Monday, 3 March 2014

Of Words and Things, Arabic and Hindi

Things have names; indeed, things without names do not seem to exist. What does not seem to exist is not our concern; we are concerned here with things which exist and have names. And not only exist but travel long distances in time and space. Incidentally, names are vocal; that is, they are spoken and heard as words, short or long. For example, scientific instruments like radio and television, ever since their appearance have journeyed, so to speak, all around the world. And even beyond into outer space. They have of course carried their names to wherever they have been. 

It is true that in our age of science and technology such things travel quite fast and far from the place of origin; but even in earlier days things tended to be mobile and did not stay still. And when they moved from one place to another they naturally carried their names, and words used to speak them. We shall cite here a few examples of some interesting journeys of words and things between Arabic and Hindi speaking peoples.

Piil is a very old Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is the name of the language in use in Ancient India from which Hindi, a modern Indian language, derives. Now, Piil refers to the animal to which the English word elephant refers. The Arabic word corresponding to elephant in English and pill in Sanskrit-Hindi is fiil. On the basis of the correspondence we can set up the following equation. Sanskrit-Hindi piil=Arabic fiil = English elephant. This equation makes three points. First, it makes the close formal similarity, in fact, the near identity between Sanskrit piil and Arabic fill explicit. Secondly, by the same token, it makes the formal difference between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil on the one hand, and English elephant on the other quite obvious. Thirdly, it raises an interesting question.

The question concerns the near identity between Sanskri-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil. Specially, the question demands an explanation of the striking formal and referential similarity between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil. Normally, linguists explain phenomena of this nature in two ways. One way of explaining it is to show that two near identical lexical items like Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil are continuation of one and the same common lexeme or word in the parent language. The difference in form, slight or extensive, is then accounted for by the change of sounds in one or the other language, or in both languages. For instance, the English word fire and Greek word pyr demonstrate near identity; they are referentially identical; that is, they refer to the same phenomenon in the external world, they are translation equivalents. Their formal difference is visibly minimal; they differ in respect of their initial sounds only. Their near identity is then accounted for by stating that the two words in English and Greek are the continuation of one and the same word in their parent language called Indo-European, and that Indo-European sound /p/ changed into English to /f/, but remained  /p/ in Greek.

However, this explanation is not available to us in the case of Arabic fiil and Sanskrit–Hindi piil. We cannot say that the two words are continuation of one and the same common word in the parent language, the formal difference being sound change in Arabic or Sanskrit. The reason is simple:

Arabic and Sanskrit-Hindi have not descended from a common parent language. While Arabic is a Semitic language, Sanskrit-Hindi is a demonstrably Indo-European language; the two are genetically unrelated.

The other way of explaining such close similarity between two or more words in two genetically unrelated language is to show that one language has borrowed the words from the other language. That is, the near identity between piil and fiil may be accounted for by demonstrating that either Arabic has borrowed from Sanskrit-Hindi or Sanskrit-Hindi has borrowed from Arabic.

First, let us consider the possibility of Sanskrit-Hindi borrowing piil from Arabic. Obviously, the possibility of it ever happening is zero. Obviously, because a word like piil cannot occur in Arabic: Arabic sound-system does not contain the sound /p/ with which this word begins. Thus, piil is not a possible Arabic word. Besides, the animal itself referred to by piil or fiil does not exist at present nor has it ever existed in that part of the Arab word with which native speakers of Sanskrit-Hindi have been in regular contact with for centuries. Thus, we might conclude that Hindi could not have borrowed piil from Arabic. On the other hand, there is a real possibility of Arabic borrowing piil from Sanskrit-Hindi. The basis of this assertion are the same two complementary considerations used earlier to eliminate the possibility of Sanskrit-Hindi   borrowing piil from Arabic.

Piil is not only a possible word in Sanskrit, it is a real word in Sanskrit lexicon from which Hindi has inherited it. Besides, it is firmly integrated into Sanskrit–Hindi lexical system. For example, one can add the suffix –maan or –waan to piil in Sanskrit to mean “he who possesses or owns elephants”. However, in the passage from Sanskrit to Hindi there has occurred a slight change of meaning; in Hindi it has come to mean “he who looks after an elephant, feeds it, washes it, generally tends it”. The point worth making is that the Sanskrit-Hindi word piilmaan or piilwaan in the past was, and still is, albeit with a slight semantic change, a living word, not a loanword, but a native word. Besides, the animal so named is found in abundance even today in the deep forests of India. Indeed, elephants are so intimately associated with the country of India that no globetrotter considers his tour of India complete without an elephant ride. Thus we can safely conclude that ‘piil’ is a native Sanskrit-Hindi word and that it was borrowed into Arabic as fiil, at least as early as 14C. C.E. when Ibn Battuuta visited India. True, when it was borrowed, its form was slightly modified, but the meaning remained unchanged.

