Skip to main content

Colourful Languages

To give but a simple explanation, etymology is the study of the roots of words, basically it sketches out for us their history, origin, and more specifically, at what point in time in the evolution of a language that they were incorporated into it. Often, some words amazingly make their way into popular widespread usage, to such a degree that over the course of time their foreign origin goes unquestioned, for they seemingly sound so much like what native speakers consider as a "native" term that their exotic background goes unsuspected. In relation to Modern English, some example that quickly come to mind include modern-day neologisms such as aspirin, band-aid, Cheez Whiz, laundromat, granola, Q-tip, Scotch-tape, zipper, and even tupperware - these words that are actually more than neologisms because they are also labelled as generonyms (this term is actually a neologism in itself) because they are all trademarked words that have become genericized. We could also throw into this group the ever so popular verb to Google (someone on the Internet) in relation to social networking and technology neologisms. 

Other words are more popular in certain places than others. For instance, English words that have made their way into current usage here in North America, include words like diaper and dime - used both in the U.S. and Canada - while in the UK instead they simply prefer saying a "nappy" and a "10-cent coin". In the States "drugstore" is more popular than our Canadian "pharmacy", but the Americans often use "drugstore" in reference to a corner store, basically what many bicultural Canadians prefer calling the "dépanneur" (a French Canadian term) which I've personally heard anglicized into "the dep". All this to say that language has so many different layers to it - layers that ultimately reflect the history of the people who speak the language. 

One of these great linguistic upheavals in the history of the English language comes from the British Empire days, when the rule of Queen Victoria made its way to India, with the establishment of the British Raj (between 1858 and 1947). As a direct result of the British colonial forces overrunning the Indian Subcontinent, there are scores of words from either Hindu or Urdu, Persian, and Sanskrit origins that have consequently made their way into Modern English. While some are purely specialized terms more often used in the discourse of a particular topic - like the proper names of Hindu deities Vishnu, Durga, Shiva - many others have become quite commonplace and sound like perfectly good English to any "native" English speaker. One would not readily assume that common words like bandanna or bangle come from Hindi (or Urdu), the former from Bandhna,(बांधना) "to tie a scarf around the head", and the latter from Bāngṛī बांगड़ी, "a type of bracelet". In addition, also from the Hindi-Urdu register, among the more popular terms, there is―
from cītā, चीता, meaning "variegated".
from चटनी chatni, meaning "to crush"
from Khāt, खाट, a portable bed.
from kamarband , cf. कमरबन्द - Urdu کمربند, meaning "waist binding" [ultimately from Persian کمربند]
from karī, ultimately from Tamil.
from Dinghi, meaning boat
from Hindi guru "teacher, priest," from Sanskrit guru-s "one to be honored, teacher," literally "heavy, weighty"
from Jagannath (Sanskrit: जगन्नाथ jagannātha), a form of Vishnu particularly worshipped at the Jagannath Temple, Puri, Orissa where during Rath Yatra festival thousands of devotees pull temple carts some 14m (45 feet) tall, weighing hundreds of tons through the streets. These carts seat three images of the deity, meant to be brothers for a 'stroll' outside after the ritual worship session. They are fed by thousands and thousands of worshipers with holy food, as if the icons were living. Early European visitors witnessed these festivals and returned with—possibly apocryphal—reports of religious fanatics committing suicide by throwing themselves under the wheels of the carts. So the word became a metaphor for something immense and unstoppable because of institutional or physical inertia; or impending catastrophe that is foreseeable yet virtually unavoidable because of such inertia.
from जङल् jangal, another word for wilderness or forest.
from खकि khākī "of dust colour, dusty, grey", cf. Hindi ख़ाकी - Urdu خاکی [ultimately from Persian].
from LooT लूट, meaning 'steal'.
from Hindi and Urdu panch پانچ, meaning "five". The drink was originally made with five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices. The original drink was named paantsch.
from पण्डित Pandit, meaning a learned scholar or Priest.
from Hindi, पैजामा (paijaamaa), meaning "leg garment", coined from Persian پاى "foot, leg" and جامه "garment" . 
A piece of fabric worn by women over the shoulders or head or wrapped around a baby. From Urdu and Persian šāl, probably from Shāliāt, the name of a town in India

Derived from the Hindi word Sharbat, meaning juice.
Derived from Hindustani chāmpo (चाँपो [tʃãːpoː]), dating to 1762.
from Thagi ठग, meaning "thief or conman".
Toddy (also Hot toddy
from Tārī ताड़ी, juice of the palmyra palm.
from Urdu طوفان toofaan. A cyclonic storm.

