Tuesday, May 09, 2006

you may already know classical sanskrit

While aware of the shared ancestry of the Sanskrit and English languages as members of the Indo-European languages family, I must confess to still feeling a sense of amazement whenever I come across an unanticipated or unexpected reminder of this.

Last week, I was listening to the Sanskrit recitation of the Bhagavad Gita while reading the English translation. And when the text mentioned brothers, the sanskrit word for it was bhratren, to all intents identical to the english brethren.

The online etymology dictionary threw up this interesting item:

O.E. broþor, from P.Gmc. *brothar, from PIE base *bhrater (cf. Gk. phratér, L. frater, O.Ir. brathir, Skt. bhrátár-, O.Pers. brata, Goth. bróþar, O.Prus. brati, O.C.S. bratru "brother"). As a familiar term of address from one man to another, it is attested from 1912 in U.S. slang; the specific use among blacks is recorded from 1973. Alternate pl. brethren was predominant c.1200-1600s, but survived only in religious usage. Colloquial shortening bro is attested from 1666. Brotherhood is M.E. broiþerhede (c.1300). In Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, etc., brother-in-law, when addressed to a male who is not a brother-in-law, is an extreme insult, with implications of "I slept with your sister."

I rather like the brother-in-law comment too :-]

Anyway, that was last week. This week, still slowly reading the Bhagavad Gita, I came across this Sanskrit passage:

tataḥ śvetair hayair yukte
mahati syandane sthitau

One Bhagavad Gita website translates this as: stationed on a great chariot drawn by white horses

Now place each sanskrit word next to its approximate english definition:

tatah/thereforẹ śvetair/white hayair/horses yukte/yoked
mahati/mighty syandane/chariot sthitau/situated

Isn't that amazing? With just a little assistance, someone who knows only English is able to almost fully read and understand a classical Sanskrit verse composed over two millenia ago. Maybe you are still sharp enough to learn a new language or two after all.