Celebrate St. Sargis/Valentine's Day with the most romantic word in the world
February 10, 2020
համբոյր (hambuyr), the Armenian word for a romantic kiss, may just be the world’s most romantic word...
The season of love has officially begun! From poems and chocolates to songs and flowers, love birds flex their devotion, in hopes of impressing their "amour." With words like "amour" and "amore," French and Italian have long been regarded as the bastions of romance. But what if I told you an Armenian word that can rival those of her Romance counterparts in expressivity and passion? Curious to know what it is? Read on to find out!
February is the month of romance. From last Saturday’s feast of St. Sargis (the Armenian patron saint of love) to St. Valentine’s Day this Friday, love is “in the air.” But what is love, to quote the timeless Haddaway? For Pop artist Robert Indiana, it was a steel sculpture; musicians Bob Dylan and Joan Baez called it “just a four-letter word.” Shakespeare—the king of tragic romances—thought the most prized feature of love lies in her steadfast nature, “bear[ing] it out, even to the edge of doom.” Moving (far) east, for Armenian poet Vahan Terian, love was the melding of two spirits into one: «Ես էլ դու եմ՝ ես չըկամ» | "Yes el du em, yes chkam" (“I am you, for I no longer exist”).
Throughout the ages, countless artists, musicians, poets, and philosophers have pondered over this question, yet perhaps no one had more opinions on the subject than the Ancient Greeks, who employed dozens of words for what the English language tries to convey in just one.
And we, anglophones, are not alone. Often regarded among the world’s “most romantic” languages, the Romance languages each contain just one word for “love.” The term “Romance” signifies that these languages originated from Vulgar Latin; the “romantic” connotation is a convenient coincidence, and an ironic one because in theater and poetry—traditionally “romantic” realms—the Ancient Greeks reigned supreme, not the Romans. Personally, I never understood the fascination with the languages in this subgroup. Sure, they are pleasant on the ear, ever-ubiquitous, and relatively easy to learn for a native English speaker, but are they actually… romantic?
(Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a scientific or linguistic analysis on language, but rather, one person’s viewpoint on a highly subjective and speculative matter.)
That’s (not) amore
In a 2010 poll of over 300 linguists, surveyors found that the “most romantic” word in the world is “amour,” French for “love,” followed by the Italian equivalent, “amore”—both Romance languages. But lest we feel bad for the runner-up, in the same study, Italian was voted as the most romantic language on the globe.
It seems like speakers of these languages, then, would know a thing or two about love. But they, too, struggle to define this ever-elusive concept. Is it because we all have only one word to describe such a vast, malleable concept while others, like the Greeks, have multiple? Perhaps the Bard’s Julius Caesar was on the mark with the line, “It’s all Greek to me.”
Speaking of tragedies, pollees also voted for the “least romantic-sounding” “I love you”s. Among them was the Welsh “Rwy'n dy garu di.” I have long been drawn to languages that participants of these studies would find displeasing, such as the strong trills of Icelandic, the soothing lilts of Irish, the timelessness of Greek, and even the understated poetry of Armenian.
Many fellow Armenians balk at my assertion that our ancestral tongue is just as—if not, more—“romantic” than the “Romance” languages so often admired in these studies. But just as I am not alone in finding the Welsh language incredibly melodic, I am sure that there are others who would agree with my assertion on հայերէն (hayeren | Armenian), as well.
Cheesy love for a tender hearth
After cultural immersion and speaking with natives, one of the quickest (and easiest) ways to learn a language is by watching television. My mom recalls how, as a young mother in a new land, daytime soap operas helped her learn English. In high school, I would often hurry home from class to catch my favorite Mexican telenovelas. While I told others that I was only doing it to improve my Spanish, I secretly “loved” this guilty pleasure—the “it’s so bad, it’s good” phenomenon. But once mom and I learned our respective languages, neither of us ever returned to this soapy genre.
That is, until last summer. In Armenia, Indian soap operas are all the rage, and my aunt is a fan. One day, I caught the tail end of an intimate, and kind of cringeworthy, scene between two ill-fated lovers. When the dubbed voice cried out, «Ես սիրում եմ քեզ» (yes sirum em qez |“ I love you”), I dissolved in laughter. “Yes sirum em qez” is one of the cheesiest ways one can profess affection to their beloved in Armenian. Fittingly, it is ubiquitous in the telenovela scene, like the one I happened upon that afternoon. Like English and the Romance languages, there is only one word for “love” in Armenian: սէր (ser). According to my own barometer, it would seem like Armenian is just as loveless or love-confused as English, with its single, paltry word.
