Winter 1998 (6.4)
Saying "Hello" in Azerbaijani
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 1
by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair
You are welcome to reproduce these Sociolinguistic articles for individual or educational study.
Photo by young student, Helen Smaligina, runner-up in the World Press Competition in 1998 in Baku.
Learning a new language requires knowledge far beyond vocabulary and grammar. It also means knowing the appropriate context for each word or phrase. That's where sociolinguistics comes in. With this issue, Azerbaijan International launches a new column entitled, "Sociolinguistically Speaking!" to assist those who are in the process of learning Azeri. This inaugural column covers the finer points of saying "hello" in Azeri.
The population of the Republic of Azerbaijan (Northern Azerbaijan) is estimated at 7.5 million. In addition, there are approximately 25-30 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran (Southern Azerbaijan). In 1920, when the Soviets came into power, Northern and Southern Azerbaijan became isolated from each other. Obviously, this brought about changes in language usage, especially in vocabulary. Azeri in the North was influenced by Russian and in the South, by Persian. In Iran, Azerbaijanis are usually referred to as "Turk" and the Azerbaijani language is usually called "Turki" (rhymes with "poor me").
In general, this column will focus on language usage in the Republic of Azerbaijan. On occasion, some of the major differences in Southern Azerbaijan will be described. Our magazine is proud to be the first publication to prepare Azeri language learning materials in English from a sociolinguistic point of view-emphasizing social context, not simply vocabulary and grammar.
The pronunciation guides are only approximate as the English alphabet does not adequately accommodate or distinguish all the sounds in Azeri, particularly vowels. We recommend that you practice your Azeri with a native speaker so that you can refine your pronunciation.
The Azeri written here is in the new official alphabet of the Republic of Azerbaijan which was one of the first pieces of legislature passed through Parliament (December 25, 1991) upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union (August 1991). Cyrillic used to be the official alphabet. Azeri is emphasized in red type; expressions specific to Azerbaijanis living in Iran are shown in green.
In the future, this column will deal with topics such as saying goodbye, apologizing, giving compliments or congratulations, accepting gifts, disagreeing and more. We welcome your comments, suggestions and observations.
The Silent Language
You'll find that Azerbaijanis are more demonstrative in the use of their hands and the display of affection than Europeans and Americans generally are. Azerbaijanis feel very much at ease with touch, especially between persons of the same gender. They kiss. They embrace. They easily and quite naturally place their hands on another person. It's not unusual to see Azerbaijanis walking down the street hand in hand, arm in arm.
Azerbaijanis tend to shower their "hellos" much more generously then do Westerners. In fact, with few exceptions, it's considered rude to enter a room without greeting the people. Azerbaijanis have a traditional expression, "Where's your hello?" that they use to remind their children if they happen to forget to greet their elders.
An Azerbaijani university student studying in the United States once observed that he was glad that he had arrived early for his first class; otherwise, he would have gone around the room, greeting and trying to shake the hands of each of the students who had arrived earlier. He was amazed to discover students coming in and sitting down without speaking to one other.
At parties, guests usually greet each other upon arrival, one-by-one. This is especially true if no more than 15 or 20 people are present regardless of whether or not the guests know each other. Often those who have arrived earlier will rise when newcomers enter the room. This both facilitates and focuses the greetings. Upon leaving, everyone is expected to reverse the process and say goodbye, once again on a personal basis.
It's not unusual for Azerbaijanis to greet people who do services for them, such as taxi cab drivers, waiters or store clerks. On mass transportation, it would be considered rude to sit beside a stranger for the duration of a long trip without greeting them and striking up a conversation.
Various factors influence greetings. Variations can occur because of age, education, region, profession or social status. Perhaps, the greatest differences occur because of gender.
Azerbaijanis use a lot of eye contact when they greet and converse with each other. Also you'll find them standing closer together by several inches when compared to Westerners and uncomfortably close compared to Japanese norms.
Men with Men
Azerbaijani men are always shaking hands. You'll see them shaking hands "hello" on the street and two minutes later if they happen to be in a big hurry and must leave, they'll shake hands "goodbye" in closure.
Shaking hands is not reserved only for those you know. For example, if two men are together and happen to meet a third man that one of them knows, everyone will shake hands, sometimes even before introductions are made. In fact, it would be considered anti-social to stand aloof while the two acquaintances greet and engage in conversation.