I've left the hyperlinks on each word entry in case you want to reference the original Wikipedia article (List of English words of Hindi or Urdu origin) where these examples are taken from (the article contains more references). There is even an impressive number of  Sanskrit-derived terms (although many of the Hindi-Urdu terms have originally also derived from Sanskrit) such as: 

from Latin Ariana, from Greek Ἀρεία Areia, ultimately from Sanskrit आर्य Arya-s "noble, honorable".
from Sanskrit आसन āsana which means "seat", a term describing yoga postures.
ultimately from Sanskrit आश्रम āśrama, a religious hermitage.
from Sanskrit अवतार avatāra, which means "descent", a refers to the human incarnation of God during times of distress on earth. Thus, Krishna and Rāma were both avataars of Vishnu, who also manifested himself as an avatar many other times, ten of which are considered the most significant.
from Sanskrit आयुर्वेद āyurveda, which means "knowledge of life".
from Sanskrit भक्ति bhakti, which means "loyalty".
from Hindi भांग bhang, which is from Sanskrit भङ्ग bhaṅga "hemp"
from Sanskrit कर्म karman, which means "work, fate"
from Sanskrit निर्वाण nirvana-s which means "extinction, blowing out".
from Sanskrit स्वस्तिक svastika, which means "one associated with well-being, a lucky charm".
British people in hand-pulled rickshaws - Agra 1902. Image Source:
Aside from these Sanskrit-derived terms to be found in English (Wikipedia article List of English words of Sanskrit origin) we could also mention those words that have through the long course of time passed into English from either Latin, French or via another language, such as―
via Old French ris and Italian riso from Latin oriza, which is from Greek ὄρυζα oryza, through an Indo-Iranian tongue finally from Sanskrit व्रीहिस् vrihi-s "rice", derived from proto-Dravidian.
via Middle English sandell, Old French sandale, Medieval Latin sandalum, Medieval Greek σανδάλιον sandalion (diminutive of σάνδαλον sandalon) and Arabic and Persian صندل; perhaps ultimately from Sanskrit चन्दनम् candanam meaning "wood for burning incense;" this is the word sandalwood, not related to sandals which is a type of footwear.
via Old French saphir, Latin sapphirus and Greek σάπφειρος sappheiros from a Semitic tongue (c.f. Hebrew: ספיר sapir); possible ultimate origin in Sanskrit शनिप्रिय sanipriya which literally means "Sacred to Saturn (Shani)".
through Old French sucre, Italian zucchero, Medieval Latin succarum, Arabic: سكر sukkar and Persian: شکر shakar ultimately from Sanskrit शर्करा sharkara which means "ground or candied sugar" (originally "grit" or "gravel"), from proto-Dravidian.
Group of Indian natives in front of a Statue of Queen Empress - Madras (Chennai) c.1880s. Image Source:
Also, since the Persian and their Mughal Empire (from around 1526 to 1757) had been in India long before the British arrived, Persian (some from the Arabic) terms had thus also became part of the linguistic landscape of the Subcontinent as well, and also passed into English usage (examples taken from Wikipedia List of English words of Persian origin). Some of the more common everyday words include―

Etymology: بالاخانه bālākhāna from Persian بالا bālā 'above' + خانه khāna 'house, upperhouse, room' 
from Persian بازار bāzār (="market"), from Middle-Persian بها-زار bahâ-zâr ("The Place of Prices")
Etymology: Hindi बेगार begaar, from Persian بی-کار bi-kār. Meaning 'without work', forced labor.
The Mughals originated in Central Asia, and were descended from the Mongol ruler Jenghiz Khan and Timur (Tamburlaine), the great conqueror of Asia. Image Source:
As Indo-European languages, English and Hindi-Urdu, Sanskrit and Persian all share many root-words of common proto-Indo-European (PIE) origin. In addition to the circumstances of political domination that brought the recent "batch" or influx of new words into Modern English usage primarily due to the British domination of the Indian Subcontinent - in essence, aside from this, there is still a commonly-shared ancestral tongue or PIE linguistic source. The more popular examples of this ancient IE inheritance includes obvious similarities between English and Persian cognates, such as English "mother" and Persian "mādar"; English "father" and Persian "padar"; English "daughter" and Persian "dokhtar"; English "brother" and Persian "barādar" and English "name" and Persian "nām".

