Autumn 2005 (13.3)
Strengthening Language Usage
Transitions: No More 'Russian Language Trampoline'"
by Shaig Safarov. AI 4.1 (Spring 1996).
Forum: Alphabet Reform Too Slow" by Shaig Safarov. AI
8.2 (Summer 2000).
Alphabet & Language in Transition" by Betty Blair,
Editor. AI 8.1 (Spring 2000).
Milestones: Azerbaijani-English Dictionary in the New Latin
Alphabet" by Oruj Musayev. AI 6.3 (Autumn 1998).
Dictionary: Legacy of Oruj Musayev". AI 11.3 (Autumn
An Azeri Thesaurus! It's another milestone in the history of
the Azeri language. This indispensable reference book appears
at a moment in Azerbaijan's independence when many Azerbaijanis
are seeking to strengthen their Azeri vocabulary, replacing commonplace
words, which filtered in to their native language from Russian,
Arabic, Turkish and Persian. Shaig Jabiroghlu, has spent the
past 12 years compiling the Azeri Thesaurus.
Photo: Shaig Jabiroghlu
Actually, this long,
tortuous journey of compiling an Azerbaijani thesaurus can be
traced back to my love for drama. Essentially, it began with
a simple dream to translate some of the world's greatest English-language
dramatic plays into Azeri. I was especially keen about the works
of Arthur Miller, such as "View From the Bridge" and
"All My Sons", Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot",
and Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap".
At that time, there was no such thing as an English-Azerbaijani
dictionary. [Oruj Musayev's dictionary was first published in
1996]. In fact, even the English-Russian dictionaries that were
available to us were not sufficiently adequate to express the
nuance of some of the vocabulary and idiomatic expressions of
those playwrights who were writing in the 1940s-50s.
Even Mueller's Dictionary, the largest English-Russian dictionary
in general use in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, offered only
75,000-80,000 words. But even this reference was not sufficiently
comprehensive for serious research or translation and it was
so difficult to find. So trying to catch the meaning of slang
and jargon in English was nearly impossible for us even via Russian.
It became virtually impossible for Azerbaijanis to translate
materials with any subtlety and nuance without gaining access
to original English language dictionaries such Webster or Oxford.
Keep in mind that at that time there were no bookstores in Baku
where we could purchase books printed in the West. Since Moscow
had a few good used bookshops, I decided to take the long three-day
journey by train to Moscow in search of a good English language
dictionary. After browsing through several second-hand bookshops,
I eventually settled on a Random House Dictionary (1968).
While there, I also loaded up with a dozen supplementary dictionaries,
one being Roget's Thesaurus of the English Language. Satisfied,
I headed back to Baku, but I had no clue of what a treasure I
When I first began to use the Roget's Thesaurus, I kept wondering:
"Why don't we have such a useful dictionary for the Azerbaijani
language?" It was such a practical book, listing synonyms
and antonyms, which helped the individual choose more precisely
the nuance he was trying to express. I discovered that this dictionary's
compiler Peter Roget (1779-1869) had been a scientist and lecturer
and had spent nearly 50 years compiling a word list primarily
to assist him personally in writing. Though Roget considered
his collection quite scanty and imperfect, he did admit that
it was extremely helpful in his academic writing.
The original Roget's Thesaurus was first published in 1852. Since,
then, more than 150 years later, it has never once been out of
print. The 1992 English edition (10th printing) offers a quarter
of a million words.
Today, pages of the original work, penned in Roget's hand, are
on exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in the United
States. Throughout five decades, Roget had continued to work
on his list by grouping words of similar meaning and cataloging
them in the form of a dictionary.
That was the key for me! And so I rushed out to buy several notepads
and start listing words under very broad headings: feelings,
actions, plants, animals, religion, etc. Then I sat down with
the 4-volume academic edition of the Dictionary of the Azerbaijani
Language, (Academician A.A. Orujev, compiled 1964-1987), opened
it to the letter "A" and started what has turned out
to be a very long, tortuous journey.
Azerbaijanis have an expression when they face a time-consuming
and boring task. They say it's "like digging your grave
with a needle". Well, that's what compiling a thesaurus
is like. You gather numerous folders, a huge stack of paper,
some colored pencils, then say "Bismillah" [in the
name of God!], open the dictionary to the letter «A»
and begin trying to categorize each word. At first it seems easy,
but as the number of word groups and folders grow, it requires
quite a good memory to keep them all in your head. Remember there
were no personal computers back then. That was the mid-1980s.
Political issues nudged their way into the project as well. During
the Soviet era, we Azerbaijanis had been forced to give up our
own alphabet (Latin) and to adopt the Cyrillic script (beginning
in 1939). Then Russian words began to creep into our vocabulary,
replacing our mother tongue.
