Spring 2001 (9.1)

Innovations in Spoken Azeri
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 9

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Photos of Refugee Children by Vugar Abdusalimov, UNHCR

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also came the end of the "information blockade" - as Azerbaijanis often refer to it. The transition period that followed has brought many new things, including basic changes in infrastructure, the explosion of the Internet, exposure to international media and the ability to travel to study and tour distant countries. Since Azerbaijanis are being exposed to so many influences, the Azeri language itself is changing.

In this installment of "Sociolinguistically Speaking", we attempt to "capture a moment in time" to describe some of the most significant changes that we've observed taking place in spoken Azeri today. Here we comment on some of the innovations in language usage that we've observed in Baku. Since language is such a dynamic phenomenon, six months from now, doubtless there will be even more changes.

Perhaps the most noticeable trends in spoken Azeri these days can be observed in business offices, especially those where there is considerable contact with foreigners. Even the etiquette of something as simple as answering the phone is changing and becoming more business-like and efficient.

In the past, the person picking up the phone would have likely answered with a "da" ("yes" in Russian) or ("hello" in Azeri). Today, there is a greater tendency to answer (more polite form of "yes" in Azeri) and then to add the company's name. More and more foreign companies are adopting the policy of using Azeri when answering the phone rather than their own native language (English, French, German, etc.). This is a relatively new practice and unlike what was happening when foreign companies first became established in Azerbaijan in the early and mid-1990s.
The person who answers the call is also likely to say, , which roughly translates as "Good all the time." This phrase substitutes for expressions like (Good morning) or (Good evening), and is now being used as a generic greeting for incoming callers, eliminating the need to identify the time of day.

Unlike offices in the West, one shouldn't expect the person who answers to say "How may I help you?", especially right away. This could come off sounding rushed or pushy to an Azerbaijani, especially to a caller who is not involved with the international business community. Instead, after greetings are exchanged, the person will often say ", which doubles for "Please" and "Go ahead" (in a polite way). The phrase "How may I help you?" may be used eventually, but it's not typically used as part of the initial greeting.

Caspian Bank, please / hello. Good all the time.

(Literally, Hello, we disturb you from AzFilm firm.)

Yes, please, how can I help you?

If the caller asks to speak to a specific person, he or she might be surprised to have to identify themselves, as is the usual practice in many Western offices. This pattern is a newer development in Azerbaijani offices and is not popular with some callers, especially if they are from the older generation or hold a higher position than the person they are trying to reach.

One Azerbaijani woman who works at an international consultant firm discovered that some people who call her are surprised and a bit offended when the receptionist asks for their names. Recently, one caller joked with her: "Are you the head of the office nowadays? Is that why they wanted to know who I was?"

Caspian Bank, please/hello. Good all the time.

Hello, May I speak to Farid?

Excuse me, who is asking?

New Words
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Azeri and Russian have absorbed many neologisms-that is, new words or expressions. Some foreign words, such as " and (disco), were already being used during Soviet times. Similarly, the word "super" was already used in both Russian and Azeri, usually as a prefix in words like "supermarket" and "superman". "Super" is pronounced SU-pehr.

Newer additions to the language include "gym" and "club". However, when Azerbaijanis speak of Baku's "Hyatt Club", the vowel in "club" is pronounced like the vowel in "clue".

Newer, upscale hotels like the Hyatt or ISR Plaza are referred to as , whereas Soviet-era hotels like the Absheron and Azerbaijan Hotels are still referred to by the Azeri word - (literally, guest house).

Especially in the political and business spheres, both Azeri and Russian have incorporated new words such as "visit", "ex-President", "speaker" and "Parliament". Sometimes these new words don't represent new concepts, but rather reflect a new environment, such as a new type of office. Examples of this include "manager", "file" and "folder".

In the business world, the English word "training" is replacing the Azeri equivalent " or (course), especially when the training is in a brand new sphere - such as banking or finance - or is being provided by an international organization.

In Azeri, there is now a distinction between "expert" and "specialist". An Azerbaijani who has knowledge and experience in banking, business, finance or another new sphere is called a "specialist", whereas a similar person from overseas is more likely to be known as an "expert".

The phrase "busy season" is widely used in foreign companies and is now appearing in both Azeri and Russian conversations:

A busy season should start in a week.

