Sanskrit Words in English

Etymologies are fascinating. Often, they are redundant in terms of actual historical analysis (see e.g Latin cohors) but fascinating none the less. Here’s a brief post on Sanskrit loan-words in English, which I am very roughly demarcating, like Gaul, into three parts.

This is a brief post because I haven’t had much time to write. It is by no means exhaustive, just a bit of fun with words.

I Pseudo-Etymologies

This isn’t really a category, but it’s best to get it out of the way first. Pseudo-etymologies are exactly what you would expect from the name. Sometimes these arise from almost correct parallels e.g taking Sanskrit mātṛ and English mother and arguing that the latter is progeny of the former. Sanskrit is one of those languages which attracts a lot of pseudo-linguistic nationalist nonsense. Greek too, see below:

II Words for specifically Indian things

Most of these were acquired during the period of the Raj, these were words taken over to describe unique Indian things. E.g Brahmin, Guru, Pandit, Banyan tree and so on. Still, there are some interesting ones such as:

Bandana – bandhana (tied, bonded)

Candy – I suspect this has been a round about one! Ultimately from Skst khaṇḍaḥ but passed through Persian and then back into Hindi before being borrowed via French. Cf Punjabi khand for sugar, which I suspect comes from the Persian which comes from the Middle Indic…

Dinghy – dinghi (a small boat).

Loot – Ultimately from the verb luṇṭhati (he steals) which drops the n-infix in verbal nouns (luta, a stolen thing). Interesting semantic web here along with mugger, thug etc.

Mugger – actually, this gets its own lemma. From makara (sea animal), often used of crocodiles. From an early period has the sense of our ‘mugging’. Eg a crocodile is a magaramachchh from makara and matsya (fish). A crocodile is a fish mugger! (when not writing on its blog). I suppose if I write one more post about Sanskrit I should change the blog name to makara vyakaranya.

Orange – naranga (orange). I have tweeted about this before. In English it has undergone rebracketing, e.g we thought the initial n was attached to the indefinite article: a narang > an arang > an orange. See also nick name: an eke name > a neke name > a nick name. Common sound change in English!

Thug – From Hindi thug and ultimately Sanskrit stagha (a scoundrel, thug, bandit). Not the dropping of the initial s, common in Indo-European sound changes, hence Latin toga rather than stoga. Sanskrit does this a lot actually with p and t. E.g spy is spas from the verb pasyati (he sees, watches).

III Words transmitted through the Classics

We’re not used to thinking of India in the classical world outside of Alexander’s brief foray. Yet, the conqueror didn’t just leave an indelible mark on the sub-continent in the form of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, his conquests opened new avenues of trade and the passing of ideas. Even before that, the Achaemenid Empire served to connect Greece and India – though it would hardly do to overstate the strength or importance of these connection. Here’s a handful of words:

India – Yes, that’s right, the modern name for the country comes to us via Greek. Ultimately from Sanskrit sindhu (river) whence it passed into Old Persian as Hi(n)duš and thence into Greek. Note, the shift from s > h is common to both Old Persian and Greek but not to Sanskrit, so for example the number seven (7) in Latin is septem, Greek hepta, Old Persian hapta, and Sanskrit sapta. All ultimately from PIE *septḿ̥. It must have passed into a psilotic Greek dialect in order to lose the rough breathing, from there into Latin and then slowly down into English.

India remains the name of the country today. Oddly, sindhu as river seems to have died in modern Indo-Aryan. So ancient sapta sindhu (seven rivers) becomes modern Panjab (five rivers) from the Persian. See also Doab (two rivers). Whereas we’d expect something like pancha sindhu if the native wording was preserved. (Two rivers having dried up).

Ginger – Greek zingiberis from Sanskrit singabera. Once a much-valued spice prized by Rhodian merchants. Now we just pretend to like it in our tea.

Musk – Greek moskhos from Sanskrit muskas.

Nard oil – Greek nardos from Sanskrit nalada.

Pepper – Greek piperi from Sanskrit pippari.

Rice – This one always got me. Greek oryza ultimately comes from Sanskrit vrihi(s), meaning rice. I believe, oddly, this route has died out in all modern Indo-Aryan languages.

Sandalwood – Greek sandalion from Sanskrit candanam/candalanam.

Sugar – this is the classic one! From Sanskrit sharkara we get Greek zakhare and several derived terms such saccharine.

Ideally, I’d go on to a 3.2 and discuss Greek loans into Sanskrit. I can’t think of many from the top of my head. There is, of course, Yauna meaning Greek (from Ionians, via Persian) and, wonderfully, the Macedonian dialect word for spear – kontos – is used in Sanskrit for cavalry lance (kuntah), but that’s about it.

If you’re interested in reading more about Sanskrit and the Classics, I have a slightly more in depth post here.



