Autumn 1999 (7.3)

Azeri Language Series

Birth and Death
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 4

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

You are welcome to reproduce these Sociolinguistic articles for individual or educational study.

Maternity hospital in SumgayitAs this issue of our magazine, "Eyewitness of the Century," provides a general overview of many of the major events that have taken place in the 20th century, here we focus on some of the most fundamental stages in the human life cycle-birth and death.

Photo: Maternity hospital in Sumgayit near Baku.


Children are dearly loved in Azerbaijani society. There are many proverbs that attest both to the necessity and the joy of having children.

A home without a child is [like] a mill without water.
[Without child + house + without water + mill is]

Newborn Azeri baby
This conveys the idea: "This is the camel that is the most strategic for acquiring wealth, and this is the grandchild who is most valuable among children."
[Wealth + camel, children + grandchildren]

Photo: Newborn babies are usually swaddled in Azerbaijan.

A child is the furnishings of a home.
This means that a home without children is bare and missing something essential.
[Child + house + furnishings is]

Maternity House in BakuA newly married couple is expected to have a child during the first year of marriage. Although this tradition is gradually changing among the young people, they still feel pressure from parents and grandparents to have children. Perhaps the strongest deterrent these days is economic, since the medical system is no longer free as it was during Soviet times. Every medical person who assists the mother expects compensation for his or her part. In Baku, the cost of having a baby can range from $1,500 upwards, despite the fact that most government jobs (still the largest employer) pay a meager $20 to $50 per month. It's more difficult for young people to secure well-paying jobs.

Photo above: Maternity House in Baku, 1913. Photo: National Archives.

Another reason for this trend of postponing families is young people's exposure to outside influences via TV. People watch Turkish TV, American soap operas, Russian programming, the latest music videos, not to mention satellite TV. Young people now have the opportunity to study abroad where they soon learn that many young people in the West do not marry as young and do not always take on the responsibility of rearing children during the early years of marriage.

Karabakh War victim's grave At the gravesite in Baku's Shahidlar Khiyabani (Martyr's Alley) where many victims of the Karabakh War are buried. Note the red color which symbolizes martyrdom and the stones that have been left to mark visits that have been paid to the site. Photo: Khanlou.

Asking About One's Children
One of the first questions Azerbaijanis often ask new acquaintances is, "Do you have children?" If someone does not have children, people usually express sympathy and pity.

A: How many children do you have?
B: I have one son.
C: I have one daughter.
A: Why only one? One child's not enough.

D: I don't have any children.
E: Don't worry. You are still young.
E: It doesn't matter. You'll have them, God- willing.

Close relatives are always curious to find out if a newly married couple is expecting a baby. But they don't ask directly, "Are you pregnant?" Rather, they might say something like, "Is there any news?" pointing to the woman's stomach with their eyes, or "Are you expecting a baby yet?"

Azeri traditions - Funeral tent in Baku

Funeral tents are often set up in the middle of the street next to the apartment or home of the deceased. Auto traffic has to be rerouted. Men share their grief with family members inside the tent while women go inside the home or apartment itself. September 1999.


At the Hospital
New mothers usually recover in the hospital for five to seven days. Traditionally, maternity hospitals do not allow anyone to attend the birthing process, though this is likely to change. Childbirth is generally considered to be a "woman's affair", so men are not allowed to witness it. There's no such thing as video cameras rolling in the delivery room, as there often are in Western hospitals. The most that anxious loved ones can do is position themselves outside the maternity ward and follow the process from the woman's screams of pain.

When the baby is born, the person who first informs the mother's relatives usually says:

Give me a reward. There is a boy (girl).
[Reward + give. Boy (girl) + there is.]

This is a phrase that refers to a gift or money. ( means something given in return for good news.) This expression can also be used when a person's son comes back from military duty or when there is news from a family member who is abroad.

Close relatives and friends come to visit the mother after the baby is born, but hospital policy prohibits visitors from entering her room. Instead, the mother goes to the window and carries on a conversation with her visitors standing outside, even if she is on the second floor. If she has the opportunity, she'll hold the baby up to the window for friends and family to see.
Visitors often bring flowers to the mother. These days, mixed bouquets are popular, but always with an odd number of flowers. An even-numbered bouquet is reserved for funerals. Never congratulate a new mother with a dozen roses.

The day after the mother gives birth, her mother usually prepares a dish that is considered to be very energizing. Called "guymag", it's a thick porridge made of flour and butter with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top. It is served hot and taken to the mother at the hospital.

Baby Comes Home
After returning home, mother and child remain in relative confinement for the first 40 days, at least in terms of being visited by relatives and friends. It is thought that the baby should not be exposed to any illness or bad omen-otherwise he might fall ill. When people finally do visit after the 40th day, they usually bring money or baby clothes. The preferred currency is dollars and it may be slipped under the red ribbon that is tied around the baby, who is swaddled in a blanket. It's not traditional for guests to hold the baby.

[Congratulations + I am making]

May your eyes be clear.
[Eye + clear + be]

This last expression is used when someone has made an immense effort and finally reached his or her desired goal. In the case of a new baby, it would be directed to the parents or grandparents. It can also be used for other occasions such as marriage, being accepted to the university [after difficult entrance exams], getting a new job or making a major purchase such as a house.

