուրդը խաղաղասեր է նույնքան, որքան ՀՀ-ի կամ Արցախի ժողովուրդը»

“The Azerbaijani people are just as peace-loving as the people of Armenia or the people of Artsakh” [Nikol Pashinyan, PM of Armenia – 12/03/2019]

Although these words are in and of themselves generally devoid of any ethnic undertones, they are still deployed alongside ethnic denominators to underline the role of groupthink in society.

How to Call One a Traitor in Armenian and Azerbaijani

In order to form a collective identity, groups tend to create rigid images of marginal outliers in society that do not comply with their strictly set criteria. In strictly mobilized settings of war, the outsiders become more obvious. Therefore, the vocabulary employed for calling out the outliers or outsiders in society becomes popular. For instance, the ժողովուրդ [žoghovurd] or xalq can accuse individuals of being traitors to the nation – դավաճան [davachan] in Armenian and xain in Azerbaijani.

“Xalqın səsverməsinin nəticələrini saxtalaşdıran, oğru və xain zümrənin hakimiyyəti məngirləməsinə hüquqi əsas verən seçki komissiyalarının on minlərlə üzvündə şərəf və ləyaqət varmı?”

“Do tens of thousands of members of election commissions, who falsify the results of the people's vote and provide a legal basis for the thieves and traitors to overthrow the government, have honor and dignity?” [Meydan TV – 20/08/2020]

The traitor in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies is not a label reserved only for those who actively betray their people for material gain or social status, but it is a label assigned also to those who seek compromise with the enemy and are perceived to be jeopardising so-called national interests:

«Այն ուժերին, որոնք որ սպասարկում են այլ երկրի շահեր, հնարավորինս հեռու պահեն հայաստանյան քաղաքական դաշտից: Նմանատիպ դավաճան քաղաքական գործիչները, իրենց քաղաքական գործիչ համարողները պետք է դուրս մղվեն հայաստանյան քաղաքական դաշտից:»

“Those powers who serve the interests of another country should be kept as far away as possible from the Armenian political scene. Such traitors among politicians, or those who consider themselves politicians, must be shut out from the political scene in Armenia” [Hrachya Hakobyan, member of My Step Alliance – 19/09/2020]

How to Express the Love for Your Country in Armenian and Azerbaijani

The most common word for homeland in Armenian is հայրենիք (hayrenik’), which can roughly be translated as fatherland, since the Armenian uses the word հայր (hayr), meaning father and cognate with other Indo-European words for father. This is similar to the concept of homeland as expressed in Romance languages (e.g. patria or patrie), which refer to the father (pater). Etymologically, the Armenian concept of homeland, as in the Romance languages, expresses a patriarchal vision, wherein it is possible to infer a devotion to the father as (perhaps) the bulwark of the homeland. In addition, the word հայր is phonetically close to the word for an Armenian person – հայ (hay). There is no known etymological link between the two, but the phonetical similarity may induce a mental connection.

Azerbaijani uses the Arabic word وطن [waṭan], pronounced as vətən in Azerbaijani, as in Iranian Persian, to express the idea of homeland. This word is used in several languages spoken in Muslim-majority societies. The Arabic word has two meanings as a verb: 1. to choose and settle in a particular place; 2. to accustom one’s spirit to something. The first meaning carries a physical sense while the second is emotive. In contrast to Armenian, Azerbaijani uses the term ana vətən (motherland).

İlahi, nə övladlar qurban getdi, nə faciələr yaşandı, anaların sinəsinə nə dağlar çəkikdi bu müqəddəs Vətən uğruna!

Oh good God, what children have been sacrificed, what catastrophes we have gone through, what burdens weigh heavily on our mothers for the sake of the Homeland/Nation! [Facebook post during second NK war]

Patriotic love for the nation and homeland use the more emotive concepts of հայրենիք and vətən. The most commonly used word for a patriot in Armenian is հայրենասեր [hayrenaser] – lit. one who loves the fatherland. This goes back to a potentially ‘patriarchal’ sort of love for the homeland.

«Վիշտս ծանր է ու մեծ, բայց հպարտությունս ավելի մեծ է, որ հայրենասեր հայի,

մերօրյա իրական Հերոսի հայրն եմ:»

“I am in great pain and sorrow, but my pride is even greater, since I am the father of a patriotic Armenian hero of today.” [Artak Hovhannisyan, father of Albert Hovhannisyan, whose photo in the second NK war spread across the globe – 08/10/2020]

In Azerbaijani, the most commonly used word is vətənpərvər, which employs the suffix pərvər, from the Persian word for ‘to nurture; to cherish’ پروردن (pərvərdən). Vətənsevər is also a possibility – lit. one who loves the homeland – more similar to the Armenian հայրենասեր.