During Soviet times, a person who was applying for a job would submit a document called a (autobiography). Today, this document is still used for job openings in local State enterprises; however, for foreign companies and some local private enterprises, candidates submit a different type of document called a "CV" (curriculum vitae). The word "CV" has been borrowed and is now used extensively in both Azeri and Russian, much more so than the word "resume":

Send your CV by the 15th of the month.

Sometimes the word "meeting" ( in Azeri, "sobraniye" in Russian) causes confusion. Employees of foreign companies often use this word to mean "discussion" or "session". But many other Azerbaijanis are not aware of this meaning; they still think of "meeting" in the sense of a "crowd gathering", as in a demonstration or protest. This latter meaning was often invoked during the first few years of the Popular Front movement a decade ago. As a result, some Azerbaijanis might misunderstand sentences such as:

I'm going to a meeting now.

We have a meeting at 2 o'clock.

More English
English words are popping up more and more in short phrases or replies, such as "OK", "great", "bye" and "cool".

I'll be waiting for you at 10 o'clock in front of our house.

"Wow" is beginning to be used by Azerbaijanis as an exclamation of surprise or amazement:

I finished the translation of the book in a month.
H: Wow!

"Ouch" is sometimes overheard around children, especially those who are learning English or who have been exposed to cartoons and children's movies in English.

"Oops" sometimes replaces (Azeri) or "oy" (Russian) in the speech of both Azeri-speaking and Russian-speaking young people:

Oops, I did it wrong.

"The Language"
Since independence, the phrase "the language" (as opposed to "a language") has come to refer to the prestige of knowing English.

I want my children to learn the language well.

To work at this job, you should know the language.

In the past, Russian was "the language". Today, however, Azerbaijani parents are anxious to have their children learn English. Many families seek private English teachers, even though lessons may cost between $5 and $20 each. If a family can't afford this amount, the parents try to find less-expensive language courses, hoping that English will jump - start their children's future educational and job opportunities. Even older Azerbaijanis are eager to learn "the language", perhaps to find a better job or to emigrate.

Focus on Azeri
The Azeri language itself is becoming more prominent in Azerbaijan as well, a change that is even noticeable among very young children. It used to be that a baby's first words were in Russian: "mama" (mother) and "papa" (father). Now they tend to be in Azeri: (mother) and (father). The words for "grandma" and "grandpa" have always been in Azeri.

As is true of children all over the world, Azerbaijani children, even those barely able to speak, somehow intuit which language to speak to which person. They have a knack for knowing how to code-switch. For instance, they know if their grandmother prefers to speak Azeri rather than Russian, and will proceed to talk with her in Azeri though others in the family might prefer Russian.

Azerbaijanis, including those who are basically Russian speakers, are now more likely to begin and end their conversations in Azeri, even when leaving a message on an answering machine, technology that has only recently been introduced to Azerbaijan. Since some people still have difficulty carrying out the entire conversation in Azeri (as they have been educated in Russian), they often use Azeri to say "Hello, how are you?" and then switch to Russian to carry on the main conversation and then switch back to Azeri to say "Goodbye"

This tendency even occurs among the members of the popular Azerbaijani rap group Dayirman (see article about
Dayirman in this issue). They sing and "rap" in Azeri at lightning speed, but they communicate with one another in Russian because that's the language in which they were educated.

We've observed that Turkish people who are living in Azerbaijan are making a greater effort to speak Azeri. Immediately after independence in 1991, when Turks first starting arriving in Baku, the opposite situation occurred. Azerbaijanis would try to modify their Azeri to accommodate the Turkish language. Today, the tendency is reversed. Many people from Turkey try to adapt their intonation, accent, word choice and even grammar in accordance with Azeri.

Some Turkish people have even begun to use Russian words that Azerbaijanis commonly use. For instance, many hairdressers in Baku are from Turkey. When they address their clients, they use Russian words for terms like haircut (strizhka), hairdo (ukladka) and bangs (cholka).

Another unofficial "trend" is the tendency of purifying the Azeri language, which means replacing Persian, Arabic and sometimes even European words with words of Turkic origin. Such words are being introduced into the Azeri language mainly through the media; some have taken considerable time to gain acceptance.

For instance, the word (before) has replaced , which comes through Persian. (last name) has replaced , which comes through Russian. Other examples include (cooperation), which has replaced , and (number), which has replaced .

Less Formality
There has also been an effort to get rid of some of the language patterns from the Soviet period. For instance, before independence, everything belonging to Russia or the Soviet Union was referred to as "ours", since almost all property was state-owned. For example, an Azerbaijani watching a Russian movie would say in either Azeri or Russian: "This is our movie." It would be rare for an Azerbaijani to talk this way today.

