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Ancient roots—from acre to Zeus

What, a language quiz might ask, links acre as a name for a measure of land (recorded in Old English, and coming from Germanic) with the name of the Greek god Zeus? Or candy (with its Arabic ancestry) with pepper (coming to Europe via Greek)? The answer—all have related forms in Sanskrit—opens up a fascinating area in the history of our language.

A learned language

Sanskrit (a ‘Learned Language … called the Sanscreet’ to quote a late seventeenth-century source) is an ancient Indo-European language of India, still used today as a language of religion and scholarship. In the early nineteenth century, it came to be highly valued by Western scholars, as an understanding of the relationships between languages was developed. The British scholar and physician Thomas Young, writing in the Quarterly Review of 1814, proposed the name ‘Indo-European’ for the ‘ancient and extensive class of languages, united by a greater number of resemblances than can well be altogether accidental’. Today we understand ‘Indo-European’ as the name for a family of languages spoken over the greater part of Europe and Asia as far as northern India. The family has twelve main branches, all of which are believed to go back to a common ancestor spoken several thousand years ago; scholars are still divided on the questions of exactly where and when it was spoken. Some of these branches (for example, Italic, Celtic, and Germanic) give us the European languages we recognize today. The Indic branch gives us Sanskrit and its descendants, such as Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Sinhalese to name but a few.

Avatars and aubergines

The impact of this can be seen if we search for Sanskrit across the etymologies of a range of words which today we recognize as English. Some, of course, such as ashram (a place of religious retreat) and avatar (in Hinduism, a manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth) came into our language directly from the Indian subcontinent. Both these examples come from the religious sphere and are borrowed directly from Sanskrit. Banyan, a name for the Indian fig tree, is also of Indian origin, but its journey was more complicated. First recorded in English in the late sixteenth century, banyan came through Portuguese from Gujarati vāṇiyo ‘man of the trading caste’, from Sanskrit. In the language of origin, the word denoted a Hindu merchant. By the seventeenth century, however, there had been an extension of meaning. The name banyan tree was applied by Europeans to a fig tree under which such traders had built a pagoda, and the name persisted. In some cases, what is now a familiar word has travelled through several languages to reach us from Sanskrit. Aubergine, which entered English in the late eighteenth century, came directly from French—but it can be traced back beyond that to Catalan alberginia, from Arabic al-bāḏinjān, based on Persian badingan, from Sanskrit vātiṃgaṇa.

A web of languages

With other vocabulary items, Sanskrit provides a related form which helps to demonstrate the common origin of what are now widely differing languages. Acre, already mentioned, which in its Old English form æcer denoted the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in one day, is not only closely related to German Acker ‘field’, but also shares an Indo-European root with Sanskrit ajra ‘open space, plain’, Latin ager, and Greek agros ‘field’. The Germanic foot, first recorded as Old English fōt, shares an Indo-European root with Sanskrit pad, Greek pous, pod-, and Latin pes, ped- all with the same meaning.

In 1786, when earlier scholars were exploring the riches of Sanskrit, the orientalist Sir William Jones had written,

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

When in the twenty-first century we identify an English word as having links with Sanskrit (as well as examples given above, the diverse list includes pundit on the one hand and summer, ten, turf, and wheel on the other) we are not only tracing the history of an individual word. We are given a glimpse of the interrelationship of language families—and reminded of earlier centuries when those interrelationships were still a matter of hypothesis and exploration.