For example, in the late 1930s, there used to be a magazine called
"Revolusiya va Kultura" (Revolution and Culture). My
father, a famous theater critic, used to take great pleasure
recalling a conversation he once had with a news vender:
"Give me the 'Va' (and) Magazine," he had told the
"Why do you call it 'Va' Magazine?" came the puzzled
"Because the only Azeri word in the title is 'Va',"
my father observed.
This magazine could easily have been called "Ingilab va
Madaniyyat" - the Azeri equivalent for "revolution"
and "culture". But Russian had penetrated so deeply
into the Azeri language and the policy had been carried out in
such an extensive, well-organized manner that one sometimes marvels
how the word "va" even managed to escape unscathed.
During Gorbachev's era when I started to work on the Thesaurus,
the political situation was absolutely unpredictable. We began
to sense that the Soviet Union might collapse, but we didn't
know what would happen to Azerbaijan. Most people assumed that
we would remain under the shadow of the Russian empire. Some
felt that we could seek protection from a new "Big Brother"
such as Turkey. A few dreamed of independence, which frankly
speaking at that time seemed to be the most unlikely possibility
Naturally when I was working on the Thesaurus, friends tried
to persuade me to purge the foreign terms - Russian, Turkish,
Persian and Arabic - according to their own personal political
Another linguistic phenomenon was also taking place during those
days. As relations with Turkey started to grow after that long
70-year interval when we had been separated by the Iron Curtain,
our media deliberately began to incorporate Turkish words into
their discourse. In Azerbaijan, some newspapers even began publishing
almost exclusively in Turkish language; that is, until they started
to lose readership (market economy was already at work!).
Finally, I decided to settle on the Azerbaijan classic language
as the criteria for the thesaurus; in other words, I would use
the form of the language that we had learned at school and in
which our classic literature had been written. I'm convinced
it was the right decision. It seems also that the timing was
extremely apropos for our society!
My main goal was to create some kind of a repository or treasury
of the Azerbaijani language, where all words could be sorted
by groups, topics or relevance. Strictly speaking, this volume
is not a dictionary of synonyms. Such dictionaries have been
published in the past. The uniqueness of this thesaurus is that
it enables Azerbaijanis to easily access words that they might
not easily remember.
Since Russian was the prestigious language during the Soviet
period, we have lost many of our common, everyday words. I once
tested this hypothesis by asking many of my acquaintances: "What's
the word for 'shoelace' in Azeri?" No one could give me
the right answer because the Russian word "shnurok"
is so widely used.
Left: The new Azeri Thesaurus of 15,000 words
categorizes words by synonyms, antonyms and related words. It
was compiled by Shaig Jabiroghlu. It can be purchased at AZER.com
Store. In Baku, contact Shaig: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without a thesaurus, to find the right word, one would have to
consult a Russian-Azerbaijani bilingual dictionary. But that
mean one stumbles upon the Azeri equivalent via a foreign language.
The thesaurus, which I have compiled, enables a person to look
up the generic word in Azeri for "shoe" (ayaqqabi)
and find many related words including several words for "shoelace"
(qaytan or chakma baghi). If you search for "tree",
you can find a list of the most common indigenous trees. The
same holds true for words related to animals, fish, food, military
rank, and numerous other categories.
Another important feature are idiomatic expressions. For example,
let's take the word "white." Strictly speaking, you
can't use "ivory", "snow", "paper",
or "milk" as synonyms of "white", but yet
these words can be very useful in figurative speech. For example:
Her hands were like ivory.
These days, there are many Azerbaijanis who have graduated from
Russian track schools who have been taught in Russian just as
I was, but who genuinely want to speak good Azeri. As well, there
are foreigners who are studying our language. All of them complain
that there are so few books to help them to strengthen their
vocabulary. And it's true. Today, the demand for Azeri language
learning materials is growing-grammar books, dictionaries and
Our own children desperately need these resources as well. They're
so vulnerable to the media - especially TV and FM radio. Our
youth end up speaking a horrible mixture of Azeri, English, Turkish
and Russian and have not learned to differentiate between these
languages. To them it's just one big lexical jungle - all part
of their native tongue!
This Thesaurus includes about 15,000 words. It's a start. I hope
to continue working on it so that knowledge of the Azeri language
will be strengthened.
As Samuel Johnson, the great British lexicographer of the 18th
century, once said: "Language is the dress of thought; every
time you speak, your mind is on parade."
He also had a word of caution for the likes of philologists like
himself who spend endless years poring over words to write lexicons.
"Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than
none, and the best cannot be expected to run quite true."
"Sozluk: Azerbaycan Dili
Tezaurusu, Sinonim, Antonim, va Yaxin Manshali Sozlar Toplusu"
[Words: Azerbaijani Language Thesaurus: Synonyms, Antonyms and
Closely Related Words]. Compiled by Shaig Jabiroghlu. Published
through the assistance of Azerbaijan Achig Jamiyyat Institute
[Soros Open Society] and Azerbaijan Marketing Association. Baku,
2004. 102 pages.
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