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.



#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.

Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.

The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.

Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.

The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.

We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days. 

‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.

Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?

Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better? 

In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.

If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.

Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.

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…