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CHAPTER 3 – Roots

CHAPTER 3 – Roots

From the examples we have given above, one thing stands out prominently: that words have histories. A word can always be traced back to a dim past, to its more ancestral forms.

The study of this aspect of words is called etymology. Ety- mology tries to trace back the history of a word to its earliest recorded form; it also tries to trace its transmission from one language to another. Further, it tries to formulate the laws of sound shifts in this process of transmission and historical changes.

This study reveals that words are often made up of several component parts; that of these parts not all are equally important but some constitute the very soul of these words. Most of the changes that occur in the chequered history of a word or in its pilgrimage from country to country and language to language revolve round this basic part. Etymology tries to identify these basic parts, tries to trace them and their cognates in other lan- guages and to their ancestral forms. It studies root-words and cognate words; it studies etymons and morphemes and vocables that abide through various inflections and changes. It also studies these changes themselves, changes in phonetics and meanings as the words march down through the corridors of time in various disguises and trappings. It is found that these changes are not arbitrary; they follow a pattern.

It is interesting to follow words in their twists and turns and changing shades of meanings. It is interesting to see how through various inflections, vicissitudes, variations and changing forms, certain root-meanings and root-sounds remain relatively stable. Through apparently dissimilar words, one goes back to their ancestral forms from which they all are derived. This common parentage unites them in a new bond, a new family of relation- ships. A language is no longer a compendium of disparate, self- sufficient, arbitrary units called words. Words become parts of a family, brothers and sisters, cousins and in-laws.

A word also incarnates the history of a people. When the generations that speak a particular language die, words stay and their meanings stay with them. In fact, by the study of words and their successive meanings, it is possible to reconstruct the history of arace. It is like archaeology. Different meanings and shades of meanings stay embeded in different layers of a word, but one must learn to dig deeper and deeper into them and to be able to interpret the data properly to be able to find the hidden treasures there.

Suppose a people speaking a particular language get dispersed for one reason or another. In course of time, they are subject to different environments, stresses and strains and even lose the memory of their common ancestry. But in the deeper, unconscious part of their minds the words will preserve this memory and also embody the new experiences they have undergone.

We have also observed that a word is a living organism. Very often, a word is made up of several parts or limbs and, as in a human body, some parts are more essential than others. One part is prefixes and suffixes and infixes, just like hands and feet and other limbs in a human body. But a word has also its more vital parts where its life resides. It is called its stem, its root, its radical form, its core-sound. This radical root puts on many forms, enters into different combinations that modify its meanings beyond recognition. But the essential life resides there. It abides, persists through all ups and downs and disguises. Time may cover it with the moss of neglect, disuse and even abuse, but the essential meaning lies there like a smouldering coal covered over with ash. It could lie there dormant for generations but it again revives though often with changed meanings and in a disguised form under favourable circumstances. It dies and it rises again, Phoenix like, from its own ashes.

In the Sanskrit language, this sense of etymological unity, the sense of a mighty, luxuriant tree growing out of a limited number of root-syllables, is well preserved. The whole rich vocabulary of the Sanskrit language could be referred to 2,000 roots (1,750 distinct radical forms with 2,490 different meanings) which themselves are modifications of simpler elements.1 Panini gives a list of 2,343 roots excluding the Vedic roots which he omits. Of these only 500 are in use today. Some think that there are no more than 120 primitive roots.

These roots are generally monosyllabic, consisting of one consonant or two and combined with a vowel. Sometimes, the radical form is only a vowel. These forms are expanded by taking on affixes, suffixes and infixes. These again are expanded by the addition of prepositions, compounds, and compounds of compounds. This raises an edifice of half a million words.