Among very close friends or relatives, men embrace and kiss each other, especially if they haven't seen each other for a long time. These days, Azerbaijani men in the Republic tend to kiss each other once on the left cheek. Azerbaijani men in Iran, however, tend to kiss each other three times, their right cheeks touching first.
Women with Women
Women rarely shake hands with one another. Of course, in the Republic if either a man or a woman offers their hand, a woman will shake it. But traditionally women reserve handshaking for official ceremonies. If you do shake the hand of an Azerbaijani woman, don't be surprised if it feels rather limp despite the fact that she has a lively and dynamic personality.
Azerbaijani women are taught to express deference and modesty to others when they shake hands. Of course, these days, Azerbaijani women working in foreign offices quickly adapt to Western practices and offer a firm grip. At the same time, they reserve the more reticent expression for people from their own culture.
Women who see each other on a regular basis simply greet each other verbally-for example, at work or passing on the street. Good friends and relatives kiss each other if they haven't seen each other for a long time. Generally, they exchange one kiss on the left cheek.
However, these days it's becoming more fashionable, especially among young urban women, to merely brush left cheeks without actually kissing. In rural areas, women may offer several kisses at a time on one cheek to show their genuine affection and pleasure. In Iran, Azerbaijani women generally kiss each other once on the right cheek. While kissing, Azerbaijanis stand close together, wrapping each other in a warm embrace.
Men and Women
In general, men and women in the Republic don't shake hands with each other very often. But in the urban context, it does occur, although men usually wait for women to initiate the gesture. Men don't want to appear too pushy or too eager. You'll especially observe this when men and women are first introduced to each other. Men are supposed to shake hands very lightly and gently with women, not aggressively. In rural areas, men are first to extend their hands to women they've known for a long time.
Do men and women kiss each other? If they know each other, yes. In Iran, men and women are not supposed to touch each other in public. They do not even shake hands. But in their homes and at private gatherings, they do kiss and embrace close friends and relatives.
Children and Youth
It's typical for girls to kiss each other. Boys are quick to shake hands and may kiss and embrace. Young children usually hold each others' hands before starting to play.
Adults with Young Children
When adults greet young kids under school age who are family friends or relatives, they stoop down and kiss them gently. At quite an early age, children learn to reciprocate kisses. Their parents will urge them, "You kiss, too."
After kissing children, adults have the tendency to continue heaping praise and attention on them while stroking their hair.
Younger people are expected to initiate greetings to an older person, thereby showing respect. But usually older people initiate the handshakes.
There are two basic forms of "you" in Azeri-plural (polite) and singular (informal). The plural form siz is used to address a superior or someone you don't know very well. It is considered the more polite form of greeting. The plural verbal ending is -siniz (with slight variations to reflect vowel harmony). You'll be on the safe side if you use the plural form when addressing others until a closer relationship is established.
The word (singular form) is used with close friends, family members and subordinates. The corresponding singular ending is attached to the end of verbs (again, with slight variations depending upon the vowel immediately preceding this ending).
The Initial Meeting
During first encounters, people greet each other by saying, Salam [sah-LAHM] an Arabic word that means peace, safety or well-being. If you know a person well, you might use this variation:
[Note that literal translations are set off in brackets].
Peace be upon you.
Reply with the reverse form of the greeting:
And upon you, be peace.
Glad to meet you.
[being acquainted + very much + I am happy.]
A shorter reply would simply be:
Implying, I'm very glad to meet you.
[Very much + I'm happy.]
Keep in mind that verbs in the Azeri language usually come at the end of the sentence. The accent tends to be on the last syllable, but there are exceptions.
When meeting someone for the first time, the greeting, Salam, is not usually followed by the phrase "How are you?" If the conversation does develop further, it is likely to focus on work. If you're a foreigner, Azerbaijanis are likely to make you feel welcome and inquire where you are from and what has brought you to Azerbaijan. If you're a woman and the occasion is informal, don't be surprised if they kindly inquire about your work, your marriage status and whether you have children.
Here we show the plural, more polite form of greetings. For the informal, singular version, eliminate the syllable "-in-". For example, becomes becomes ; becomes etc.