Short Note: Utility in the ancient world

I was recently listening to an interesting interview with John Romer on the latest volume in his series of ancient Egyptian history when he said something interesting. On enumerating some of the changes apparent in the transition from Old to Middle Kingdom he mentioned that Egyptian traders and explorers often found themselves deep south into Africa trading and searching ‘…not for the essential things, but just for the rituals of the court’.

I don’t want to read anything into Romer’s offhand comment and in fact highly recommend his books to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, but what he said serves as a useful springboard for considering this contrast between essential things and court ritual. I don’t think such a dichotomy existed in the minds of the ancients at all.

We treat what remnants of court ritual we still possess with an airy familiarity. There’s a sense of quaintness to it all. It didn’t take Charles I’s head being removed from his body for us to realise that he was not God’s anointed. Mallorian fictions aside, no one would link the health and hale of the land to its monarch. A barrister or a judge still possesses learning and status without wig, robe, and gavel.  In a real sense these symbols are, like what Romer’s Egyptians bought from south of the Sahara, non-essential.

But can we say the same for the items of ancient court ceremonies? I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, Diocletian’s movement towards an ‘asiatic’ style of court ceremony had a very practical, necessary, goal of protecting the ruler in an age when emperors were made with the edge of a sword. If the secret of empire in Tacitus’ time was that emperors may be made outside of Rome and without the acclamation of the senate then the crisis of the third century made it quite clear that a man wearing the purple is still just a man and dies as readily. By turning to non-essential items (purple robes, coronae etc) and behaving in an a particular manner, Diocletian and his successors were sending a clear message.

Clearly then this is one example of a disjunction between ancient and modern thinking. But it’s not that we’re more practical, just that what’s pragmatic for us expresses itself a little differently.

Listening to Romer, I couldn’t help but think of the bronze age Aegean (BAA). Egypt to Mycenae is not such a stretch: recent popularising treatments (like Eric Cline’s) take a broad areal approach and we know the regions existed as parts of a wider political network. Also, my grasp of Egyptian is terrible and so the BAA is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t have a good sense of court ritual from the BAA. We have striking monuments (such as the horns of power outside Knossos), vivid frescos and a sense of exotic items in the linear B tablets and the detritus of shipwrecks like the one off Uluburun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of titles of court and religious officials, and the reference to an initiation in Pylos, but the tablets contain nothing descriptive. Nonetheless, Gazing into the face of Schliemann’s “Agamemnon” we intimate that these people had a sense of pomp and ritual.

Contrary to our modern expectations, weaponry in the BAA existed in a place where practicality and the ritual mindset intersect. Let’s take the earliest swords, types A, B, and C in the Sandar typology: Often mislabelled rapiers, they were around a metre or so in length yet possessed  perilously small tangs.  It’s hard to see these things being used to great effect in a physical altercation. Scholars have sensibly assumed they possessed some ritual importance.

This is all the more clear in the case of the double axe. Slender and unwieldy, they do not compare with the decent examples of battle axes we have from Norway to the Punjab: Axes employed in war had to have small heads to maximise the speed at which they could be moved.

By any sensible heuristic, these items were not practical. So why invest precious resources in making them? Why feature them so prominently? The ancient world was one where civilisation hung from a precarious thread, as the eventual destruction of the BAA palatial complexes attests, there had to be a sensible reason. As you may have guessed, it’s because the court ritual element conferred its own pragmatic benefits.

Court ritual has a grammar of its own and surely the message would have been obvious to those trained in its language. A sword that is not a sword, or an axe that is not an axe, subtly reinforces the relationship between power and military might, while offhandedly advertising the kind of conspicuous consumption that could afford to use rare metals hours of skilled labour.

Sitting in his court, the king didn’t need his sword to be functional or useful: After all he had many men with sharp ones of their own.

On such fickle things rest the illusions of political systems. Incense and funny robes and fragile sword like objects may not seem to be essential or practical to us but clearly the ancients got some returns on their investments therein. Also, I daresay the population of the bronze age Aegean were happy to take part in pomp if it meant seeing real weapons a little less often.  


Short Note: Classics and Languages

For the first time in weeks I’ve found the time to do a little writing. I’m in the midst of writing a series of posts on Classics and the East and so naturally this means I need to check Twitter, where I came across an interesting conversation on an article by Paul Lay. The article may be found here. It concerns the lamentable poverty of our language learning here in the UK and the affect that this has on history as a discipline.

Do languages help the would be historian? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes’ but I’m having a little trouble seeing that they do. Even as my fingers hit the keys, I know that to be a heretical statement but I can’t help but feel its one leaden with reality. There is a far cry between the prescriptive and descriptive reality of that statement!

