Misdemeanors against Etymology: Misrepresenting Sanskrit’s Impact on English

There are many reasons to study Sanskrit. It’s a classical language with massive influence, and it’s vital to unlocking ancient religious, philosophical, literary, scientific, and historical texts from the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Long before such inquiries were undertaken in the Greco-Roman world, Sanskrit had been studied extensively to produce insight into the structure and function of language. The role of Sanskrit in shaping numerous modern languages native to the Indian subcontinent is analogous to that of Latin on the European subcontinent. India had been influencing the West via trade routes well before Alexander the Great’s conquests led him into the subcontinent, and India appears prominently (if inaccurately) in Greco-Roman mythology (Dionysus had adventures there, after all). When scholarly gadfly Harold Bloom laid out his vision of the Western Canon, he included three Sanskrit works already reshaping the Western world. The Sanskrit-speaking world was the cradle (along with other communities) for Hinduism and Buddhism, the former being the oldest living religious system. And for students of Latin, Ancient Greek, German, Spanish, English, etc., much of Sanskrit’s grammar and terminology will look familiar upon reflection. This is because Sanskrit, Latin, and the other languages listed above are all related.

Obviously, we can’t say for sure what prehistorical languages were like, but scholars have been able to thoughtfully reconstruct likely proto-languages. As with so many areas of contemporary scholarship, this inquisition into proto-languages was initiated by Europeans. Thus, proto-Indo-European continues to receive a massive (perhaps undue?) amount of scholarly attention as well as popular discussion. Sanskrit is not the oldest known Indo-European language, but its extensive catalogue and undeniable antiquity have made it central for understanding the evolution of Indo-European.

Distressingly, however, one frequently encounters writers and online commentators from India making false claims about Sanskrit’s influence on the world. Shubham on Chalkstreet for instance incorrectly asserted that “Sanskrit is the oldest language” and “Sanskrit is known to be the mother of all languages.” Perhaps it’s Indian nationalism, as people in India have also made this claim about the non-Indo-European Dravidian language. After centuries of Eurocentrism, it’s not unreasonable to expect other -centrisms to arise in response (rising nationalism is not simply a Western phenomenon). More innocently, it may just be confusion over the term “Indo-European” among non-scholars and journalists.

In a recent article on The Times of India, ten English words were offered that supposedly came from Sanskrit. If the article had been titled “English words with fascinating connections to Sanskrit,” there would have been no issue. By titling it “English words that have a Sanskrit origin,” however, this paper committed a grave misdemeanor against etymology (since only two entries were correct).

Let’s look at the ten English words The Times of India presented not merely as having a connection to Sanskrit, but having direct descent from Sanskrit. This post is being generous by not nitpicking (they offered some modern Bengali and Hindi words instead of true Sanskrit).

1. Pepper

Here The Times of India is correct. The Germanic languages took this word from Latin, which took it from Ancient Greek. The origin is almost certainly Sanskrit पिप्पलि (pippali). English didn’t take this directly from Sanskrit, but Latin piper is an example of a borrowing ultimately from Sanskrit which eventually entered English.

2. Cough

Turn your head and reject this claim. The Sanskrit word they reference is कफ (kapha) meaning “mucus.” A tantalizing coincidence, but experts have posited that Sanskrit borrowed this word and possibly from a non-Indo-European language. English’s “cough” comes from the proto-Germanic offshoot of proto-Indo-European and thus Sanskrit played no role.

3. Three

The English word “three” does not come from Sanskrit त्रि (tri). This word comes from the proto-Indo-European counting system, just as Sanskrit’s did. Similarities across the counting systems of Irish, Farsi, Dutch, Hindi, etc. are what demonstrate the ancient existence of proto-Indo-European. They don’t demonstrate in and of themselves that any one living Indo-European language owes another particular Indo-European language a debt.

4. Serpent

A proto-Indo-European word for creeping provided Sanskrit सर्प  (sarpa) and the Latin serpens (stem serpent-) from which English took “serpent.” Sanskrit played no role in “serpent” slithering into the English lexicon.

5. Man

Both the English “man” and the Sanskrit मनु (manu) come from the same Indo-European root. However, they once again neglect to note that Indo-European branched into numerous subfamilies which evolved in different directions. Both proto-Germanic and Sanskrit retained this Indo-European root, but independently.

6. Ignite

The English “ignite” comes from the Latin ignis, “fire.” Sanskrit indeed had अग्नि (agni), but again, the Latin and the Sanskrit words evolved separately from the same proto-Indo-European root. The assertion that Sanskrit was a linguistic Prometheus is false yet again.

7. Grass

The English “grass” comes from a proto-Germanic word which can be traced to a proto-Indo-European word for “to grow.” By contrast, the Sanskrit घास (ghasa) meant “food” or “grass,” and came from a root for “to devour.” There is no connection between the two.

8. Daughter

The English “Daughter” does not come from Sanskrit दुहितृ (duhitr), anymore than similar words in German, Persian, or Celtic. It’s not a shock that the Indo-European root of “daughter” is widespread, given that it’s a family term. In other words, if Sanskrit had never existed, “daughter” (and “man” and “three” and “serpent”) could have just as easily emerged in the Germanic languages.

9. Shampoo

This is a correct assertion! The English “shampoo” was borrowed from a Hindi word (Hindi, of course, came from Sanskrit) which traces back to the Sanskrit verb चपयति (capayati), referring to kneading.

10. Dental

The English “dental” comes from the Latin dens (stem dent-), meaning of course “teeth.” The same Indo-European root gave Sanskrit दत् (dat). As with “daughter” and “three,” English did not rely on Sanskrit for “dental.”


 

Let’s end on a happy note though. While it’s disappointing to see such sloppiness on The Times of India, it’s also unfortunate they didn’t present an accurate list. It wouldn’t have been hard to do! Sanskrit words have indeed migrated westward throughout history. Let’s look at five words that did come to English ultimately from Sanskrit besides “shampoo” and “pepper.”

1. Karma

The Sanskrit word कर्मन् (karman) for “action, performance” took on a great deal of spiritual and philosophical significance, and in gifting English “karma” has had quite the impact on contemporary English.

2. Avatar

“Avatar,” used for online personas, personifications, and other situations in English discourse, comes from the Sanskrit अवतार (avatara), referring to an unexpected appearance or the descent of a deity to the human realm.

3. Bandana

“Bandana” traces back via Hindi to the Sanskrit बन्धति (bandhati), a verb about binding together.

4. Candy

The English word “candy” has a long history, tracing back to Old French, then to Arabic, then Persian, but ultimately arising from the Sanskrit खण्ड (khanda), which had the same meaning as “candy” and came from from खण्ड् (khand), a verb referring to breaking things into pieces. To be fair, some scholars trace it further to a proto-Dravidian language.

5. Sugar

“Sugar” (as well as “saccharin/saccharine”) has a twisting history involving Old French, Old Italian, Latin, Arabic, Ancient Greek, and Persian, but its ultimate source is the Sanskrit शर्करा (sarkara). This Sanskrit word meant “gravel,” but took on the meaning of “ground sugar.”


 

Sanskrit is a global treasure. The content of its texts, the structure of its language, and the impact of its cultural spectra make it invaluable to scholarship and worth the appreciation of laypeople the world over. The Times of India, however, misrepresented its role in eight English words, and neglected actual derivations it could have highlighted.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s