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The Word-wallah

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March 2006
The Word-wallah

Here is a little quiz. Which of the following words came to English from Indian languages?

a. candy

b. pundit

c. shampoo

d. cot

If you answered "pundit" you are only partly right. In fact, all four words are of desi origin. Candy came from Sanskrit khand (piece), pundit from Hindi pandit, shampoo from Hindi champee (head massage), and cot from Hindi cot.

And these are not all. The Oxford English Dictionary lists nearly 1000 words from Indian languages that are now part of English. And to think we learned English as a "foreign" language!

English is a true khichdi language. If you speak English, you know dozens of languages, or at least parts of them. English has borrowed, stolen, and copied words from languages as well known as French (chic, cuisine, finale), and as exotic as Tongan (taboo), for example. A bunch of Indian languages: Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam, and more have contributed words to English.

For all its riches and splendor, India was once known as a golden bird. It was not for nothing that the English called India the crown jewel in the British empire. During the Raj, 200 years of dominion over India, the English helped themselves to more than just spices, minerals, cotton, and other wealth. They also took words from many Indian languages, though we don't mind that.

When one is living in a culture for two centuries, it's hard not to pick up a few words along the way. No matter how isolated the sahib's bungalows were from the Indian folk, it would have been impossible to shut off rich words to describe the colorful landscape, spicy preparations, and unusual textures all around. From clothing to food to spirituality, the word went around, so to speak. Here are a few of the words that are now a bona fide part of the English language:

Food: chutney, mulligatawny, tandoor, punch, curry

Cloths: calico, cashmere, chintz, seersucker, jute

Clothing: bandana, dungarees, jodhpurs, khakis, pajamas, cummerbund

Animals: mongoose, cheetah, mynah

Trees: banyan, mango, orange, teak

Religion and spirituality: avatar, swami, mantra, brahmin, nirvana, yoga

People: fakir, mandarin, nabob

This linguistic osmosis worked both ways. We gave hundreds of words to English but we also helped ourselves to words from English in the process. There are thousands of tongues spoken in India, yet, when a train stops, in all languages it stops at a "station."

The English today is much different from the language at the time of the Raj. Today, there is not one English. There are many strains of the language: American English, Indian English, Australian English, South African English, British English, and more, each with its own idiosyncrasies and extensions, each adding its own peculiarities and flavors.

While English has the largest vocabulary of any language, it too has holes.

Its poverty shows, especially in words to describe relations. You come across two women, one introduces the other as her sister-in-law, but it doesn't mean much. It could be one of the several possibilities. Indian innovation fills the gaps. We make words up, we add them to the language, we clarify, and make the language even richer. All is clear when that woman introduces the other as a co-sister -- we know that their husbands are brothers. We qualify the word cousin: cousin-brother and cousin-sister, and why not?

You have scheduled a meeting in your office. But something comes up and you have to postpone it. But what if you decided to get it over with and reschedule it to an even earlier time? In Indian English there is a word for it?prepone?and it makes perfect sense.

Today, English is no longer limited to the British any more. English belongs to anyone who speaks it, from the polished tongue of the UN diplomat in New York City to the chaat vendor on the gritty Delhi streets who knows just enough English to sell his savory delights.

We have adopted English, made it our own, and discarded the notion of English as a foreign language, English as a second language, English as a language of the firangis. But in a way, it never was a foreign language. Like in a Hindi movie, English was a long-lost cousin of Hindi, and other Indian languages: Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, and more.

When we go back far enough, we find that languages that now appear a world apart, both literally and figuratively, descended from the same parent language. Linguists call this ancestor Proto-Indo-European, and languages that took root from it are called Indo-European languages.

For example, Sanskrit guru and English gravity, are both derived from a common root meaning heavy. A guru is someone weighty, someone venerable (some other descendants are English barometer, German blitzkrieg, Spanish brio, and Italian briga).

There are more than 400 languages in the Indo-European language family.

Examples of these are Hindi, English, French, Russian, Greek, Persian, and Spanish. Ultimately we are all part of one big family.

Ironically, languages which show the deep connections among mankind are also often the source of much strife. That's because a language is a reflection of a culture, it's the life-blood of human communication.

A language is the currency of human discourse and fortunately with all the intermingling, the transfusion of words back and forth, our currencies are appreciating.

Sidebar:

Some of the Words from Indian Languages

SANSKRIT:

atman

lingam

orange

pundit

sutra

swami

vedic

HINDI:

avatar

bangle

cheetah

cummerbund

cushy

dacoit

dinghy

guru

juggernaut

jungle

karma

mynah

pajamas

nabob

nirvana

shampoo

thug

veranda

zamindar

MALAYALAM:

mango

teak

MARATHI:

mongoose

TAMIL:

catamaran

cheroot

coolie

curry

mulligatawny

pariah

BENGALI:

jute

taka

TELUGU:

bandicoot

godown

By Anu Garg

[Anu Garg is the author of best selling book, A Word A Day. He is also a sought-after speaker who speaks on words and the language, and maintains an extensive website www.wordsmith.org]


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