“A problem of calamitous consequences,” said Bishop Galstanyan, Director of the Conceptual Affairs Office of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin [2], at a press conference on sex-selective abortion. Armenia is experiencing an unprecedented high level of male births, revealing that families often abort female fetuses, a phenomenon termed sex-selective abortion. While recognizing the discrimination against female births as calamitous, and while stating that the “Armenian Church is the absolute supporter of the equality between men and women,” the Bishop at the same time criticized the RA law on gender equality, attacking its use of the term “gender," stating that “gender is a dangerous landmine placed in our value system." As for sex-selective abortion, he suggests the issue should be rephrased in terms of the “Unborn Mothers of Armenia.” 

“ What deserves our attention in all this gender havoc is how the language fails to provide space for its speakers to develop sensitivity towards other intricacies of gender as a social construct by limiting it to just physiology. ”

It is obvious that the main concern that the Armenian Church has regarding the unprecedented level of male births (female fetuses are aborted at an alarming rate) is that mothers are not born. This defines girls and women only in terms of reproduction. The irony here is that the aborted female fetus is ascribed reproductive value, responsible for the procreation of a whole nation. More than half of the current and future population thereby is reduced to a biological function – childbearing.

Focusing on biological procreative function reinforces the generalization of womanhood, equating it to motherhood and negating women’s equality as individuals. Female fetuses are called to be saved so that they fulfil a biological function that men cannot, yet the fact that unborn female fetuses could be potential doctors, lawyers, scientists, or that there could be potential geniuses among the aborted females is not part of the equation.

Presenting “gender” as a foreign concept means that the Armenian “value system” cannot accept the truth that beyond biological sex there is the social construct of gender, and that apart from the physiological differences of childbearing and breastfeeding all other distinctions are social conventions and cultural constructs that should evolve. By calling for the resolute dismissal of language reflecting such evolution i.e. we should not use the word գենդեր (gender) because it’s a foreign word standing for a “foreign concept” – gender in its most demonized sense. By fearing that language can not only reflect our material and social world, but can also shape it, anticipates Armenian as a grammatically “genderless” language and this might be the reason for our misconception of gender. 


Is Armenian Indeed Genderless?

We must remember that gender is also a language-specific grammatical category. While English has this category only for the third-person pronoun (she/he), other Indo-European (IE) languages such as Russian or German, for example, also have nominal gender, nouns and adjectives that are arbitrarily masculine, feminine, or neuter. Recent studies show that gender as a grammatical category can affect human thought and shape perceptions around certain concepts[3]. For example, a key might be perceived as slender and petite by speakers of a language in which it is a feminine noun and strong and big by speakers of a language in which it is masculine. Armenian, unlike most other IE languages, is an “epicene” (genderless) language in that it does not have grammatical gender for either the pronoun or the noun. In other words, while most IE languages distinguish between two sexes with the third person pronoun, Eastern Armenian has one only նա (na), and Western Armenian has only ան (an), standing for both “she” and “he”.  The noun in Armenian is not marked by grammatical gender either. Armenian instead distinguishes between the two physiological sexes in the following three ways:


1.     With the help of gender-binary vocabulary such as աղջիկ-տղա (girl-boy), կով-ցուլ (cow-bull), մաքի-խոյ (ewe-ram);

2.     With the help of the feminizing postfix -ուհի (-ess in English as in prince-princess) e.g. աշակերտ- աշակերտուհի (pupil- female pupil), մատուցող-մատուցողուհի (waiter-waitress);

3.     With the help of feminizing vocabulary, mostly կին (woman) placed in front of otherwise gender-neutral nouns as in գրողկին գրող (writer- woman writer), կին վարորդ (woman driver).

One might think that being native in such a grammatically genderless language, speakers of Armenian would be predisposed to see gender beyond a binary categorization and accepting of gender as a spectrum. However, speakers of Armenian turn out to perceive gender the way that patriarchal culture has constructed it for them at a semantic level: binary physiological sex linked with a body of non-linguistic knowledge that ascribes roles to either of the sexes. Deciphering this principle of role distribution does not beg for a toilsome effort: solely biological conceptualization of gender should revolve around the core difference between women and men – pregnancy. Pregnancy as a physiological characteristic dualizes gender into them and us – those who can be pregnant and those who can impregnate. In this agrarian framework – planting a seed in soil and waiting for its sprouting – women are thought to be the receptors of the seed, the soil in which the seed grows. Reception passivizes women and implies a hierarchy in which one sex acts, is the agent, and the other is acted upon, is the passive, the receptor. Little did our agrarian ancestors know about the travail of procreation! For them, the actual labor was the sowing, acting upon the earth so that it yields harvest. Women’s job was to mother – everything else could be done by men. That is why the current mindset believes that the female fetus cannot be anyone but a mother.

