On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

I mentioned en passant in the previous post that the Sanskrit word vira, hero, is related to the Latin vir, man, and thus to our virtue and virility. And, of course, to the Modern Hindi vir, brave. (Thank you, Susan.)

Well, that sort of thing brings out the language geek in me, and I can’t help myself. There is something beautifully mysterious in this common Indo-European heritage (pictured above just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire) of our Western languages and this Eastern Ur-language, Sanskrit. It is like visiting very distant relatives and suddenly seeing a nose, a toe, a tilt of the head or an allergic sneeze that is exactly like your own and makes you imagine the stories of the past that unite you.

So indulge me in some word play.

The easiest way to compare languages is by counting to ten in them. Look how incredibly similar most of these word roots have stayed across millenia and continents:

Sanskrit
Latin French German English

ekam
unus un eins one

dve
duo deux zwei two

trini
tres trois drei three

catvari
quattuor quatre vier four

panca
quinque cinq fünf five

sat
sex six sechs six

sapta
septem sept sieben seven

astau
octo huit acht eight

nava
novem neuf neun nine
dasa decem dix zehn ten

But the real magic starts when you compare more meaningful words, because then you see not only their etymology but the genealogy of concepts and meanings (this used to be a hot field, called philology, and is how Nietzsche arrived at his philosophy about the evolution of morals).

Maya

Since I used the word magic, let’s start there. It “comes from” the Sanskrit word maya, whence the Latin magicus, French magique, German Magie.

Of all these, the Sanskrit word is by far the most interesting and nuanced and deep. It points to a philosophical and religious concept. Maya means magic in the sense of cosmic illusion, the metaphysical head-fake that our senses play on us. We think we exist in our mortal bodies in this changing world, but if we pierce the magic (maya) by making our minds completely still, we realize that there is only pure energy (Brahman) and our soul (Atman) merges into this void.

Bonus: Compare that last word, Atman (soul) with the German atmen (breathe).

Yoga

Yoga not only means, but is the root of, union. But it gets more interesting. Yoga is also related to the Latin junctio, French joindre, English join.

Its Germanic descendants resemble it even more closely: German Joch, English yoke. (English, as is its wont, gets the root twice, once via Saxon and once via Norman French.)

A yoke at first does not seem very yogic. But if you think about it, that’s a matter of technological connotation. We yoke an ox to a cart, thereby imprisoning him. But in yoga, you yoke (connect, join, unite) your breath to your mind, thence to your soul (Atman), and thence to one-ness or union (Brahman), thereby liberating yourself.

Maharaja

Maharaja means great king in Sanskrit. So it has two words: maha (great) and raja (king). Now recognize:

  • maha → Latin magnus (great), French majeur, German macht (might), English might & major
  • raja → Latin rex/regina (king/queen), French roi, German Reich/reich/reichen (empire/rich/reach), English rich, reach, regal, royal

And so it goes on and on and on…

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22 thoughts on “On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

  1. Probably one of the main reasons (British rule making the language accessible being the other) why Indians find it easy to learn and think in English more than any other foreign language…

    • Ah, but in theory they should find English no easier than the other Indo-European languages. Some, such as Greek, are even closer to Sanskrit.

      There’s probably another, discrete, dynamic at work that makes English so easy. the great simplification of late-middle English being one possibility.

  2. The map you have shown seems to exclude Finland and Estonia, but not Hungary. There is an important group of European languages (Finno-Ugric) that do not fall into this Indo-European group, See the Wikipedia entry for more details.

    • Yes, I noticed that.

      There are three possibilities:

      1) The mapmaker simplified. Then again, he did leave the Basque lands (also non-Indo-European) out, so that seems unlikely.

      2) The Finno-Ugric peoples were NOT YET in what we call Hungary in 500AD. Do you happen to know, John?

      3) The map-maker made a mistake.

    • Dear Andreas,

      Replying to 2). The Finno-Urgric speaking group seem to have migrated to Europe well before the Indo-Europeans and were pushed into these pockets in the Baltic states and Hungary by Indo-European languages. In the history of the Finno-Ugric group, it is assumed the language came to Europe from parts of China 12 to 14,000 years ago. The Indo-Europeans arrived around 6 or 7,000 years ago, depending on which theory you believe but definitely after the Finno-Ugric, so Hungary should be shown as grey in this map of 500 AD. I think 3) applies in this case.

      Of course, the Basque language (and its dialects) is the other European language which is not part of the Indo-European group, but the Basque area is shown correctly in grey on the map.

      The more you research this, the more conflicts in theories you find, so this comment has skipped over a lot of details. There are 3 ways of tracking the historical movement of tribes. You can track them by archaeology, historical linguistics and genetics. The results from each of these 3 branches do not always agree and there are many conflicting theories.

    • We will settle on Nr 3 (mapmaker error), John.

      I’m delighted to have you, clearly an expert on these matters, here on the HB.

      If you have looked into these three ways of tracking tribal movement and are able to analyze them, we’d love to know. Don’t bust a gut, but do let us know if you have something to share.

