“Oi, You speak English?”, asks the guy to the taxi driver. “No”, comes the reply.
“Espanyol, Italiano?” “Noooo!”
Then Let’s Get Lost..! (Textual translation of a National Geographic advertisement, if you can recall)
Way to GO!! When I look back at the travels of the previous year, this Nat Geo ad seems to offer some succour. Not one of the 7-8 nations I visited over the last year spoke a native language I knew. But then isn’t that how we want our travels to be, and even though it’s a bit of a pain, it offers you the immense opportunity of discovering the people and the land through their language. As more and more people across the globe learn each other’s tongues, it amazes me how several of these languages are linked across not just countries but continents. And one doesn’t have to be a linguistics expert to understand that.
For instance, during a (super) tight budget trip to Europe, I had the rare fortune of possessing a two hundred Czech Krona(or Koruna) note for a brief time. What they wrote for ‘200’ intrigued me- ‘Dve Ste‘. I found it oddly similar to what one would call it in Sanskrit – ‘Dvi Shat‘. Similarly, while waiting for change in front of a foreign exchange counter in Prague, my friend asked how much change we were expecting back. ‘Dus‘ I replied in Hindi, meaning ten. Surprisingly, we heard the guy on the other side of the counter say the same! No, he didn’t know our language. In fact he was simply speaking Czech – actually saying ‘Deset‘, Czech for ‘ten’. Then there was Czech for ‘heart’ – ‘srdce’, once again makes you think if it has got anything to do with the Sanskrit word – ‘hrday‘. Perhaps even the English ‘cardiac’ is linked somewhere. There’s ‘pivo’ for beer. In another instance, in a lonely planet guide, I read what the Czech word for ‘source/fountainhead’ is – ‘zdroj‘. Similar to Sanskrit ‘Srot‘ for the same?? Not very sure though.
Moving closer home, while roaming around a beautiful beach in Sri Lanka, the name of an antique shop around the beach struck me – ‘Santhara‘. Very frankly, it’s a word I could have associated only with the texts of two religions in India – Buddhism & Jainism. The word literally refers to a mat, or something similar that’s stationary. Turned out it was the name of the store owner as well! I came home and after a bit of homework realised that Sinhalese, one of the major languages of Sri Lanka, has evolved from Prakrit (which itself was derived from Sanskrit) and not from the Dravidian languages (though definitely influenced by them). Of course, only two religious texts in India use Prakrit as their language in a major way – Buddhists and Jains. No wonder the similarity.
On the other side, the proximity of north Indian languages with Persian amazes me. No, not the use of Persian words in Hindustani. That is hardly a point worth making. We are so used to using Persian words in our language that most times we don’t even realise the difference between Sanskrit and Persian derived words. Though it does surprise you pleasantly when you hear the same words in Middle east. You’ll smile when in an inadvertent conversation with a Turkish (who doesn’t understand much English) you realise that in Turkish too, soap is ‘sabun‘, floor is ‘zemin‘, ground is ‘meydan’ and ‘air’port is ‘hava’limani.
But that’s not the point. The point is the similarity between ancient Indian languages and old Persian. It’s still said that the Avestan language of the Zoroastrians (another language from ancient times in Persia) was understood through the similarity it bore with Sanskrit and Old Persian. One wonders if Persian and Sanskrit were indeed sister/similar languages at some really ancient time, how did they evolve so much that Persian ended up influencing Indian languages all over again when Urdu came up as a result of this influence.
Perhaps it’s getting a little confusing now and so I’ll leave you with just this one last thought. How is it that the number ‘8’ is called in German, Hindi, Sanskrit, Sinhalese and English in so strikingly similar ways – Acht, Aath, Ashta, Ata and Eight, respectively? Mere coincidence??