Wordy Wednesday 3

trichy temple 2

Arv’s comments on last week’s Wordy Wednesday post reminded me of some of what stirred my interest in the history of language. Reading about the unexpected discovery in the nineteenth century of the great similarities between words in Sanskrit, the ancient written language of much of the Indian Subcontinent, and words in Ancient Greek and Latin which were a starting point for the study of Linguistics, was something that fascinated me.

The word for ‘father‘, for example, is ‘pita‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘pater‘ in Latin and Greek.

The word for ‘mother‘ is ‘mata‘ in Sanskrit, ‘mater‘ in Latin and ‘meter‘ in Greek.

The word ‘Aryan‘, actually has the meaning of noble or honourable in Sanskrit (arya), which in Latin becomes ‘ariana‘ (holy) and in Ancient Greek ‘areia‘.

And there are other, seemingly more unlikely, connections.

The word for ‘horse‘ is ‘aswa‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘asva‘ in Lithuanian!

Whether the implications behind this are that there was a great mixing of peoples in those days and that different civilisations adopted words from the others, or that all these languages descended from one single, now lost, language in the distant past, can never be known for certain, but the evidence for the latter is extremely strong, especially as the world population was so much smaller then.

Modern research suggests that Sanskrit, spoken by the ancient tribes of India who called themselves ‘Aryans’, entered the Indian subcontinent from the north west, an area both closer to modern day Europe (and its languages) and to the source of the original migration of peoples out of Africa.

Of course, the theory of a single original language puts me in mind of the myth of the Tower of Babel…

My interest was also stirred by a number of similarities I came across when I was travelling or working overseas. One example will suffice:

Cat‘ is ‘chat‘ in French, ‘gato‘ in Spanish and Portuguese ‘katz‘ in German, ‘kot‘ in Polish, ‘kot‘ in Russian and ‘kitta‘ in Arabic.

I think the real significance of these similarities is that when you consider it logically, I don’t suppose that the speakers of all these languages were just waiting for someone to come along and give them a useful word for the furry mouse-catchers they had hanging around their villages and towns. It seems entirely probable that they all contain similar words because all those languages descended from one common source.

And this all leads me to one final thought (deep breath!)…in this ancient, lost, original language of our distant ancestors, we can be fairly certain, for example, that the word for ‘father‘ was something similar to most of its derivatives in use today. As well as the Latin, Greek and Sanskrit examples above, it is ‘padre‘ in Spanish, ‘pere‘ in French, and ‘vater‘ in German.

We may not be able to reconstruct this language (although in the future, who knows?), but we can certainly make a good guess at what a number of its words were, and they were words that most of us are familiar with today.

23 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday 3

  1. So interesting. I am fascinated by word and phrase origins especially the ones who seemingly shouldn’t be related. Have you read Bill Bryson’s book: Mother Tongue? It’s about the English language and how it evolved over time. It’s informative and very entertaining too!

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  2. To be cheerfully pedantic, the Sanskrit for mother and father is ‘matr’ and ‘pitr’, which is even closer to the Greek and Latin versions. The common mother tongue is a holy grail that I doubt we could ever attain but it would be a fascinating thing indeed!
    For the Aryan migration/invasion into India, it has been a contentious issue for ages with evidence both for and against. I tend towards the “for” group though genetic analyses muddy the picture.

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    1. I know about the contention over the migration, but I tend towards the ‘for’ group also, although I’m no expert. i think one of the most compelling arguments for it is the presence of horses in the tales of the Rig Veda; my understanding is that there were no horses in what is now India at the time they were composed – they would have been found in the Central Asiatic areas.


      1. There are the horses, then there’s the sudden change from the immaculately planned cities of the Indus-Saraswati culture to the pastoral-nomadic life of the Vedic aryans. There’s no discernable link between the I-S script and Sanskrit. On the ‘no’ side are the absence of any conflict or war between the I-S and the Aryan peoples, and there’s the genetic evidence that suggests no major migration from Persia or the Caucasus into India in the last 10-12 centuries, after farming was introduced to the region c. 8000-8500 BCE

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        1. It’s a lot of what-ifs, indeed. I know the theory used to be that the Aryans pushed out the I-S culture, but that is no longer thought to be the case – more the gradual drying up rivers (Saraswati?) and the migration of others, which doesn’t entirely explain why the culture disappeared.

          Far more complicated than my limited knowledge!

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          1. The Saraswati is thought to have dried up around 2600 BCE after a massive earthquake diverted its two main tributaries: the Satluj towards the Indus and the Yamuna towards the Ganga. There are traces of an ancient river-bed under the sands of Rajasthan and the salt flats of the Rann of Kutchh were evidently an estuary (which, incidentally, is where the I-S port city of Lothal was discovered). The present-day Saraswati is supposed to be represented by the seasonal stream of the Ghaggar which flows by quite near to where I live and meanders to a dry end in the deserts of Rajasthan. Clearly there is a lot unexplained and unknown; maybe the truth lies somewhere in between the two polar theories.

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            1. Maybe. Archaeological discoveries seem to have thrown a bit of light on it, but I wonder if we’ll ever know the truth of it – as much as we ever know the truth about anything; there is enough contention over the facts of what happens today, of course, never mind 5000 years ago.

              But I wasn’t aware of the earthquake, Himanshu, I’d always thought the drying up of the Saraswati was due to the monsoon changing direction as a consequence of the Himalaya still rising.


              1. That’s a persistent problem with history. It’s an educated guess at best and wild theorising at worst.
                There is some evidence of an earthquake. The Satluj (ancient name: shatadru – she of a hundred mouths) and Yamuna are notorious for their frequent course changes, including in recent history.

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  3. A very belated comment from me. (Due to circumstances, etc… I’m way behind on most of my blog reading.) I’m now hooked on these linguistic explorations and the discussions that follow. Language is a fascinating topic.

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  4. Ishaan Sharma

    Yes indeed. There are many more similarities. Like the word for serpent is ‘serp’ in sanskrit.
    The word for path in sanskrit is also path, but with a short ‘a’.

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