Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2005 (13.3)
Pages 84-85

Azeri Thesaurus

Strengthening Language Usage
by Shaig Jabiroghlu

1. "Literary Transitions: No More 'Russian Language Trampoline'" by Shaig Safarov. AI 4.1 (Spring 1996).
2. "Reader's Forum: Alphabet Reform Too Slow" by Shaig Safarov. AI 8.2 (Summer 2000).
3. "Editorial: Alphabet & Language in Transition" by Betty Blair, Editor. AI 8.1 (Spring 2000).
4. "Linguistic Milestones: Azerbaijani-English Dictionary in the New Latin Alphabet" by Oruj Musayev. AI 6.3 (Autumn 1998).
5. "English-Azerbaijani Dictionary: Legacy of Oruj Musayev". AI 11.3 (Autumn 2003).


Finally! 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).

Roget's Thesaurus
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 had found.

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 Context
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 vender.
"Why do you call it 'Va' Magazine?" came the puzzled reply.
"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 of all.

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 persuasions.

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!

Azeri thesaurus book
Thesaurus Design
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 Store. In Baku, contact Shaig:

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 reference books.

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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