[Morning your (plural) + good]
Azerbaijanis in Iran usually say
[Morning your (pl.) + good]
[Evening your (pl.) + good]
How are you?
[You + how are you (pl.)]
How are you?
[You + how are you (singular)]
How's it going?
[What is there-what is not?]
[Good + I am]
Thank you very much.
[Very much, thank you (pl.)]
Note: is the singular form and is the plural, more respectful form.
However, Azerbaijanis in Iran express thanks as:
[Thanks + I am doing/making]
How's it going (referring to one's work)?
[Work your (pl.) + how is it?]
*Note: the spoken form of dir is pronounced without the final "r" as "di." Example: How is it? is pronounced "neh-JA-di."
In Iran, Azerbaijanis frequently use two other greetings.
How is your well-being?
[Well-being your (pl.) + how is it?]
How is your health?
[Health your (pl.) + how is it?]
However in the Republic, the phrase is reserved for occasions when someone is ill and not used in the generic sense of "How are you?" Nevertheless, all Azerbaijanis consider it very appropriate to ask about the health and welfare of the other person's family members if you know them.
How's your mother?
[mother your (pl.) + how is she?]
How's your father?
[father your (pl.) + how is he?]
How's your brother?
[brother your (pl.) + how is he?]
How's your sister?
[sister your (pl.) + how is she?]
How are the kids?
[Kids + how are they?]
Note: In the spoken form, you could use the singular form of the verb,
How's your son?
[Son your (pl.) + how is he?]
How's your daughter?
[daughter your (pl.) + how is she?]
She's fine or he's fine.
[so-so + it is]
[bad + negative]
Note: In Iran, the negative is expressed deyir; while in the Republic, it is deyil.
He / She is not so well.
[That one + so much + empahsis + good + she / he is not]
Or you can substitute the name directly.
[Farid + How is he?]
In the Republic, Azerbaijanis typically use first names followed by a title. For women, the title (KHAH-nim) is used. It means "woman" and does not indicate if the woman is married or single, much like the Western term, "Ms." The term is first used when a girl reaches her late teens or early 20s. Example:
The most frequently used titles for men in the Republic are (Mr.) and (teacher) (moh-al-LIM) for a person related to academics or intellectual life.
Example:, [Hasan Mr.], [Ali Teacher]
In Iran, the most frequent titles are (Ms.) and (Mr.) (ah-GHA). However, there is a greater tendency in Iran to use last names rather than first names, and titles usually precede the name, a pattern influenced by Persian.
Ex: [Mr. Khanlou], [Mrs. Tabrizi].
It's especially important to ask about the health of a family member who is, or who has been, ill. If you don't know anybody in the family, you can use a general phrase such as "How's it going at home?" If you don't ask personal questions, Azerbaijanis will think you don't care about their personal life.
(How's it going at home?)
[At home + what + is there-what + is not?]
How are those at home?
[Those at home + how are they?]
When people call each other on the telephone, naturally, the conversation starts with a greeting. Phrases are generally the same as when meeting someone face to face. When another person in the household answers the phone, it is not considered polite to immediately ask for the person you wish to speak with. Instead, it is expected that you will develop a short conversation with whoever picks up the phone regarding his health, well-being and / or work. Also you could ask about important events in the family, such as weddings, the birth of a child, acceptance into a university or a trip. When you finally get around to asking for the person to whom you really wish to speak, perhaps as much as five minutes may have elapsed. Note the obliqueness or indirectness of the request. You can ask for that person in the following way:
Is (name) at home?
[Name + at home + she / he is?]
What is (name) doing?
[Name + what + she / he is doing?]
How is (name)?
After dispensing with the formalities of greeting, don't be surprised if Azerbaijanis start back again on the same question, "How are you?"-this time, with the intention of developing the topic to find out how life is really going for their friends.
Jala Garibova teaches Linguistics at Western University, an English language institution in Baku. She was an IREX Scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1995. Since 1993, she has been involved with Azerbaijan International magazine. Azeri is her first language. She also knows Russian and English and has studied Persian, German and French.
Betty Blair, Founding Editor of Azerbaijan International, studied Latin and French and immersed herself in Greek and Persian while living in Greece six years and Iran, one year. As editor, she has been traveling back and forth to Azerbaijan since 1993.