Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Language Thief

My mother tongue may be Gujarati, but having received no formal education in it, I find myself at a loss, for some words escape my understanding, especially since the colloquial Gujarati we speak in Bombay is a lot different from the one spoken in Gujarat; and both are a tad different from the manner in which some of the words are written. I find that I know far more words in, and my knowledge of grammar and general awareness is far superior in Hindi and further more when it comes to English.

Having said that, I always wonder what a strange language English is! Filled with exceptions, violating grammatical laws like we do traffic rules in India; there are far too many, rendering the word 'exception' itself incoherent and insignificant. And when it comes to pronunciation, whew!! Even the most knowledgeable expert would at times be baffled when presented with an alien word. Why can't we write what we say or say what we write with consistency? Why does one have to constantly think before moving his pen ever so carefully on paper, given that the lazy tech-savvy generation even writes today? And don't even get me started on homophones! Why do we need them? Did the people developing the language run out of words? And all this seems really stupid and funny, especially since I come from India, where most of the Indo-Aryan languages derived from Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages, have scripts that agree with speech almost each time.

The answer lies in the fact that English has borrowed words extensively from other languages. It finds its origins in the Anglo-Frisian and Old Low Saxon dialects, which all ultimately lead to Latin. It changed forms over the centuries from Old English to Middle English to Elizabethan and Early Modern English and finally Modern English. Modern English borrows heavily from Old French, about 60% of its words, although a survey by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff, published in Ordered Profusion in 1973, claims that it borrows about 28.3% from French and Norman (including Old French, Old Norman, Anglo-French and Anglo-Norman), about 28.24% from Latin (including scientific and technical Latin) and about 25% from Germanic languages (including Old and Middle English) and the rest from other languages.

Somewhere between the years 1350 and 1500 A. D., something called the Great Vowel Shift happened, which was a significant change in pronunciation of vowels. This is responsible for many of the peculiarities, absurdities and irregularities. Also, during the Renaissance, English borrowed a plethora of words from Greek and Latin. And over time, as England colonised lands across the world, they picked up words from the languages of each of these places. So English has words from many European languages - primarily French, Norman, Latin and Germanic languages and a little Greek, African languages, Asian languages and other languages around the world. Thus English has an unimaginably disparate and inconsistent vocabulary. It has arguably the largest collection of loanwords or borrowed words, rendering itself as a borrowing language. It is what Bombayites would call a 'bhel-puri of languages'.

