ARABIC & HINDI [Archives:1998/30/Focus]

July 27 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
By: Dr. K.N Tiwary M.A, Ph.D.
Dept. of English,
Taiz University
Things have names; indeed, things without names do not seem to exist. What does not seem to exist is not our concern here; we are concerned here with things that 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 such as radio and television, ever since their appearance have journeyed, so to speak, all around the world. And even beyond into space. They have carried their names to wherever they have been. In parts of the world where Arabic is spoken, they are called by the name of (televizion), and (Radio) respectively.
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 people.
Piil is a very old Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is the name of the ancient Indian language from which Hindi, (a modern Indian language) derives from. Piil refers to the animal to which the English word elephant refers.
The Arabic word corresponding to elephant in English and Piil in Sanskrit-Hindi is fiil. On the basis of this 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 similarity, in fact, the near identity between Sanskrit piil and Arabic fiil explicit. Secondly, by the same token, it makes the formal difference between the Sanskrit-Hindi (piil) and the Arabic (fiil) on the one hand, and English elephant on the other hand quite obvious. Thirdly, it raises an interesting question.
The question concerns the near identity between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and the Arabic fiil. Specifically, the question demands an explanation of the striking formal and referential similarity between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and the Arabic fiil. Normally, linguists explain phenomena of this nature in two ways. One way of explaining it, is to show that the two near identical lexical items like Sanskrit-Hindi piil and the Arabic fiil is the 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 the Greek pyr meaning the same thing, demonstrate near identity. They are reverentially identical; that is, they refer to the same phenomena 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 the English sound /f/ but remained /p/ in Greek.
However, this explanation is not available to us in the case of the Arabic fiil and Sanskrit-Hindi piil. We cannot say that the two words are a 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 demonstrably an 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 languages is to show that one language has borrowed words from another language. That is, the near identity between piil and fiil may be accounts 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 near 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 world 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 the word 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 used in Sanskrit, it is a real word in Sanskrit lexicon, from which Hindi have 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 possess or owns elephants.” However, in the passage from Sanskrit to Hindi it has come to mean “he who looks after an elephant, feeds it, washes it, and generally tends it.” The point worth making is that the Sanskrit-Hindi piil-maan or piil-waan in the past was, and still is, albeit with a slight semantic change, a living word, not a loan word, 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 India that no globe-trotter considers his tour of India complete without an elephant ride. Thus, we can safely conclude that piil is a native Sanskrit-Hindi word and was borrowed by Arabic as fiil, at least as early as 14c. AD 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 this. There is a disease called “elephantiasis” in English. It is a disease in which a human’s leg swells and becomes fat like the legs of an elephant also the skin turns rough and thick like that of an elephant. The name of this disease in Hindi is “phiil paaw,” this word consists of two parts, “phiil” meaning elephant (notice the similarity with the Arabic “fiil”), and the second part “paaw” means foot in Hindi. That is to say the translation of the English word “elephantiasis,” in Hindi now is “phiil-paaw” and not “piil-paaw” meaning elephant’s foot.
It should be clear that Hindi has now come to possess, besides “piil,” “phiil” as well, which is very similar to the Arabic “fiil”. We can account for the presence of “phiil” in Hindi as an instance of borrowing from the Arabic language.
Let us recall our conclusion recorded earlier that Arabic “fiil” meaning elephant is a loan-word 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 the Sanskrit word is “pippli.” even a Greek word “peperi” meaning a ‘pungent aromatic condiment.’ Now it is true that the Arabic “fil-fila” does not exactly refer to the same referent spice, as Sanskrit “pippli” does, but it is very close. It is so close that the slight displacement in the referent cannot invalidate the argument and the conclusion based on it that Arabic “fil-fila” has been borrowed from Sanskrit with the change of the p- sound into the f- sounded 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. The only difference between the two that concerns us here is the correspondence of the Sanskrit-Hindi (p) and the Arabic (f) on the basis of their correspondence between the three lexical items we have considered, namely, Sanskrit-Hindi “piil” and the Arabic “fiil”, Sanskrit “pippli” and the Arabic “fil-fila”; the Sanskrit-Hindi “karpuur” and the Arabic “kaafuur”, one is tempted to tentatively formulate a general sound correspondence rule that, at an earlier stage Arabic tended to replace the Sanskrit-Hindi p- sound by its f- sound, whenever it borrowed a Sanskrit-Hindi word.
At an earlier stage, because now the native speakers of Arabic tend to replace the Hindi p- sound most often by their b- sound. For example, Patna, the name of a city in India is revealed in Arabic as (Batna) and kapil, the name of a person is rendered in Arabic as (Kabil).
This is not surprising at all, in fact it is universally acknowledged that whenever a language borrows a lexical item from another language, it tends to modify the original item, radically or slightly and adjust 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 (sandal); in English it corresponds to “sandal” meaning ‘scented wood of the Santalum species.’
The 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) resembling the initial sound in English “ship.” Accordingly to the ch- sound in Sanskrit-Hindi “chandan” is replaced by the sh- sound in Arabic, and the final n- sound is dissimulated to l- sound giving rise to the word “shandal” (Arabic ‘sandal)
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” as 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 the Sanskrit-Hindi word “chandan”.
This brief description of the travels of words between India and Arabia, it is hoped, throws some interesting light on the nature and extent of the historical bond between the speakers of Hindi and Arabic today.