We can see the same process at work in other inflectional languages like Persian, Greek and Latin. Another language which is very rich in this quality is Arabic. From a simple root of two or three consonants one could have hundreds of derivatives. For example, the root ktb, to write, gives kitab (book), katib (writer), maktub (letter), maktab (office), kutab (primary school), maktabah (library), kitabat (writing), mukatabat. (mutual correspondence), kitabah (the name-plate on a building or grave), katibah (army), etc. Another root gti, to kill, gives gatil (killer), magtil (the one killed), maqtal (place where killing takes place), quitdl (killing, war), muqdatalah (mutual killing).The root kvn gives makan (house), makin (dweller in a house), ka-in (the one who is born), kaun or ka-inat (creation, world), imkan (possibility), mumkin (possible), mutamakkin (that which grasps a place, stable). The root gvm gives maqdm (staying place), giyam (stay), ga-imah (post, pillar), ga-im (stable), gaum (nation), giyamat (day of judgement), gaumah (the standing posture during Muslim worship), gayyium (God, who always is), ga-imah (angle of 90°), etc. Another root qsd, gives qasd (desire, resolve), magqsid (aim), magqsid (desired, aim), gdsid (messenger), igtisad (economy), igtisadiyat (Economics), etc.

The Persian language is also inflectional in character. A root like guftan, to speak, gives guftah (that which has been said), guft (saying), guftagu (mutual talk), guftani (worth saying), guftar (speech, words), goyayi (the power of speech), goya (as if, speaker), etc. The root raftan, to go, gives raftar (gait, speed), raftah (gone or dead), raftah raftah (slowly), raftanit (who is worth going, who is likely to go), etc.

Though English is a Germanic language, it is considerably Latin and French in its vocabulary language. Many of its words are inflectional in character, though this is not widely realized. For example, as in the Sanskrit language, from the verbal root da, to give, we have dana (giving), addna (not giving), praddna (gift), abhidana (bestow for a purpose), datr (giver), daniya (worthy of gifts), datavya (to be given), daya (gift); similarly, in English we have from the same root words like donation, endowment, dowry and even anecdote, dose, condone, pardon, dative, and data. The line of transmission is through Greek and Latin. From the word ‘give’ of Anglo-Saxon origin, we have the words ‘gift’ and even ‘forgive’, and also ‘gavel’ (tribute), now out of use.

But English is tending to become, at least in its names, nomen- clature and word-formations, an isolating type of language. Each word tends to stand apart. Their inter-connections and family relationships, their history and growth tend to be forgotten.

For example, an average English-knowing man may still see that prefixes and suffixes have gone into the making of such words as im-possible, il-legal, al-mighty, meta-physics, forth-coming, mis-take. But not many could guess that the following words are not one but combinations of words and prepositions: af-fair, ]-ute, am-brosia, an-oint, ann-oy, anth-em, ba-lance, en-ergy, en-emy, de-luge, anci-ent i-gnore, belli-c-ose, apo-logy, sy-stem, e- normous, e-mit, oc-casion, meth-od, s-ample. And who will think that the word particle is not one word but contains two diminutives (cu and la)? The word is a compound one—parti-c-le, very, very small part.

Similarly, who could guess that there is a common root, L. pendére, to hang, allied to a still older Skt spand, to vibrate, in the following words: pend-ent, pend-ul-um, pens-ible, ap-pend, com-pendium, de-pend, ex-pend, im-pend, s-pend, sus-pend, sti- pend, per-pend or in pens-ion, pens-ive, com-pens-ate, dis-pense, ex-pense, pre-pense, pro-pense, also in poise, pansy, ponder, pound, pre-ponderate?

In the Greek and Latin languages also, like the Sanskrit, prepositions and affixes are attached to simple basic roots and words to yield compound words with modified meanings.


Now let us look more closely at these roots and see what they do to a language and how a whole edifice of vocabulary arises on their foundation. We need not go into the question whether, historically speaking, names and nouns come first or whether verbs come first. Verbs, nouns and adjectives are distinct only grammatically. In thought, they are one and melt into one another. It is enough for our purpose to note that when we study a language analytically, at the back of apparently most dissimilar words, we find a syllable, which persists through various changes in the outer structure of those words and which seems to bind them, if we reflect sufficiently, in a bond of unity. It is a kind of nucleus which we find at the heart of many word-forms. Let us illustrate this point with a few examples.

Let us take a Sanskrit root, stha. Some of the modifications it undergoes are purely conjugational to indicate time and mood of the action in a sentence, but the root also goes into the making of such words as sthala (place, dry firm land, tableland), sthala (receptacle, plate, cup), sthanu (stationary, firm), sthana (place, position, posture), sthapatya (architecture, building), sthavara (immovable), sthira (firm, solid, compact), sthita (standing firm), sthiti (standing upright, position), sthuna (post, pillar), sthavira (strong, powerful, ancient, venerable, old), sthila (stout, massive, thick, coarse). By adding certain prefixes to the root, we get another order of words with modified meanings like adhi-stha (to dwell) anu-stha (to perform), ava-sthd (to stand still), vyava-stha (to remain), ut-sthd (to rise), upa-sthda (to wait upon), ni-sthda (to be versed in), pra-stha (to set out).