“ While manhood and masculinity are characterized by high agency and ability, femaleness, on the contrary, is marked by inability and lack of agency. ”

What deserves our attention in all this gender havoc is how the language fails to provide space for its speakers to develop sensitivity towards other intricacies of gender as a social construct by limiting it to just physiology. We as native speakers of Armenian are left to rely on a vast body of non-linguistic knowledge encrypted in the language and passed from one generation to another. Cultural understanding of gender -- or more precisely the lack of it -- couldn’t have persisted this long without this courier -- language that formulaically solidifies this knowledge and makes it possible for the transfer. We are brought into a gender stalemate because our technically gender-neutral language has fossilized the formula of an agent/male and an object/female at a microscopic level – one which allows us to compliment a woman by calling her a man [տղամարդ կին (a man(ly) woman)]. This highly common colloquialism is used about a woman who’s honest, strong, pragmatic, and successful, which means that being just a woman excludes the aforementioned qualities. Women and men are defined as opposites; being a man is a title that can be awarded to a woman if she proves to deserve it in exceptional cases. For example, a female interviewee, who preferred to remain anonymous, recalled a relative’s wedding. Amidst the extravagant celebration, the toastmaster, a distinguished member of the extended family, raised his glass and in toasting to her referred to her as tghamard kin (man(ly) woman). This reflected that, although single, she is a successful entrepreneur, financially self-sufficient, and economically supports others in her extended family. This term is explained by the fact that while manhood and masculinity are characterized by high agency and ability, femaleness, on the contrary, is marked by inability and lack of agency. Yet, when a woman does find a way to be active, stand for herself, persevere by working hard and without culturally and conventionally questionable “moral” behavior, she is seen as partially a man.


There is Gender in Armenian and Armenia – We Just Don’t Have the Word for It!

“‘Tghamard kin’ is an admission of gender,” says human rights theorist and writer Vahan Bournazian. “As it [tghamard kin] cannot refer to unique physiological sex, it is an admission that gender is constructed in our culture and language […]”[4] Indeed, a cynic might want to ask the toastmaster to advise the Church that gender is not a “foreign landmine.” The meaning of gender as a social construct exists in the Armenian culture but it is yet to be named. We as native speakers of Armenian cannot access that meaning unless we name it. Nothing is foreign about gender, but an evolved understanding of it represented by a term – one that would free us from inherited fetters of masculinity and male chauvinism; one that would help us recognize gender beyond the culturally stagnant formula of “agent” men and “patient” women perpetuated by language.

“ Presenting “gender” as a foreign concept means that the Armenian “value system” cannot accept the truth that beyond biological sex there is the social construct of gender, and that apart from the physiological differences of childbearing and breastfeeding all other distinctions are social conventions and cultural constructs that should evolve. ”

Tghamard kin is a common colloquialism and, linguistically speaking, comprises two nouns in which the first noun (tghamard) is used adjectivally in relation to the second one. While this noun-noun construction is very common in English (development discourse, gender discrimination, carrot juice, etc.), Armenian, quite the contrary, does not usually enjoy such constructions. This means that besides the semes (smallest units of meaning) of maleness and maturity, the word man in Armenian is saturated with stronger semes or semantic properties (e.g. honesty, strength, potency, agency, etc.) that dominate over physiological distinctive features and become responsible for the adjectivization of the word. It could be expected that the word kin, too, can function as an adjective in an analogical noun-noun construction and stand for all the meanings that counter the meanings of masculinity.

What is interesting though is that there is no such expression as կին տղամարդ [a woman(ly) man (kin tghamard)] wherein kin (woman) would serve as an adjective for tghamard (man). Instead, kin in noun-noun constructions is used only when dovetailed with purportedly gender-neutral nouns that lack their feminine counterparts formed with -uhi [e.g. կին գրող (kin grogh) female/woman writer] կին պատգամավոր [(kin patgamavor) female/woman parliamentarian, etc.] It begs reiteration that nouns following kin in such constructions are presumably gender-neutral and should in fact not need gender demarcation through the introduction of the word for woman in Armenian. Nevertheless, research shows that these allegedly gender-neutral nouns imply high agency, and since women are not identified with or expected to be actors, these nouns are perceived to be masculine, hence the usage of kin to indicate the gender. With phrases like female/woman writer, driver, officer, president, judge etc. one unknowingly reaffirms the generalization that women are not actors unless there is an exception. Promoting this exception means that words connoting agency are masculine and not gender-neutral.

Gender is Constructed Around Agency

To understand the degree to which perceptions of agency are principally male, I carried out an experimental word association survey[5] that inquired of native Armenian speakers, irrespective of their education, gender, age, residence, etc. to provide their first associations of gender after reading words that could either imply a very high level of agency or, on the contrary, denote minimum to no agency. The multiple-choice answers included a. male, b. female, c. both, and d. unsure. To narrow the margin of error and to ensure that respondents provide what actually comes to their mind as opposed to what they think should come to their mind, the respondents were asked to tick the first association they had during or right after reading the word. The survey consisted of two main parts: respondents were first given a list of (allegedly) epicene words implying different degrees of agency and asked to choose the associated gender. If in this case respondents were asked to choose the gender of words out of context, the second assignment comprised sentences which provided broader contexts in which a subject either executes high agency, displays power, dominance and free will or is passive and acted upon. These sentences did not include any explicit or highly stereotypical cues that would further contribute to respondents’ bias.

