by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair
(Go to SOCIOLINGUISTICALLY
the TOPICS Section for more articles on language learning.)
Left: 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
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
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
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.
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
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"
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
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
Women with 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
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
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
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.
people are expected to initiate greetings to an older person,
thereby showing respect. But usually older people initiate the
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
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.
(tah-NISH ohl-mah-ghi-MA CHOKH shah-DAHM)
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.]
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.
we show the plural, more polite form of greetings. For the informal,
singular version, eliminate the syllable "-in-". For example,
[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)]
(NA vahr - NA yokh?
How's it going?
[What is there-what is not?]
[Good + I am]
Thank you very much.
[Very much, thank you (pl.)]
the singular form and sa' olun is the plural, more respectful form.
However, Azerbaijanis in Iran express thanks as:
(ta shak-KUR EH-di-ram)
[Thanks + I am doing/making]
(ish-la-ri-NIZ neh-JA-di*? )
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
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
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.
(OH qa-DAR da YAKH-shi DEH-yil)
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 Bey (Mr.) and
(teacher) (moh-al-LIM) for a person related to academics or intellectual
[Hasan Mr.], [Ali
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],
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.
(EHV-da, NA vahr- NA yokh)
(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?]
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?]
(Name NA eh-DI*)
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.
Coming Next Issue:
Congratulating for the Holidays!
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.
(6.4) Winter 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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AI 6.4 (Winter 1998)
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