We meet this word in other Indo-Aryan languages also, with a little change as a result of sound-shifting. In Greek, it is histasthai, to stand; in Latin stare, to stand; in German stehen, to stand. Travelling through these routes, the original root enters into such present-day English words as stand, state, station, stationary, statue, status, stature, statuette, statuesque, stage, statute, stamina, stamen, statics, still, stead, steady, steadfast, stow, stall, apostasy, stable, statistics, standard, etc.

We find the same story repeated if we take other roots. The Sanskrit root bhi has given us hundreds of words like bhava (existence), bhavana (abode, mansion), bhiiti (existence, might, prosperity), bhuta (what has been, creature, being) bhavisya imminent, future), bhavya (existing, likely to be, excellent, beautiful), bhava (being, truth, state, condition, sentiment, disposition of the mind), bhavin (future). Then the addition of certain prefixes to the root has given other words like pra-bhu (excelling, mighty, lord), pra-bhava (might, power, majesty), pra- bhava (source, origin), pard-bhava (defeat, humiliation), vi-bhi (all-pervading), vi-bhvan (far-reaching, pervading), vibhuman (extension, greatness), pari-bhava (insult, disgrace, injury, contempt), svayam-bhi (self-born), sam-bhava (meeting occur- rence, possibility), etc.

The Greek form of this root is phynai (to be born, be by nature) and phyein (to bring forth). It has given to the English language words like, physic, physics, physiology, physician, physiognomy, euphuism. The Latin form is fui, I have been. It has given the word future. From its Old High German form bian, to dwell, and Old English form béon, to be, we derive words like build, bower, byre, booth, boor, busk, be.

Similarly, the Sanskrit root jfid, to know, has given us jnana (knowledge), jfdta (known), jfdati (intimately acquainted, a near relation), jnapti (intelligence), and ajnda (permission), anu-jnana (permission) ava-jnd (despisement), abhi-jnd (recognition), prati-jna (promise), vi-jndna (ascertainment), sam-jnana (unanimity, right conception).

In Greek, it appears in a reduplicated form in gignoskein; Latin form is gnoscere or noscere, to come to know; Old High German is bichnaan, to know, to recognize; Russian is znate. These have given to the English language knowledge, acknowledge, gnostic, ignorant, noble, cunning, keen, can, ken, narrate.

These examples could be easily multiplied but it is not neces- sary. It is enough for our purpose to feel the unity of words that apparently look dissimilar, to see that they are held together like beads on a thread. The thread is provided by the lowly and upretentious roots.

These examples do not yet show how primary, seed-syllables came to have the primary, seed-meanings they have. We do not know whether their mutual link is an arbitrary one—though there is no record of a body of men getting together to call certain ideas by certain syllables. We are personally inclined to believe that the relationship is natural and intimate, though it is difficult to explain it and to demonstrate it.

But once a particular sound or syllable has been chosen to stand for a particular seed-idea or action, the rest of the process is relatively clear though there must still remain important questions to answer. We can see the tree of language growing. We can see a seed-syllable raising a family of words. At first sight, the members may appear to be unrelated. For example, what is there in common between a statue, stall, statistics, and apostasy? Or between physics, build and bower? But if we keep the core- syllable and its meaning in mind, we can easily appreciate that the relationship between these words is a just one. They are linked ina common bond. They are held together by an inner appropriate- ness. Their referents invoke in the mind a common quality— though that is not the only quality they invoke. But this is a sug- gestion we shall take up later on. It is enough to note for the time being that words have strong psychological links.

There is another point which the above examples help to bring out in relief. A word is a living thing. It is pregnant with life and possibilities. It grows and expands and unfolds its meanings in a hundred directions. The process of unfoldment and development, like all truly vital processes, is unconscious but truly intelligent and wise. When you study the links between the words of the same family, you find them sensible ones.