The list kicked off with the word անհատ [anhat] (individual, person) and 20.25 % of the 647 respondents associated this word with maleness; only 4.48 % thought it was female while the majority associated it with both sexes (72.80%) and 2.47% were unsure. It should be noted that while many words could receive the female forming postfix, the word anhat does not undergo this change and supposedly stands for both male and female. And yet, a disturbing percentage of respondents associated the most gender-neutral word with a male. Still, as it turns out, most words that have to do with public service and especially leading positions, do not welcome the female postfix -ուհի [uhi] and are purportedly gender-neutral. Such is the word պատգամավոր [patgamavor] (MP, parliamentarian) in Armenian, which, as stated by the majority of respondents, is perceived to be male (Male: 62.29%; Female: 1.70%; Both: 34.47%; Unsure: 1.55%). 

“ Gendered meaning has become embedded in our technically genderless language because the notion of gender, like it or not, has always existed in Armenia and Armenian. Gendered meaning in Armenian reveres all aspects of manhood and negates all non-maternal aspects of womanhood. ”

The survey also included words whose feminine counterparts, formed with the help of -uhi, are highly common in contemporary Armenian, e.g. պոռնիկ [pornik] (gender-neutral for whore)-  պոռնկուհի [pornkuhi], քարտուղար [kartughar] (secretary)- քարտուղարուհի [-uhi] (female secretary)).  What is fascinating indeed is that despite the wide usage of their feminine counterparts, these masculine words were associated predominantly with the female gender: 73.11% of respondents associated the word pornik with the female sex, associating sex work with the female gender only. A similar dynamic is observed in the case of the word kartughar: 59.66% of respondents identify the word kartughar with the female sex, too, which means that men are not encouraged or generally expected to hold secondary non-leading positions. Even if they do, it will be looked at as an unmanly and therefore a negative venture. It can hardly pass unnoticed here that the association with femaleness of gender-neutral or allegedly masculine words that denote culturally negative, sexually and subservient occupations mirrors not only the statistics of females in such positions but also perpetuates the sexualization and sexual objectification of women.

As part of the survey and in order to see whether agency is indeed the main underpinning for gender inequality through language, native speakers of Armenian were given two types of sentences and asked to define the sex of the person those sentences were about. The sentences in Armenian did not specify the sex of the antecedent through any explicit cues such as names or highly stereotypical occupations. In fact, these sentences were meant to give a subtler and broader context of a subject who in some sentences executed a high level of agency while in other cases the subject was passive and did not have any control over the situation. For instance, to the question whether the subject in “[X] proudly participated in the European Championship and took the first prize” is female or male, only 6.03 % associated X with a female, while 39.26 % associated it with a male, and 53.32 % people thought it could be about both sexes while only 1.39% of respondents were hesitant. Furthermore, in the sentence “After working as a mayor for most of their [epicene pronoun in Armenian] life, X decided to concede the office to the younger generation,” where there is a high level of agency and decision-making, X is perceived to be male in 87.79%, female in only 2.01%, and both in 9.12% of the cases. In contrast, in “Nobody cared for [X]’s opinion” where one can clearly see lack of agency, inconsideration, and ostracism, X is predominantly perceived to be female (34%), and only 9.12 % associate it with a male, and 49.77 % with both. It is noteworthy that this sentence received the highest level of hesitancy – 7.11 % of respondents were unsure as to the gender of X.

In a nutshell, in all contexts where the subject shows dominance, decision, strength, courage, resilience, and agency, the subject is predominantly perceived to be male, while in contexts where X is passive, secondary, objectified and ostracized, it is associated with a female. Our language continually reinforces and standardizes the fallacious generalization that men are able, therefore better, while women can only be able in terms of their physiology either as potential mothers of able men or – mutually exclusive – as sexual objects for those able men. Anyone who lies out of this framework is a threat to the “value system.”

Linguistic construction of gender through ascription/deprivation of agency is not only the process and the result of situating an individual into the socially and culturally cultivated archetypes of masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, accepted in a society at a particular stage of its development, but it is also the most consistent way of (re)producing gendered meaning (e.g. maleness and femaleness being positive or negative features for objects and persons). Gendered meaning has become embedded in our technically genderless language because the notion of gender, like it or not, has always existed in Armenia and Armenian.  Gendered meaning in Armenian reveres all aspects of manhood and negates all non-maternal aspects of womanhood. The real problem of “calamitous consequences” is thus refusing to acknowledge that we as the unwilling heirs of this implicit discriminatory framework are responsible for separating gender bias from our otherwise genderless language.



[1] All the research supporting this article was conducted within the framework of the Magdalena Yesil Visiting Professorship at Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, fall 2016.

[2] http://www.tert.am/am/news/2013/09/13/gender-equality/865091

[3] Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips. Sex, syntax, and semantics. In Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow, editors, Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought, pages 61–79. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003.

[4] Bournazian, V. Personal interview. 3 Jul 2017.  

[5] Santrosyan, R. “Perceptions of Gender in Contemporary Armenian” [in Armenian]. Survey. Nov 2016 – Mar 2017.  




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