Vətənpərvərlik böyük bir məfhumdur. Bu, sadəcə orduda xidmət etmək deyil. Vətənə sadiq olmaq, Vətəni sevmək, torpağa bağlı olmaq - budur vətənpərvərlik.”

“Patriotism is a grand concept. It is not only about serving in the army. Patriotism is to be loyal to and love the homeland/nation, to be connected to the land.” [Vahid Maharramov, Azerbaijan MoD – 15/04/2020]

The words հայրենիք and vətən are frequently deployed in both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies to rally patriotic sentiments, especially in the context of war, where people are expected to act and die for the sake of the homeland.

How to Call Those Ready to Die in Armenian and Azerbaijani

In the Armenian context, a specific word is used to describe death in the battlefield – զոհվել [zohvel] – which comes from the word զոհ (zoh), meaning sacrifice (from the Middle Persian word zōhr).

«Հայրենիքի պաշտպանության համար մղվող մարտերում զոհվել է ևս 11 զինծառայող”»

“11 more soldiers have sacrificed themselves for the defence of the homeland.” [Aysor.am - 25/10/2020]

Moreover, the word ֆիդայի (fidayi) has been habitually used since the 19th century to speak of Armenian volunteers who form militia units to defend the homeland in armed battle. The word is ultimately from the Arabic فداء [fadā’], meaning redemption and a ֆիդայի [fidayi] is thus someone who sacrifices themselves. Armenian soldiers are thus most commonly said to have sacrificed themselves for the sake of the հայրենիք [hayrenik']. Less commonly, one comes across the word for martyr or to be martyred – նահատակ(վել) [nahatak(vel)].

«Հայ ազգը, որ նահատակ և կենդանի հերոսների շնորհիվ ճաշակել է հաղթանակի անզուգական համը, այլևս համաձայն չէ որևէ ուրիշ ճակատագրի։»

“The Armenian nation, which has tasted the incomparable taste of victory thanks to the martyred and living heroes, is no longer content with any other path.” [Nikol Pashinyan, PM of Armenia – 03/10/2020]

The concept of martyrdom is however more prevalent in Azerbaijani rhetoric as those dying for the vətən are most commonly described as şəhid, from the Arabic word شهيد (shaheed). Another contemporary phrase used by Turkish and Azerbaijani nationalists is şəhidlər ölməz, vətən bölünməz (martyrs are immortal, the homeland is indivisible).

“Vətən naminə şəhid olanlar dünyada əbədi bir nəğmə kimi qalır”

Those who are martyred in the name of the homeland remain an eternal song in this world” [Azerbaijan MoD – 28/04/2018]

These words in Armenian and Azerbaijani thus describe a person who gives their life for the sake of the homeland, as opposed to an ordinary death. The word fədai also exists in Azerbaijani to mean someone who sacrifices themselves for the homeland, but is not so habitually used as in Armenian.

How to Call Your Enemy in Armenian and Azerbaijani

When it comes to speaking of the enemy, Armenian uses the word թշնամի [t’shnami], a term borrowed from Middle Persian, while Azerbaijani uses the Persian word düşmən. Both words have been rhetorical commonplaces in both Armenian and Azerbaijani milieu to describe one another for decades. In the mainstream media, the use of the word “enemy” is more commonly heard in the Azerbaijani media and even official outlets to refer to Armenians:

“Yeni humanitar atəşkəs rejiminə riayət edən Azərbaycan bütün cəbhə boyu düşmənin törətdiyi təxribatlara təmkinlə yanaşaraq yalnız adekvat tədbirlər görür.”

“Azerbaijan, which is observing the newly agreed humanitarian ceasefire, is discreetly implementing commensurate measure against the enemy’s provocations across the whole front” [Azerbaijan MoD – 27/10/2020]

While in the Armenian media, it is uttered less so, with the word հակառակորդ [hakar’akord], meaning “adversary”, preferred more often, even in times of war:

«Ցավոք, երեկ` ուշ երեկոյան, մարտերի ընթացքում հակառակորդին հաջողվեց գրավել Կուբաթլուն և որոշ ուղղություններով առաջանալ:»

“Unfortunately the adversary managed to invade Qubadli last night and to make progress on several fronts” [Artsrun Hovhannisyan, Press Secretary of Ministry of Defence of Armenia – 26/10/2020]