It just so happens that because of the politics of world domination between the Colonial Powers that be in a race to rule the world - the European colonial period, usually dated anywhere in between c. 1500s to the 1900s - that because of this Modern English has brought into the fold so many terms from the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

The approximate present-day distribution of the Indo-European branches of Europe and Asia:
  Indo-Iranian. Image Source:
Interestingly for Canada, also a result of European colonial world domination, as a testimony to the warring English and French, we now have an officially bicultural and bilingual country in which the two official languages of English and French are recognized and to a certain degree mutually exist to varying degrees. Linguistically, in terms of the IE family branches - at least in the more bilingual parts of the country - it is as if the Latin (in blue in above figure) and Germanic (in red) branches have somehow overlapped. The hybridity that has consequently emerged - mostly in Canada's minority French communities - is therefore not unlike the intermingling of English and Hindi-Urdu in British India, meaning to say assuredly speakers of Canadian French (notably the Laurentien French and Acadian varieties) - and American French as well, such as the Louisiana Cajuns (Cadiens), Creoles, and Anglo-Américains in the New England states. In short, there has resulted a sort of sprachbund - two bound languages - from this connection between French and English in the Americas, affecting not only word-borrowings but also syntax, pronunciation, grammar and everything else. Perhaps this is not as exotic as looking at the sprachbund that existed between Akkadian and Sumerian in the third millennium BC - a relationship that basically resulted from the conquest of Sumer by Akkadian-speaking kings. Nevertheless, the intermingling of language and ideas has created funny situations in bilingual and bicultural Canada.

Come to think of it, I think what originally spurred on this discussion was yesterday, when my wife and I were speaking to a neighbour in the elevator. Of all things, we were talking in French about horoscopes, and at the mention of "Bélier" (French for "ram") to my anglophone wife, he then turned to me asking for the English translation - just to make sure she understood correctly.

"Aries," I answered. "Bélier is Aries in English," is what I found myself saying. It somehow seemed funny my translation, I mean the fact that Modern English inherited the Latin names of the Zodiac while the French language - which actually comes from Latin - opted for more vernacular terms such as "Bélier". Ironically, "bélier" is in itself a recent enough linguistic innovation, from the early 15th c. ("Belier" article, Wiktionnaire). It comes from the Old French (mid. 12th c.) "belin" which originally appeared as a latinized Belinus a made up name given to a sheep that appeared in the Ysengrimus stories, an anthropomorphic series or Latin fabliau dating from the mid. 12th century. The name of the character became so popular that with a modified suffixal attached to it (the "-ier" instead of the "-in") it managed to supplant the actual Latin equivalent aries used in Old French word for "ram". Interestingly, the etymology of "renard" is not dissimilar - it was the name of a character in another story around the same epoch ("Renard" art., Wiktionnaire.).

I just find it kinda funny that now "Bélier" gets translated into English as Aries - a Latin term. Some people would say that that's not funny at all - like my wife, who says I just have a weird sense of humor in general. This reminds that, in Hindi too, something quite similar has occurred in recent times with Nandi - the name of Shiva's vahana (vehicle), his bull - for it has also come to supplant the real word for the animal; "nandi" is now the general term for "bull". All this to say, don't be made to feel bad if you feel like calling something by some other name that is more familiar to you. In French, I dislike the term "ordinateur" and I simply insist on using the term "computer", a term that is deemed to be an anglicism by language purists, yet ironically it is a pure Latin term. (With all this talk about overlapping paradigms between French and English, I think I can feel a follow-up blog surrounding William the Conqueror and the Norman French legacy resulting from the 1066 Battle of Hastings...)  

Image Source:


  1. This is a great info regarding Jewellery. It's of crucial reference regarding online material similar to kamarband
    . Thanks for posting it on your blog.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Acadian Prehistory: From Medieval Religion, the Angevin Empire... and leaving Poitou behind

William S. Burroughs and Cut-Up Writing

I think William S. Burroughs was on to something. Aside from Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was another one of the influential authors of the Beat Generation that in the 1950s and 60s found popularity - if not notoriety in Burroughs' case - in his experimental writing styles. Burroughs was introduced to the cut-up technique of writing, which basically means he would quite literally "cut-up" a strand of linear text into segmented pieces with one or a couple of words a piece, and then simply reorder them in whatever fashion he saw fit.

Burroughs experimented with the cut-up technique at great length and it suited him fine, for he found that by doing so he could somehow alter reality - or even foretell future events. The Nova Trilogy, published in the early 1960s were a series of three experimental novels published by Burroughs in which he made use of the cut-up. The Soft Machine was the first book in the trilogy - published two years after his groundbreaking Naked Lunch- , and it…

The Divine Serpentine: A Cross-Cultural Survey of the Hindu Nāga Worship & the Judaeo-Christian Interpretation of Moses’ “Copper Snake”, the Nehushtan