[My lovely country with over 1600 languages, 5000 dialects, 23 official languages and
29 languages having more than a million speakers.]
We commonly use a number or words in English without thinking of their origins. A lot of these originated closer home. Following are some of the words we use oh so often, which are borrowed from Indian languages -
  • Jungle - It is derived via Hindi, from the Sanskrit word jangala (जङल or जंगल) meaning 'arid or rough terrain'.
  • Mongoose - It is derived from the Marathi word mangus (मंगूस) which is probably derived from Dravidian words, in Telugu mungeesa (ముంగిస) or in Kannada mungisi (ಮುಙಿಸಿ).
  • Cheetah - It is derived from the Hindi word cheetaa (चीता), ultimately from the Sanskrit word chitrakaayah (चित्रकायः) meaning 'variegated body' or chitrak (चित्रक) meaning 'speckled'.
  • Anaconda - It is derived from the Tamil word anai kondran (ஆனை கொன்றன்) meaning 'that which killed an elephant'.
  • Meerkat - It is derived from the Dutch meerkat meaning 'monkey' (literally 'lake cat'), through the Hindi and Sanskrit markat (मर्कट) meaning 'ape'.
  • Yeti - It is derived from the Sanskrit word yathi (यथि) meaning 'holyman' or 'great sage'.
  • Catamaran -  It is derived from the Tamil word kattumaram (கட்டுமரம்). Kattu meaning 'tie-up' and maram meaning 'wood/tree'.
  • Dinghy - A small boat. It is derived from the Hindi word dingi (दिन्गी) meaning 'tiny boat'.
  • Curry - It is derived via Hindi-Urdu, from the Tamil word kari (கறி) meaning 'sauce'.
  • Chutney - It is derived from the Hindi and ultimately Sanskrit word chatni (चटनी) meaning 'to crush'.
  • Cheroot - It is derived via the French word cheroute, which is ultimately from the Tamil word suruttu (சுருட்டு) meaning 'roll' or 'rolled'.
  • Teak - It is derived via Portuguese teca, from Malay tekka, through Malayalam thekku (തേക്ക്) which is ultimately from Tamil thekku (தேக்கு).
  • Jute - It is derived from the Bengali word jhuto (ঝুট), which is ultimately from the Sanskrit word juta-s (जुतास) meaning 'twisted hair'.
  • Rice - Its etymological history also went through many mouths before it reached its current form. It is derived via Old French ris and Italian riso, from Latin oriza, which is from Greek oryza (ὄρυζα), through an Indo-Iranian tongue, ultimately from the Sanskrit word wrihi-s (व्रीहिस्) meaning 'rice', which is from proto-Dravidian.
  • Sugar - It also has a long history. It is derived from Old French sucre, which is from Italian zucchero, via Middle Latin succarum, which is from Arabic sukkar (سكر), from Persian shakar (شکر), which is ultimately from Sanskrit sharkaraa (शर्करा) meaning 'ground or candied sugar', originally 'grit' or 'gravel', from proto-Dravidian.
  • Coir - It is derived from the Malayalam word kayar (കയര്‍) or the Tamil word kariyu (கயிறு) meaning 'rope' or 'thread' or 'to be twisted'.
  • Bandana/Bandanna - It is derived from the Hindi verb baandhnaa (बांधना) meaning 'to tie', ultimately from the Sanskrit word bandhan (बन्धन) meaning 'bond'.
  • Chintz - A printed multicoloured cotton fabric with a glazed finish. It is derived from the Hindi word chhi(n)t (छींट), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word chitra-s (चित्रस) meaning 'clear' or 'bright'.
  • Shawl - It is derived via Persian shaal (شال) which is from the Sanskrit word satl (सत्ल्) meaning 'a strip of cloth'.
  • Bungalow - Varying meaning ranging from a single family dwelling to a house to a villa. It is derived from the Gujarati word bungalow (બંગલો), ultimately from Hindi-Urdu banglaa (बंगला) meaning 'Bengal' or used elliptically for 'house in Bengal style'.
  • Veranda(h) - An roofed platform or roofed open gallery or porch or courtyard. It is derived from the Hindi baraamdaa (बरामदा), which may be adapted from Portuguese or Old Spanish varanda, which is baranda or barandilla in Modern Spanish, meaning 'railing', 'balustrade' or 'balcony', which is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit waranda(h) (वरण्डः) meaning 'roofed gallery or porch'. It could also be derived as a culmination of two Bengali words baahir (বাহির) meaning 'outside' and andar (অন্দর) meaning 'inside', together meaning 'something that is considered outside, but situated inside a room or covered area'. Both the Bengali words again have roots in Hindi and Sanskrit words.
  • Stupa - A dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine. It is derived from the Sanskrit word stupa(h) (स्तूपः) meaning 'crown of the head'.
  • Teapoy - A small three-legged table or stand, especially one that holds a tea caddy. It is derived via Hindi tipaai (तिपाई) meaning 'three-legged' or 'having three legs', originating as a Sanskrit compound tri (त्रि) meaning 'three' and pada (पाद) meaning 'foot'.
  • Chit - It is derived from the Hindi word chitthi (चिट्ठी) meaning a 'note' or 'letter', which is from the Sanskrit word chitra-s (चित्रस) meaning 'uniquely marked'.
  • Crimson - This has a long etymological history. It is derived from Old Spanish cremesin via Middle Latin cremesinus, which is from Arabic qirmiz (قرمز ), which is ultimately from Sanskrit krmi-ja (कृमिज) meaning 'red dye produced by a worm'.
  • Orange - Why is it that colours have a long etymological chain? It is derived from Old French orenge, via Middle Latin orenge and Italian arancia, from Arabic naaranj (نارنج), which is from Persian naarang (نارنگ ) which is finally derived from Sanskrit naaranga-s (नारङ्ग or नारंग) meaning 'orange tree', which is derived from proto-Dravidian.
  • Karma - Destiny or fate. It is derived from the Sanskrit word karma (कर्म) meaning 'work' or 'fate'.
  • Loot - It is derived from the Hindi word loot (लूट) meaning 'steal', 'booty' or 'stolen thing'.
  • Dacoit - It is derived from the Hindi word dakait (डकैत्) meaning a member of a class of criminals who engage in organised robbery and murder or a band of armed robbers.
  • Thug - It is derived from the Hindi word thug (ठग) meaning 'thief' or 'con man', ultimately from Sanskrit sthaga (स्थग) meaning 'scoundrel'.
  • Mugger - It is derived via the Hindi word magar (मगर) meaning 'crocodile', ultimately from the Sanskrit word makara (मकर) referring to a sea creature, similar to a crocodile, which attacks stealthily.
  • Guru - A teacher. It is derived via Hindi from the Sanskrit word guru (गुरु) meaning 'teacher'.
  • Pundit - A Hindu scholar or wise man. It is derived via Hindi from the Sanskrit word pandit (पण्डित) meaning 'learned scholar' or 'priest'.
  • Shaman - A person having access to, and influence in, the world of spirits, good and evil. It is derived via Russian (шама́н), from Tungus shaman, which is from Chinese sha men (萨满), which is from Prakrit saman (समन), ultimately from Sanskrit shramana-s (श्रमण) meaning 'monk, specifically a Buddhist monk'.
  • Avatar - An incarnation, embodiment or manifestation. It is derived from a Sanskrit word, despite what the movie might lead you to believe, awataar (अवतार) meaning 'descent'.
  • Juggernaut - It is derived via Hindi from the Sanskrit word jagannaath (जगन्नाथ) which is a form in which the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu is worshipped at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa. During the Ratha Yaatraa, throngs of people pull carts or rathas through the streets to the temple. There are three carts and each weighing hundreds of tons. This became a metaphor for something that is massive and unstoppable or an impending catastrophe, foreseeable yet unavoidable.
  • Mantra - Hymn. It is derived from the Sanskrit word mantra-s (मन्त्र) meaning a 'holy message or text'.
  • Tantra - A Hindu or Buddhist mystical or ritual text. It is derived from the Sanskrit word tantra-m (तन्त्र) meaning 'weave'.
  • Maya - It is derived from the Sanskrit word maayaa (माया) meaning 'illusion'.
  • Nirvana - A transcendent state or liberation of the soul from karma or cycles of life and death. It is derived from the Sanskrit word nirwaana-s (निर्वाण) meaning 'extinction' or 'blowing out'.
  • Yoga - It is derived from Hindi ans Sanskrit yoga (योग) meaning 'yoke' or 'union'.
  • Shampoo - It is derived from the Hindi word chaa(n)po (चाँपो), the imperative form of the verb chaa(n)pnaa (चाँपना) meaning 'to knead the muscles', 'to massage' or 'to smear', which may ultimately be from the Sanskrit word chapayati (चपयति) meaning 'kneads'.
  • Swastika - It is derived from the Sanskrit word swastika (स्वस्तिक) meaning 'one associated with well-being' or 'a lucky charm'.
  • Mandarin - It's etymology is long and one which travelled the world. It is derived from Portuguese mandarim, via Dutch mandorijn, from Malay mantri, via Hindi mantri (मंत्री), ultimately from Sanskrit mantri-n (मन्त्रिन्) meaning 'minister' or 'counsellor'.
  • Zen - Again it has a long story attached to it. It is derived from Japanese (禅) and Chinese (禪) chan, which is from Pali jhaan and Sanskrit dhyaana (ध्यान) which means 'meditation'.
  • Opal - This again has a passed many tongues before finally reaching its current form. It is derived from French opalle, which is from Latin opalus, via Greek opallios (ὀπάλλιος), which is ultimately from Sanskrit aupal (औपल).
  • Sapphire - It seems even gemstones have gone a long way, with the colours! It is derived via Old French saphir, from Latin sapphirus, which is from Greek sappherios (σάπφειρος) from a Semetic language, Hebrew sapir (ספיר), ultimately from Sanskrit shanipriya (शनिप्रिय) which means 'sacred to Shani (Saturn)'.
  • Rook - (The chess piece.) It is derived via the Persian word rokh (رخ), which is derived from the Sanskrit word rath (रथ) meaning 'chariot'.
  • Singapore - It is derived from Malay Singapura, which is from Sanskrit Si(n)hapura-m (सिंहपुरं) meaning 'lion city'.
  • Sri Lanka - It is derived from the Sanskrit word Shri Lankaa (श्री लंका) meaning 'venerable island'.
  • Cambodia - It is derived from Khmer Kampuchea (ប្រទេសកម្ពុជា), which is from the Sanskrit word Kambojdesha (कम्बोजदेश), which means 'land of Kambuja/Kamboj'.
  • Dekko - British slang for 'a quick look' or 'glance'. It is derived from the Hindi word dekho (देखो), which is the imperative form of 'look'.