Words are related because they develop a related sense of the basic idea. Dip, deep, dive, dove are illustrations in hand. Ride, rider, road, raid and perhaps even ready are other examples. A road, a rider, and a roadster are physically speaking different things but they are functionally related. This relationship is brought out by their common origin in a common root-syllable. Similarly, in Sanskrit, we have the words ratha (chariot), rathin (charioteer), rathyd (carriage, highway), illustrating the same principle. The other words are patha (road), pathika (traveller), pathaka (guide), patheya (provision for a journey), pathya (suitable for journey, hence proper, wholesome diet).

Similary, the relationship between sit, seat, session, seance, sediment and residence can be easily appreciated; but other derivatives like sedentary, insidious, dissidence, subsidiary and obsession are also equally apt.

In Sanskrit, one word for a tree is vrksa. Some derive it from the root brh, which means both to tear, pluck and also grow; others connect it with the root vrasc, to cut down, hew. In either case, the derivation is appropriate. A tree is that which grows or that which is felled.

Similarly, take the word ‘rat’. It is related to and derived from the same source as words like erosion and corrosion. It is derived from the L. rodere, to gnaw. Behind this is probably the sense of the Skt. rad, to bite, scratch, which gives us the Skt. word rada, a tooth. Some etymologists believe that the words erase, abrase, and razor are also connected with the same origin.

Another name for a rat is mu=s+aka or mu=s+ika or mu=s+a in Sanskrit. It is derived from the verbal root mis, to steal. This root also gives us the Gk. mus, L. mis, Swedish mus, Rusian muish, Ger. maus and the English mouse. A mouse is a stealer.

Mouse has given us some other words like ‘muscle’. A muscle must have looked like a little mouse (L. musculus) to the name- givers.


A word does not merely develop the meaning of its root. Waiting in the memory bank or floating in a psychic matrix, its meanings are modified by association with other words of similar sound or import. For example, take the word ‘surround’. Etymologically, it derives from L. undare, to flow, or unda, a wave (Skt. und or ud, to flow, bathe, giving us udan, water; giving us other cognates like Gk. hudor, Gothic wato, Lithuanian wanduo, Ger. wasser, all meaning English water). The L. unda, a wave, had the sense of ‘overflowing’, ‘plentiful’. These two senses enter into all the words, like abundant, redundant, abound, surround, derived from unddre. But though ‘overflowing’ was the primary meaning of the word ‘surround’, its meaning has been modified by association with the word ‘round’ which indeed.has quite a different derivation. As a result, now surround means to envelop, to encompass and not abound.

The meaning of a root-syllable is not a fixed quantity, clearly and mechanically marked and understood. The meaning is broad and protean and capable of many applications, as we have seen in the above examples. Sometimes a stem gives rise to words which develop its different potential meanings; sometimes one word has to make do and express the several meanings of its root.

For example, take the words ‘satisfactory’, ‘sate’ and ‘satiate’. All the three are derived from the L. sat, satis, enough, satur, full; but while the ‘enough’ of a thing could ‘satisfy’ one, it could ‘sate’ another. So the same stem gives two words which express two possibilities of the mind. That which should satisfy could satiate if an inner culture is lacking. They also provide a com- mentary on our objects of desire or on our two experiences. One could say that that which satisfied also sated or that what we call our satisfaction is a form of satiation. When some people say they are satisfied, they are only sated.

The word ‘sad’ is also akin to the same source. Its equivalents Gothic sath, Ger. satt, L. satur, all mean full, filled, sated, satisfied. Satiation makes for weariness and tiredness and eventual sadness. Or, there is a kind of filling and glutting which makes for heaviness, dullness and sorrowfulness. These are legitimate meanings, even when they appear to be opposed, which these words develop from the same stem.

These two senses, higher and lower, appear to be inherent in the meaning of any stem. For example, take another word, ‘simple’. It is derived from the L. simplex which literally means one-fold, opposed to L. duplex, two-fold. The word means guileless, straight. In Sanskrit, it would mean nirgrantha, one without knots. But there is a kind of simplicity which lacks discrimination and borders on stupidity. So there is another word to convey that sense, ‘simpleton’ which means foolish, credulous or easily deceived.