Formal interactions are starting to be replaced by more personal, informal ones. A decade ago, Azerbaijani graduate students would have addressed their professors as "Dr. So-and-so". It would have been considered rude to call the professors by their first name. Today, with Azerbaijani students returning from studying abroad in high school exchange programs, especially in the United States, it's not so unusual for students to address professors on a first-name basis.

TV announcers are also less formal and tend to interact with the audience more, most noticeably by speaking in the first-person singular - "I", rather than the editorial "we". In the past, TV announcers tended to say sentences like, "We would like to acquaint you with the program for tomorrow." Today, there is a greater tendency to say: "I would like to acquaint you" Journalists are also encouraged to express their opinions more openly, since they no longer have to represent Party policy.

Forms of Address
In English what do you call a person from Azerbaijan? At present, there are at least three different ways: "Azeri", "Azerbaijani" and "Azerbaijanian". In most cases, people in Azerbaijan use "Azeri" to refer to a person and "Azerbaijani" to refer to the language. Not many young people use "Azerbaijanian", perhaps because it's so long and more difficult to pronounce. However, each of the terms can refer to the person or the language.

When speaking to or about a woman, people in Azerbaijan are likely to say rather than , the older form. The word has always been used in Azeri as a form of address to a woman, but it was not as widespread as it appears to be today. The term is quite flexible and can be used to refer to a young girl or an older woman, either married or unmarried. It is usually combined with the woman's first name, as in

During the Soviet period, there was a greater tendency toward using the words (teacher) or (citizen). Informal words like " (sister) and (aunt) are still used quite frequently today to address a woman.

The word can also be used alone when the name is not known. For instance, in addressing a stranger, just like "ma'am" is in English.

Excuse me, ma'am, someone is calling you.

With the increased usage of , the word is also beginning to be used in the narrative form:

A lady told me this today.

Making Toasts
A crucial part of any Azerbaijani party, reception or dinner is the series of toasts, given first to the honoree of the party, then to the other guests. At these events, it seems that Azerbaijani men have become bolder about complementing women when they address or raise toasts to them. Expressions such as "this charming lady" or "this beautiful lady" have become more common these days. In general, complimenting women in public is not new, but it seems to be occurring more frequently these days.

It's also common for toasts to refer to the Karabakh war, since this is a topic that is on everybody's minds. Based on the recent proposals from OSCE's Minsk Group for the resolution of the conflict, many Azerbaijanis feel that the international community is putting pressure on them to make the greatest compromise, not Armenians, whom Azerbaijanis view as the aggressors in this war. Azerbaijani toasts indicate that the general public is not willing to give up Karabakh:

May we celebrate next year in Shusha [the major city in Karabakh, considered the cultural heartbeat of the region].

I hope that next year this time we'll gather in Jidir Duzu/Isa Bulaghi (famous places in Shusha) to celebrate.

Let's raise this toast to the liberation of Shusha/Karabakh. I believe that this day will come.

Changes in Azeri

The Azeri language is dynamic, especially when it interacts with other languages. As Azerbaijan undergoes social, political and economic changes, its language will continue to be affected, especially verbally. Some of these changes in verbal form will eventually become new norms and standards for written Azeri.

Even though there is pressure on the Azeri language to "keep up" with the new developments in the country, the Azeri language is very rich and, therefore, does not need to invent new words for all the new concepts that are being introduced into Azerbaijan. For example, the word "scanner" is borrowed because the concept behind it is new. But if a new word appears for a concept that already exists, it seems irrelevant not to use an existing word. The word "folder" (not referring to a computer folder) doesn't have to be borrowed because the Azeri language already has the word ", which can be used for the same purpose.

Changes in the Azeri language are to be expected; they make it easier for Azerbaijanis to understand the rest of the world. Fortunately, there seems to be little evidence that Azerbaijani verbs are changing; they seem to be quite stable. The nouns are showing the most modifications.

As in any language, verbs are the core of the system and carry the greatest load in terms of maintaining its purity. If major changes undermine the verb structures, the language itself could be threatened. But that doesn't appear to be the case these days at all with Azeri.

Jala Garibova has a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at Western University in Baku. Betty Blair is the Editor of Azerbaijan International. The entire series of "Sociolinguistically Speaking" may be accessed at AZERI.org.

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From Azerbaijan International (9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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