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.


Wordy Wednesday 2

Coolie – now there is a word that is remarkably offensive; offensive not so much because of what it is, but the implications behind it.

coolie 1

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus: unskilled native labourer in eastern countries and gives the word’s origin as perhaps from Kuli, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat, India.

Hobson-Jobson, the 1886 Anglo-Indian Dictionary, has rather more to say upon the matter.

It gives the spelling as ‘cooly’ and the definition as follows: a hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly’s condition very near to slavery.

It goes on to give further definitions and details of the word, and then makes several suggestions for its origin. One possibility, agreeing with the Oxford Dictionary, is that it derives from Koli, the name of a caste or race in Western India who frequently carried out these tasks and who, the dictionary reports, had long held a reputation for ‘savagery, filth and general degredation.’ This would make its origin analogous to that of slave, which is presumed to come from the racial term Slav.

But it suggests the waters are rather muddied by a couple of similar words in the Sub-continent: In Southern India a Tamil word Kuli signifying ‘hire’, and Khol is a Tibetan word for slave.

And then there is also a Turkish word kol meaning a slave while, more specifically, kuleh  means ‘a male slave, a bondsman’.

But back to the implication. It is impossible to get away from the colonial undercurrents with this word, as brought out in the Hobson-Jobson definition above. So to use the word to describe a person or persons today, is to call them a servant or slave of a foreign overlord.

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.


Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).