[Hand + palm + let it remain]
May it remain in your hand and palm.

This is a wish that the child will survive and not die. The expression wlindwn [\xmaq means "to go out of one's hand"-in other words, "to lose something".

May he / she grow up to be a big boy (girl).
[Big + boy (girl) + be]

May the day come that you see his / her wedding.
[That + day + be, wedding + see]

In Azeri, the verb "to give birth" is . However, as this word is the same verb used for the physical process of animals giving birth, people are more likely to use the expression, meaning "to have a baby". Another expression that is mostly used among old people is "to become free", which is in Azeri.

These days, the grandparents still have the strongest influence in naming the baby. Often the grandchild becomes the namesake of the grandparents, especially on the father's side.

In Baku, families usually don't have more than one or two children. In the countryside, however, families are larger. In the past, there was always a great emphasis on having a male descendant. That's why there used to be girls' names such as Tamam (meaning "Sufficient!") and (from meaning "Enough!"-No more girls!). Today, if such names are used, it's usually in memory of a dearly loved person in the family who had that name.

This might be where the expression "Have you come with a boy or a girl?" originated, which means "Have you come with good news or bad news?" A boy signifying good news; a girl, bad news.

What did you name (him / her)?

What will you name (him / her)?

May (he / she) live up to (his / her) name.

Grandparents, especially grandmothers, are perceived as loving and, naturally, spoiling, their grandchildren even more than they did their own children. It's not unusual for grandmothers to give up their jobs to take care of a newborn grandchild so that the family won't have to arrange for outside child care. Family members often use a diminutive nickname for the child to show affection. For example, Nigar becomes Niqush, Aynur becomes Ayka, Sevda becomes Seva, etc.


Death is in between the eye and the eyebrow.
[Death + eyebrow + eye + in between is]

This proverb expresses the fragility of life, indicating that you never know when you are going to die, that death can come without warning.

Azerbaijanis have a tendency to try to break the news of someone's sudden death as gently as possible. For example, if someone's husband has been killed in a car accident, the wife is likely to be told that her spouse is seriously injured and is in the hospital. They don't follow the pattern so common in the West of abruptly announcing a close relative's death. They try to cushion the blow as much as they can.

When a person dies, the body is carried to the mosque, where it is washed and wrapped in a white sheet. Then it is returned home, where it lies covered in the coffin. Friends and families come to pay their respects. Usually, men gather in one room and women in another. A male religious representative-a Molla-will read verses from the Koran among the men; likewise a female Molla will lead the women's service. If many guests are expected, a temporary tent will be set up next to the residence where the men will gather. In such case, the women will enter and pay condolences inside the home.

It would be considered rude just to drop by to express condolences and leave a few minutes later. You should stay at least two or three hours.

The funeral seldom takes place on the same day the person died. Usually, it follows on the second day at around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon. On occasion, funerals are organized for the third day.

Certain days following a person's death are considered sacred-specifically the 3rd, 7th, 40th and sometimes the 52nd day. The 40th day is considered the most sacred of all. Some people believe that the disintegration of the bones begins to take place at that time.

Usually, special gatherings take place in the home of the deceased on these days as well as on every Thursday (the day before the Islamic Holy day, Friday) up until the 40th day.

Traditionally, something sweet is offered guests to take away some of the pain and shock of the news of death. Tea is served along with halva, a sweet made out of butter, flour and sugar cooked on top of the stove (in a more solidified form than the "guymag" offered to women after they give birth). In the Republic, halva is served with bread, especially lavash, a paper-thin bread, or tandir bread () that is baked on the side of a mud-clay oven.

You are expected to taste something or at least to drink a glass of tea; otherwise, the family believes the spirit of the deceased will be offended.

After you finish eating or drinking the tea, you should say:

"May God accept it," meaning, may God accept what has been done to respect the memory of the deceased.
[God + accept]

On the morning of the funeral, the casket is placed next to the entrance of the house or apartment complex. An inner wooden box holding the body will be put inside it later on. A cloth is spread over the casket. For older people, this covering is traditionally black, but for younger people, it is generally a brighter color-pink, green, blue or even red if the person has died as a martyr.

Only men attend the burial in the cemetery. Women stay home and usually gather there the following day. It is considered too much of an emotional overload for women to watch as the body is lowered into the grave and covered with dirt. Flowers, usually red carnations in pairs-2, 4, 6, etc.-are placed on the grave.

People generally do not use the verb "die" when referring to a person's death. Rather, the euphemism, "pass away" is expressed as Rwhmwtw getmwk or the more literary term vwfat etmwk is used. Another expression used in more formal occasions is "change one's world" .

Traditional expressions of condolence include:

May God have mercy upon him.
[God + paradise + do]

Let his grave fill up with light.
[Grave + light fill + up]

May this be your final grief.
[Last + grief + be]

May his (her) place be in paradise.
[Place + paradise + be]

Back to Sociolinguistically Speaking

Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
These Sociolinguistic articles may be reproduced and used for individual or educational study.

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