My take on this is slightly tongue in cheek, completely ensconced with Classics as a discipline (hence the ancient focus), and a little bit of this:


On one hand, of course languages ought to be a serious boon to any would be historian. From a research perspective they magnify what you’re able to access. I really could not imagine studying Homer without German or French. That’s not to say the English material isn’t absolutely wonderful but German, for example, has opened up a wealth of technical resources (such as the LfgrE) and differing point of views (I quite like the stronger neo-analytical tint to German scholarship. Sshh! don’t tell anyone!).

There’s also the human element to additional languages. Since graduating, some of the more memorable classical conversations I’ve had have been in Greek (Spartan law and culture) and French (the formation of the aorist). Think back to the second world war and the refugee scholars flocking to the UK from Germany. How much poorer scholarship would be without that commingling of different linguistic traditions. (Incidentally, these scholars are the subject of a wonderful edited volume).

In any historical discipline, it’s important to be aware of one’s biases and social conditioning and being able to draw on resources in other languages helps with that. (Note: there are caveats, we’re not discussing these here though).

What about primary sources? Familiar ground for those defending language as part of historical study. After all how can you study a period if you don’t at least know its language? Interpretation of a foreign culture is hard enough as it is, why add another layer of imperceptibility between you and your sources?

Classicists, however, shudder at the simple primary/secondary dichotomy (I’ll leave to what degree we might call Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor, for example, primary sources to some Historical Crocodile) and even the idea of an ‘original’ text can cause consternation. Reading ‘original’ texts is tied up with specialist directors, grammars, classes on palaeography and editorial technique.

I’m going to, in a move that would infuriate textual critics, quote West quoting Fraenkel who was writing an introduction to Leo to illustrate this:

West comment for blog

As West surmises ‘textual criticism is not the be-all and end-all of classical scholarship….But it is an indefensible part of it’. When we pour through manuscripts and try to find out whether someone wrote δε or τε, or which line is an interpolation, or whether the o in subito keeps its natural length in this instance what we’re really asking is “what did x really write?” which is actually a separate issue altogether from “what did x want his audience to hear” and “how was this received?”.

Readers, all three of them, will have noticed that nothing I’ve said so far supports the idea that languages aren’t important to Classicists. If anything, all I’ve done is give some mean preview to just how important languages are to the discipline. After all Classics is essentially Classical Philology which by its very nature is focused on language and its usage. Epigraphy, palaeography, textual emendation etc, all these stem from the same vital skills which begin when learning how to conjugate amare. If anything, language is much more important to us than other disciplines.

Well, whip out your handbooks of classical rhetoric if you can’t see what’s coming. I did say there is a difference between the reality of the statement ‘language is important to history’ and its actual, pragmatic, reality.


What if you wish to become an historian? (in this case pro historian lege classicist) how useful are languages then? There’s a social dictum against speaking like this about academe, at least amongst the middle classes: Academic jobs are meant to be seen as callings, not subject to the same criteria as others. On the other hand, I’m a working class lad and work in a brusque no nonsense sector. I’m hardly above such questions.

Moreover, ‘historian’ is more or less an academic position nowadays unless you possess a near wondrous mix of skill and luck. Seriously, find a friend in publishing and ask them about the Nielsen ratings for the vast majority of history books….ouch….

Simply reviewing the products of the last handful of generations of scholars shows a serious reduction in the breadth of languages engaged with. Hebrew was the first casualty as the bible has lost its previous vaunted position amongst us. One would think that languages of areal importance (e.g Akkadian, Aramaic etc) or genetic affiliation (Sanskrit stands out) wield some impact in the Classics but…not really. Sure, there was a brief flourishing of interest but nowadays outside of UCLA or, to some degree Harvard, Classicists have moved away from Indo-European studies.

This isn’t all bad, a lot of comparative work was pretty outrageously general and tepid in its applicability. The focus of the Classics department must absolutely remain on Greek and Latin. We’re not a world philology department. Such a goal is unattainable and undesirable (though you should watch this regardless).

We’re long past the days of Classicists glibly commenting on the Mahabharata or how thinly drawn characters are in Akkadian literature. That’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the ability to use these comparanda to better understand the context of what we study. One would hope that this reduction in scope would bring with it a renewed, tighter, focus on Greek and Latin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If you look at recent monographs, articles, or theses recently submitted or in progress, work requiring a broad variety of ancient languages is out. Work requiring detailed mastery of Latin and Greek is also, by and large, out. You’re much better off focusing on something with ‘reception’, ‘environment’ or ‘feminist’ in the title. A ‘plea for polyglots’? That hardly seems to be the case. The trend has been a steady reduction in philological rigour towards more theoretical projects.

Whether this trend is something good or ill I leave to you to decide, I’m not willing to comment. Perhaps its too early to tell. By some ironic twist of fate it’s the more linguistically dexterous Classicists I know who ended up outside the academy. It’s an intellectually fulfilling past time and helps one engage with the ancient world. It’s just not very likely to help you become an historian…