However, in most contexts, one does not say the word in Armenian, but rather, shows it—with expressions like, «ցաւդ տանեմ» (“tsavet tanem” | “I’ll take your pain away”) or «հոգո՛ւդ մատաղ» ("hogut matagh” | “I’ll sacrifice myself to save your soul”) to «արեւիդ մեռնեմ» (“arevid mernem" | “I’ll die for your sun”). In Ancient Armenia, our pagan ancestors believed that every soul had a light (a “sun”) gifted by the gods. It is this same light that shone down on our forebears when they designed the first tonir oven, to create warmth and hearth in the centerpiece of our homes, and with which we make our delicious lavash breads and tender khorovats (grilled meats). Like a skewer of lamb, the promise of sacrificial love lives in «մատաղդ լինեմ» (“mataght linem” | “I will sacrifice myself for you”).
In English, love proclamations are often made through the use of sudden, violent imagery, which oftentimes, live on the surface. In the pop song, “Grenade” by Bruno Mars, for example, the singer vows to undergo all kinds of quick, physical pain for his unrequited beloved—like a gladiator in the ring (fittingly, Ancient Rome’s greatest contribution to the theater: the spectator sport).
In Armenian, however, often the allegory is subtler, and the pain and sacrifice (sometimes literal) are more drawn out. Hardly anyone says, “I would starve to death for you,” in English, but in the Armenian folk song, “Hamayak Jan,” that is exactly what the singer—a woman—professes to do for her beloved. Her resolve to die of starvation—a slower and extremely painful way to go—rather than live without her Hamayak, becomes about as total of a declaration of “love” as possible. While the first example resembles a Hollywood action film (indeed, the music video looks like one), the latter reads like a Greek tale, epic and soulful.
The es-scent-ce of romance
Which brings us to my absolute favorite word in the Armenian language, and my suggestion for the world’s most romantic word: համբոյր (hambuyr), the Armenian word for a romantic kiss.
Broken down to its roots, the word would seem to translate to “the taste of your scent.”
Or so I thought...
With my tenuous grasp of the Armenian language, I had neglected to consider the other, far more plausible definition of «համ» ("ham") in this context, which is "oneness" or "whole"— the same meaning conveyed in the name of our organization, Hamazkayin (Ham-azk-ayin | “of one nation/people"). Therefore, the accurate translation of համբոյր, this word I adore, would be “an absolute scent.”
Though my Armenian is still rudimentary, like a rudder (no linguistic relation) steering a ship, each new word adds a block to the fortress that is our Mother Tongue. In both contexts—the likely definition and the one that lived in my head—the sense of scents is potent. While in English, a kiss is just a word; in Armenian, hambuyr is poetry. Even the bacio, beso, and bisou of the Romance languages seem boorish, inadequate, and dare I say, unromantic—by comparison.
But maybe, in this realm, it is best not to compare. In the French-language tune, “L'amour n'a jamais tort,” Italian-Belgian crooner Salvatore Amato makes the case that “love is never wrong.” Indeed, what ancient philosophers spent lifetimes dissecting, the poets tacitly illuminated—that whether one uses a single word or a hundred, wherever it comes from and whatever it ‘means,’ each way to express love and romance is uniquely beautiful and validated. What’s the most romantic word in the world? You’ll just have to discover that for yourself.
This Valentine’s Day, if you wish to snag a hambuyr from your ser, take some creative pointers from our ancestors. Here are some romantic Armenian words and expressions to add to your repertoire! All of them are versatile expressions of “love,” laced with layers of history, culture, and emotion...
- «արեւիդ մեռնեմ» | “arevid mernem” - “I’ll die for your sun (inner light).”
- «հոգո՛ւդ մատաղ» | “hogut matagh” - “I’ll sacrifice myself to save your soul.”
- «մատաղդ լինեմ» | “mataght linem” - “I’ll be your sacrifice.”
- «ցաւդ տանեմ» | “tsavet tanem” - “I’ll take your pain away.” Though its usage has expanded to also include exasperation, particularly from adult men (the equivalent of “come on, man!”).
- համբոյր | hambuyr (noun); համբուրել | hamburel (verb) - a kiss
- սէր | love
Which of these romantic words/expressions are you planning on using this Valentine’s Day? Let us know in the comments!
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