Although the use of the word "enemy" is certainly not unheard of:

«Վաղվանից 13 հոգանոց կանանց ջոկատը՝ այդ թվում ես ինքս, կսկսենք զինվորական պարապմունքներ։ Մի քանի օրից կմեկնենք մեր հայրենիքի սահմանները պաշտպանելու։ Մենք ո’չ հայրենիք, ո’չ արժանապատվություն չունենք թշնամուն զիջելու։»

“From tomorrow we will start military training for a unit of 13 women, including me. We will go to defend the homeland’s borders in a few days. We will not give up our homeland nor our dignity to the enemy.” [Anna Hakobyan, Wife of Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan – 26/10/2020]

How to express feelings for your nation in Armenian and Azerbaijani

Ultimately, the use of language to describe events and concepts has a direct impact on relations between people and how one perceives those relations. For instance, social concepts in Armenian and Azerbaijani society related to pride and honour are also deployed when it comes to the nation and its “balance of honour” (rather than balance of power) vis-à-vis the “enemy nation”. Words such as թասիբ (t’asib) in Armenian, vaguely meaning pride, and likely related to the Arabic word تعصب [ta’assub], meaning zeal or fanaticism, are used to push people, most often men, to act in defence of their individual and also national pride.

«Կանայք ոչ թե պիտի պայքարից, հաստատակամությունից հետ պահեն իրենց որդիներին, ամուսիններին, եղբայրներին, այլ ընդհակառակը, պիտի թասիբը եռա։»

“Women should not keep their sons, husbands and brothers away from the persistent struggle, on the contrary, they should be bursting with pride.” [Nikol Pashinyan, PM of Armenia – 26/10/2020]

The word namus, used both in Armenian and Azerbaijani to mean a specific kind of “honour”, originally from the Greek word νόμος [nomos], meaning law or custom, is used in both societies as a value that must be defended and is susceptible to compromise by the “enemy”.

"Yetər dəyər axtardıq, bizim belimiz əyilmişdi, namusumuz çirklənmişdi"

“Enough soul-searching, our backs were bent and our honour was sullied” [A Facebook comment in response to somebody looking forward to the ‘liberation’ of Khojaly, not as an act of revenge, but as a struggle of values]

It must be noted that the abovementioned terms and expressions have been noted in reference to romantic forms of patriotism, wherein the nation is imagined in essentialist, exclusive and often fantastical terms. This is in opposition to forms of patriotism that are centred more on inclusivity, social justice and equality. There is a divide between ethnic and civic approaches to caring for a certain group of people, and the language used to express this care or love is indicative of the form of patriotism one abides by. “Neutral” terms that can be used in reference to one’s country is երկիր (yerkir) in Armenian – which can also mean “world” and is connected to the word երկինք (yerkink’), meaning sky - and ölkə in Azerbaijani, a word that entered Turkic languages from Mongolian, with an original meaning of “share, piece, part”. Nevertheless, the words for country, nation and state can be bunched together to emphasise how nationalist ideology can potentially connect all these concepts under one umbrella:

"Ordu ölkəmizin, millətimizin, dövlətimizin, müstəqilliyimizin dayağıdır!"

“The Army is the support base of our country, our nation, our state and our independence!” [Heydar Aliyev, Former President of Azerbaijan – Azerbaijan MoD]

A shift towards a more inclusive language when it comes to discussing homeland, country and belonging to a specific place, will indeed contribute to a more stable peace between peoples. Detractors will argue that the Soviet experiment of дружба народов (fraternity of peoples), which sought to eliminate ethnic differences, ultimately failed. A counterargument to that would be that the Soviet political actually embedded the logic of nation-state by dividing the country into republics based on ethnic identities, and instead bolstering ethnic nationalism rather than eliminating it. A “neutral” but also emotive term that both Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand, and which denotes belonging to the same place regardless of ethnicity, is the Russian term земляк (zemlyak), meaning fellow countryman, from the word земля, meaning earth or land.

Although words themselves have their own embedded histories and pasts, the use of those words, and how they are used, is a choice. Language is not a static phenomenon and the meanings we attach to words are not rigid, they are flexible and can be played with in order to fit, or even change, the context in which we live. The language of patriotism can be changed, first by individuals’ agency, then by the systematisation of a new and fresh discourse. There is a stark lack of inclusive language when it comes to expressing belonging to a shared land in Armenian and Azerbaijani. People have the agency to change these discourses and to imagine new ways of referring to their group identity, especially when it overlaps with one's neighbour's.

© 2020 by CaucasusTalks.

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