      (As with almost all of you, I don’t know your walk of life. You may be a published academic on the subject.)

  3. English, I understand, was an exclusively spoken language for 300 years. How well did the Sanskrit roots survive during that period, Andreas?

    • Actually, all languages were exclusively spoken for much of their history, because everybody was illiterate for so long.

      Ironically, the spelling (ie written language) has changed less than the spoken, though. You see that by looking at the weird English spelling of, say:
      – thought
      – brought
      – might, etc

      In each case, the ‘gh’ is now silent but reminds you that it came from the German/Dutch (ie, germanic)
      – (ge)-dacht
      – (ge)-bracht
      – macht.

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by the word “gift,” which happens to be the German word for poison; hence “gift snake” and “birthday poison.”

    Off topic, but related: If you eat a snake and you die, the snake was POISONOUS. If the snake bites you and you die, it was VENOMOUS. (I just, once again, read “poisonous snake” in an article, in which case I always get confused as to what may have been the intended meaning.)

    • I confess that I had no idea, and have been using the words wrong all my life. Bravo, Peter G, you have given me a new weapon to be pedantic with.

      But it makes sense: Poison comes from Latin poito (potion), via potare (drink).

    • So they just discovered a venomous type of dinosaur, and every report I’ve seen so far referred to it as venomous. Most likely, that’s because the word venomous was used in the original report, and all others simply copied it.

      The Daily News, although beginning with venomous, a little further down in their article fell off the wagon and wrote “in poisonous reptiles such as a Komodo dragon.”

      And according to DB-Techo.com, “scientists have discovered that a type of dinosaur from more than 125 million years ago may have used poisonous venom to kill its prey.”

      Poisonous venom. In the words of Colonel Jessup, “Is there another kind?”

  5. Andreas,

    Since I discovered you blog last week. I have been finding a new gem everyday. At times it feels like you have been wandering the streets and alleys in my brain and presenting topics that I ponder over too. And you do such a wonder job of putting them to words and presenting them.
    For some time I have been collecting english words of indian origin and sometimes they have a sanskrit or tamil connection and other times they have the colonial connection. Sometimes i I only have an intuition that they could be connected but I don’t know any linguist or scholar who can confirm my intuition. So here is a initial list :

    Language Word English
    ——— —— ———-
    Sanskrit Sama Same
    Sanskrit OM (HUM) Human ( Cosmic syllable or sound of universe
    Sanskrit/Hindi Manav Man
    Hindi Aadmi Man (but by way of Adam- first man)
    Hindi Mann Mind
    Hindi / Tamil Sakar /Sakarai Sugar
    Sanskrit Matru Mother (in most language mother starts with ma)
    Sanskrit Pitru F(ph)ather (by way of patter)
    Sanskrit Namah (self) Name

    There are lot more to list here but as a general rule I find that words related to spirit or cosmos or inner self or human existence or relationship to humans and nature tend to have a sanskrit origin probably denoting that the origins of where we came from and our purpose are hidden in the words that were used to describe our existence in relation to the universe and these words probably found their way into other indo-european languages as well.

    • Well, you’ve made me very happy by saying that, Suresh. Thank you. One of the best feelings in the world is that of a “mind meld” with a stranger.

      Let me try to extend your experiment above:

      SAMA/same > German (zu)sammen, Swedish (till)sammans, etc.
      HUM/human > Latin homo
      MANN/mind > Latin mens (whence “mental”)
      SAKAR/Sugar > German Zucker, French sucre….
      MATRU/mother > Latin mater, German Mutter, French mere….
      Ditto for PITRU
      NAMAH/Name > German Name, French nom, …

      Is that NAMAH the Nam- in Namaste, by the way? If so, the -te (deus, dieu…) could be “god”. As in: “in the name of god”….

    • Regarding Namaste. Its tricky the word for Name – Namah (lso written Nama) is similar to NaamaH or Namasti which means “to bow” or “to salute”.

      So Namaste means “(I) bow (namaH) asti (to you)”

      नमः अस्ति = नमस्ते

      It also means “I salute you” or “I offer my respects to you”

      Other variations are “Namo” means “Salutation”

      BTW I am no sanskrit scholar. They tried to teach it for a few years in the Indian school I went to but I can confidently say they could name one kid in a class of 70 students speak retain more than 10 words. I Can hardly speak more than 2 or 3 sentences but sanskrit words are very familiar to me because as a Brahmin I am required to chant mantras during important occassions when rituals are performed and sooner or later one can make out rough meanings with the gestures one is expected to make during the rituals.
      The word “Namoh” or “Namo” features very commonly whenever I chant it I pour ghee into the sacred fire :-). Something like “oh lord here I offer you this or that”.
      Thats how I know but I could always bullshit about this stuff too. Its a dead language after all.. hehehee

    • I take back what I said above. Sanskrit is not entirely dead.
      There is are couple of villages that are keeping the flame alive. Take a look at this :

      (skip the commercials in the beginning story begins around 1:39. Notice the boy using the word nama.

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