Similarly, there is the word ‘morose’. It derives from the L. morosus, self-willed. In a good sense, it meant scrupulous; in a lower sense, it meant peevish. Now the lower sense has sup- planted the good sense completely.

The word ‘moral’ like the word ‘morose’, derives from the same source, L. mor from mos, custom, will. ‘Moral’ means behaviour in conformity with the customs of the people or action done with a good-will. It now means ethical behaviour, while morose, from the same source, means someone sullen and gloomy. Good-will is necessary for good action; but if it is not good enough, it makes a man fastidious and difficult to please. So the two words seemingly so opposed are psychologically related. And because they are related, they are also sometimes confused. While virtue tends to make some people morose, others feel moral when they are only gloomy and sullen.

Of the two senses inherent in a stem, sometimes one age develops one sense, another age another sense. For example, take the word ‘sullen’. It is derived from the L. solus, alone. And once it only meant that—solitary. But a later age brought out the other psychological implications of this way of life. Now it means one who hates company, who is gloomy, who is resentfully silent, who is angry.

Take another word ‘silly’. The word once meant happy, blessed, innocent. But whether the thinking of the age changed or it was inherent in the original meaning, the meaning of the word has now changed beyond recognition. Silly now means pitiable, feeble, harmless, foolish. Innocence is innocuous; therefore, feeble. People also no longer seek the blessedness of happiness; they seek power and possession.

In any case, as is obvious from the above discussion, a word has generally to bear the burden of several meanings inherent in its stem. Sometimes one meaning is dropped and another is taken up, or one is in the background and another is in the forefront. But generally one word has several meanings piled up layer upon layer.

Take a few examples like ‘cavalier’, ‘chivalrous’, and ‘gallant’ to illustrate this point. The word ‘cavalier’ derives from L. caballus, a horse, and means a horseman. In its higher sense, it meant a gallant, chivalrous person. But it also means a debonair, one given to off-hand dismissal of men and matters, one with an aristocratic contempt for the common herd. A horseman, which at one time meant one belonging to the higher class, was capable of behaving in two opposite ways. And, therefore, the word expres- ses both these senses of the word.

The word ‘chivalrous’ too had the same two senses. It derives from Old French cheval, a horse, and meant a mounted man-at- arms. Then it came to describe his qualities of martial valour and knightly skill. Later on, it began to describe a mere social class of gallant or distinguished gentlemen. But to provide a higher ideal of conduct for this class, chivalry was also defined as valour, generosity, honour, courtesy, especially courtesy towards women. A word must describe the actual as well as the ideal status of an idea.

Again, take the word ‘gallant’. It has passed through a whole gamut of meanings. Originally it meant gay, splendid, festive, ornate—the word ‘gala’ still retains that sense. It meant a young man of fashion, showy in dress or bearing; then attentive to ladies, or given to amorous intrigues, or just any civil person. The psychological links are clear. Over-dressed people show off their dresses and they put on manners as they put on ornate clothes for amorous purposes; their civility is a form of amorous game, amorous intrigue. Then from the sense of one who paid court to ladies and fought for them, it acquired the meaning of one who was courteous and brave.

All the words quoted have several layers of meaning, as we have seen.


But there are other words of great moral import which exemplify almost perfectly the truth that words develop their inner meanings. The few examples given incorporate elements of historical experience, but there are words which in developing the original sense of the stem express those deeper moral truths which are in a sense ahistorical. For example, take the word ‘virtue’. Its Sanskrit ancestor is vira, manly or brave. Its immediate source is L. uir, man, or uirtis, manly. Then it was extended to mean virtue in the present sense of ‘excellence’ and ‘goodness’. It also acquired a third meaning—‘effectual’ or ‘having effect’ in phrases like ‘by virtue of’. So the phrase means manliness, courage, merit, goodness, authority and power. A related Sanskrit word would perhaps be pra-Sasta or udara meaning noble, lofty, high, illustrious, great, best, generous, upright, liberal, gentle, effective, energetic, good, happy, and auspicious.

