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:

Latin French German English

unus un eins one

duo deux zwei two

tres trois drei three

quattuor quatre vier four

quinque cinq fünf five

sex six sechs six

septem sept sieben seven

octo huit acht eight

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).


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 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 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…

Bookmark and Share

Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit

Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova

I’m reading The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and arrive at the following event, which took place when the boy was eleven years old.

(And yes, this is part of the bibliography for my book. If you’re trying to figure out why, I leave, for the time being, the subtlest of hints here.)

Casanova was in his home town of Venice, with a group of people having supper. An Englishman, who was communicating with the Italians in Latin, which the educated were able to do in the Enlightenment era, wrote down a couplet for young Casanova to read:

Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus/Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet.

In English: “Tell us, grammarians, why cunnus (vulva) is masculine and mentula (penis) is feminine.”

Casanova announced that, rather than just translating the phrase, he would prefer to answer the question. So he wrote, in pentameter:

Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet.

In English: “It’s because the slave always bears the name of his master.”

“It was,” he says, “my first literary exploit, and I can say that it was from this moment that my love of the glory conferred upon literature began to germinate, for the applause brought me to the pinnacle of happiness.”

Later that evening, the priest charged with looking after him told him it was a pity that he could not publish the couplet or Casanova’s response.

“Why?”, Casanova asked.

“Because it’s smut. Still, it’s sublime. Let’s go to bed now and speak no more of it. Your response is extraordinary because you know neither the subject nor how to write verse.”

Casanova would catch up very soon.

Bookmark and Share

Sarah Palin: barracuda borealis

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times today, half of which she writes … in mock Latin!!! That’s right. The language of Cicero and Caesar–and, of course, of my guys, Fabius and Scipio–to analyze Ioannes McCainus and Sara Palina.

You loyal readers will know that I am all for the classics, for various reasons including this one and this one. Perhaps Dowd’s column helps. Still, how close to a gimmick she comes, from a writer’s point of view. I get it, but I studied Latin for four years.

Bookmark and Share