Sunday, August 21, 2011

The influence of Indian languages in English

One of the characteristics of English is its facility to acquire new words from other languages and insert them in the corpus of the language.
Though it is a Germanic language, a great part of its vocabulary comes from Latin, either directly from this classic language or through the Romance languages, especially French. But English has also been influenced by languages that are spoken in far away countries with which it has come into contact thanks to the expanse of the British Empire throughout the world, and one of these countries is India, the Jewel in the Crown.
The Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, belonged to the British Empire from 1858 until 1947, when it became independent after a long period of tumults mixed with the nonviolent demonstrations inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.
The British Raj
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most widely used words in English coming from Indian languages are:
  • Bungalow: a small house having a single storey, from the word bangla, meaning “Bengalese”, or “house in the Bengal style”.
  • Dungaree: heavy denim fabric or the trousers or overalls made with this material.
  • Shampoo: originally a body massage given after pouring warm water over the body and then rubbing it with extracts from herbs. Today, it refers liquid soap for washing hair. The word comes from champo, imperative of the verb champna, which means “to press”.
  • Dinghy: a small boat carried on a larger boat, or an inflatable rubber life raft.
  • Cushy: easy, comfortable, making few demands. From the word khusy, meaning “pleasant”.
  • Juggernaut: an overwhelming force that crushes everything in its path, a large lorry or truck. The word comes from Jagannath, title of the god Krishna, meaning “Lord of the world”.
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From the times of colonialism two words that today are only heard in films are:
  • sahib: a term of respect for important white Europeans, used after the name, from sahab, meaning “master”.
  • mensahib: from ma’am (madam) + sahib, the term used for European women.

Thanks to the study of Hindu philosophy and Buddhism, several religious terms have entered English from Sanskrit, the classical language of Hindu India:
  • Nirvana: a blissful state characterized by the extinction of desire and suffering. Literally, it means “blowing out”.
  • Yoga: a Hindu discipline aimed at promoting the control of body and mind.
  • Karma: destiny, fate, the idea that one reaps what one sows.
Apart from these, a whole bunch of words related to the delicious Indian culinary recipes can be found not only in English but in most other European languages: tandoori, tikka masala, samosa, chutney,... Mmmm! Yummy!
Tandoori chicken
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In the following video from the BBC “Horrible Histories” programme, we can see how many countries fell under the rule of the British Empire at any given time in History. This programme is made for children, so take it with a pinch of salt!

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