All these meanings are not joined by convention. They are joined and held together by a psychic force, by an inner nuclear pull, by an inner spiritual appropriateness. From the above example, it is clear that the meanings ‘merit’, ‘excellence’, and ‘goodness’, or at least an important part of these meanings, could only be expressed by a word which also means ‘manliness’. These meanings represent a deep inner unity and the link between them is a necessary one, to use a philosophic term. So the bond between a word and its meaning is not conventional, artificial or contin- gent. The relationship comes into being through an inner spiritual process with an intuitive perception and hidden wisdom working at the back. The meanings of a word are inherent in it, some manifest, others still in seed-form. There is nothing artificial about them. ’

These meanings go together even when there are two different words in two different languages and drawn from two different roots. For example, take the word ‘beauty’. It immediately derives from beau, which itself comes from L. bellus, handsome, fine, fair. But bellus itself is a specialized variant of bonus, good. Bonus in turn connects beauty to ‘bounty’ through bonitas. Some would also like to link them up with the Vedic duvas, honour, reverence, worship, gift. Thus the unconscious wisdom of the mind sees a connection between beauty, goodness and liberality. Or, at least there is a beauty in goodness which goes beyond prettiness; similarly, there is a comeliness which only comes from goodness and liberality. So the good is also the beautiful and the bountiful. It is also reverence and worship.

In Sanskrit, these related meanings are expressed by another word of a different origin—sri. The word means light, lustre, glory, beauty, prosperity, dignity, auspiciousness, success, riches, majesty. In the intuitive vision of the soul, these qualities go together. There is beauty and glory in light and with them go prosperity, auspiciousness, and majesty.

Take another English word ‘glad’. It now ordinarily means cheerful, happy; but it has other shades of meaning also. Its older Anglo-Saxon meaning was shining, bright. Its old Germanic form ‘glatt’ also meant smooth, even. Through a Scandinavian channel, it is also related to ‘glade’ which means an open space in a wood. The mind has perceived a link between joy, light and space. The Upanishads say: ‘There is a joy in the Vast’! To the logical positivists, these links are unfortunate and signify slovenly thinking but these are the very soul of a word, as we shall see more fully.

In Sanskrit, we have a similar word related to the above, related not etymologically but psychologically. The word is prasanna or prasada, both derived from a root pra-sad. Pra-sad means to sit down, to settle down, to grow clear and bright, to become satisfied. The word provides not only interesting psychological links between different concepts but describes a whole system of Yoga. Sit down restfully; that will lead to tranquility; tranquility will lead to clarity and purity; purity will lead to joy.2 These steps have been taught by Patajijali and the Buddha very clearly and analytically. Here a single word has preserved those teachings in a congealed form.

In these concepts, the flow from one meaning to another is fairly obvious. But there are words, particularly in the still higher realm, which unite even two opposite concepts.

For example, among the Hindus the word ‘Siva’, the auspicious one, is also applied to rudra, the terrible one. In fact, Siva and Rudra are two names of the same God. Amongst Greeks, the Furies were called eumenides, the gracious ones or benevolent ones or those of good will. Similarly, the night was called euphrone, benevolent.


We have discussed so far the development of words. We have seen how words develop from root-syllables and branch off into several pathways. We have seen how in their development while incorporating new historical experience they develop the seed- meanings of the seed-syllables. We have seen how words in their developed forms convey several meanings which sometimes appear wide apart but which, on a closer look, are found to be held together by an inner psychological affinity. There is no doubt that a stem could develop in hundreds of directions, but a language develops only some of its possibilities, just as it utilizes only a few dozen speech-sounds out of innumerable ones. One language develops one possibility; another language develops another. A possibility developed by one language could be dropped altogether by a sister language and it may branch off in quite a different direction. It may create a new word of its own or give old words new meanings and shades of meaning under the stress of new experiences. Words in one language may lose the memory of their ancestry, while this memory may be retained by words in some sister language. All these factors—sound-shifts, develop- ments of seed-syllables in different directions, changed meanings under new circumstances, forgetfulness of original forms— contribute in making a new language out of an old one.

These new languages may develop the possibilities of a nucleus-syllable in their own diverse ways, but most possibilities still remain untapped. They remain latent. They are the source of future developments of a language. So, in a sense, seed-roots hold within themselves all languages, all meanings, actual and potential, past, present and future.

Can we enter into this larger life of words? Is it possible to establish some kind of contact with their hidden meanings? We shall have occasion to refer to these questions again.

  1. M. Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Introduction, p. xiii, fn. 5. 

  2. Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.’ Old Testament, Psalms, 97.11.