Vocab

Friday - - Leisure -

Speak­ing Ind-glish Any stan­dard English dic­tionary will have a num­ber of words that are de­rived from Hindi and other In­dian lan­guages. The English­s­peak­ing world on both sides of the At­lantic and else­where has be­come so used to them that no­body thinks of their ori­gin any more.

Bungalow, sham­poo, cot, loot, ve­ran­dah, are all de­rived from Hindi, but other In­dian lan­guages have made im­pres­sive con­tri­bu­tions: be­tel, co­pra, coir and teak are from Malay­alam, mon­goose, toddy and bandi­coot from Tel­ugu, jute from Ben­gali, and che­root and mango from Tamil.

As far back as the 1960s the US-based lin­guis­tic ex­pert Mo­han Lal Sharma ob­served that the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary listed more than 900 words of In­dian ori­gin with an equally im­pres­sive count in the Amer­i­can Mer­riam-Web­ster dic­tionary. Many In­dian words have found their way into English by de­vi­ous routes, es­pe­cially those orig­i­nat­ing in San­skrit. Candy and su­gar, for ex­am­ple, both come from San­skrit through Per­sian, Ara­bic and French; opal, and prob­a­bly pep­per, from San­skrit through Latin and Greek; and mango from Tamil through Malay and Por­tuguese.

The ear­li­est Bri­tish ar­rivals in In­dia adopted many of the cus­toms of the coun­try, and its words as well. Like the lo­cals they soon wore ba­nian clothes, chewed be­tel, ate pi­lau, cabobs and curry, and em­ployed (or even be­came) pun­dits or moguls. Other early bor­row­ings re­flected the trade they were en­gaged in, such as the tex­tiles chintz, tus­sore, and cal­ico (the last from the town of Cali­cut).

In­deed, the Bri­tish seem from the be­gin­ning to have formed the habit of whole­sale bor­row­ing from In­dian lan­guages. It wasn’t just an in­abil­ity to pro­nounce words of the In­dian lan­guages; rather, in the hey­day of An­glo-In­dia (in the 19th cen­tury), bor­row­ings be­came so pro­fuse as to con­sti­tute al­most a sep­a­rate lan­guage, pe­cu­liar to the Bri­tish in In­dia. In­dian words were used not only for In­dian things or ideas but also for all sorts of con­cepts for which there al­ready were per­fectly good English words.

New­com­ers from Eng­land were quite lost, and at least one Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral com­plained he couldn’t un­der­stand the re­ports of his own of­fi­cials! More next week.

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