    Whew! That took a while to compile. If you can't see any of these scripts, Devanagari, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Khmer it's because your computer doesn't support these fonts. You can download them from your best online friend, Google.


      1. Hi there, I was wondering if you'd be able to translate the english word Serendipity (the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way) into Sanskrit? The origin of the word is Serendip. The arabs refered to Sri Lanka as Serendip where the word orignated from. There's also the fairy tale of "The Three Princes of Serendip" which describes the origin of the word...

        So far this is the only translation I have found, is it accurate? : अनपेक्षितसौभाग्य


      2. Hey! Yes, I do know the history behind serendipity, but I don't know much of Sanskrit. Your translation, if broken down, makes sense; अनपेक्षित meaning unprecedented and सौभाग्य of course meaning good luck, but I'm not sure if the two can be clubbed to form a single word. Sorry I can't be of much help here. :(

        Although, I'll ask around and let you know. Drop me a mail and I'll get back to you.

      3. Thank you so much! Even translated into Sinhala or Tamil would be good :)

      4. I have also found this as a translation सौभाग्यवशता .......

      5. Sorry, don't know Sinhalese or Tamil. Again, prima facie, सौभाग्यवशता seems to mean serendipity, but I've never seen this word anywhere. I guess, serendipity is just one of those words that does not have a direct one word translation in Hindi/Sanskrit.

      6. Serendip might be a derivative of Swarnadip, the Sanskrit name for Srilanka.

      7. That is indeed correct. However, here we were looking for a direct translation for the word into Hindi.
        What must be understood while translating between languages, especially for words that are newly coined, is that it may not always be possible to have a single word in another language meaning the same as a particular word. One has to capture the essence of the word to be translated and represent it, probably using an entire sentence if a direct translation ain't possible.