For the sake of completing the itinerary of ‘fiil’ as of now, let us add that it seems to have been borrowed back in this form, slightly modified though, into some of the dialects of Hindi spoken today. Here is an evidence of it. There is a disease called elephantiasis in English. It is a disease in which the leg of a person swells and becomes fat like the legs of an elephant and the skin too turns rough and thick like the skin of an elephant. The name of this disease in Hindi is ‘phillpaaw’; this word consists of two parts; ‘piil’ and ‘paaw’. The first part‘phiil’ means ‘elephant’ (notice the similarity between Arabic 'fill' and 'phiil') and the second part ‘paaw’ means ‘foot’ in Hindi. That is to say, the translation equivalent of English ‘elephantiasis’ in Hindi now is ‘phiilpaaw’, and not ‘piilpaww’ meaning ‘elephant foot’. It should be clear that Hindi has now come to possess beside ‘piil’‘phiil’ as well, which is very similar to Arabic ‘fiil’. We can account for the presence of‘phiil’ in Hindi as an instance of borrowing from Arabic.

Let us recall our conclusion recorded earlier that Arabic ‘fiil’meaning ‘elephant’ is a loanword from Sanskrit-Hindi. This conclusion receives support from one or two other examples. For instance, there is an Arabic word ‘fil fila’ called ‘pepper’ in English, and there is a Sanskrit word pippli, even a Greek word ‘Peperi’ meaning ‘a pungent aromatic condiment’. Now it is true that in Arabic ‘filfila’ does not exactly refer to the same referent, a spice, as Sanskrit ‘pippli’ does but it is pretty close to it. It is so close that the slight displacement in the referent cannot invalidate the argument and the conclusion based on it that Arabic filfila has been borrowed from Sanskrit with the change of p-sound into f-sound and the addition of a second l-sound.
Still another example comes to mind at this point there is a Sanskrit-Hindi word ‘Karpuur’, and an Arabic word ‘Kaafuur’. The two words refer to the same material thing; they obviously resemble each other in pronunciation. The only difference between the two that concerns us here is the correspondence of Sanskrit-Hindi /p/ and Arabic /f/. On the basis of the correspondence between the three lexical items we have considered, namely Sanskrit–Hindi ‘piil’ and Arabic ‘fiil’; Sanskrit ‘pippli’ and Arabic ‘filfila’, Sanskrit-Hindi ‘karpuur’ and Arabic ‘kaafuur’, one is tempted to tentatively formulate a general sound correspondence rule that, at an earlier stage Arabic tended to replace Sanskrit-Hindi p-sound by its f-sound, whenever it borrowed a Sankrit-Hindi word. At an earlier stage, because now the native speaker of Arabic tends to replace Hindi p-sound most often by their b-sound. For example, Patna, the name of a city in India is rendered in Arabic as Batna and Kapil, the name of a person, is rendered in Arabic as Kabil.

This is not surprising at all. Inded, it is a fact universally acknowledged that whenever a language borrows a lexical item from another language, it tends to modify the original item, radically or slightly and adjusts its sound and meaning to its own system of sound or meaning. Even if the meaning is preserved, the sound is almost always modified. In this regard, let us consider another pair of words: Sanskrit-Hindi ‘Chandan’=English ‘Sandal’ and Arabic ‘Shandal’; in English it corresponds to ‘sandal’ meaning ‘scented wood of species of Santalum’. Ch-sound, like the initial and final sound of the English word ‘church’, in borrowed words, is normally replaced in Arabic by a sound similar to sh-sound, resembling the initial sound in English ‘ship’. Accordingly ch sound of Sanskrit-Hindi ‘chandan’ is replaced by sh-sound in Arabic and the final n-sound is dissimilated to l-sound giving rise to ‘shandal’. From Arabic the word has been borrowed into English as ‘sandal’, the word by which the world today knows this kind of scented wood. Although the wood grows in India, the world calls it by its Arabic name; you can take ‘sandal’, if you please, as the measure of the closeness of relationship between  words and things, Arabic and Hindi. Indeed, most Indians are quite unaware of the fact that the name of the soap marketed and used all over the country, ‘sandal’ soap, ultimately derives from Sanskrit – Hindi word ‘chandan’.

This brief description of the travels of a few words between India and Arabia, it is hoped, throws some interesting light on the nature and extent of historical bond between  the speakers of Hindi and Arabic today. 

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