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Etymology is the study of the origin of words and their meanings. Nirukta is the word used in Sanskrit to refer to one of the ancillary sciences connected to the Vedas, which covers etymology, and studies the interpretation of the words in the Vedas. The most well-known ancient scholar in this area, whose works have come down to us, is Yāska. His work is simply called the Nirukta. There were many etymologists before him and Yāska built his theories over the vast amount of work that existed before him. Gārgya was one such ancient etymologist Yāska quotes but disagrees with. Yāska claims to be a successor of Śākaṭāyana, an early etymologist, who also he quotes. In comparison, the earliest western etymologist was Plato, and Yāska predates Plato by many centuries.
The Nirukta of Yāska is a treatise on etymology and semantics, explaining how words in the Vedas got their meanings. Many of the words he explains are from the Nighaṇṭu, a thesaurus of words appearing in the Vedas. Some say that Yāska himself is the author of the Nighaṇṭu also.
The period of Yāska is uncertain. He is thought to have lived in the early part of the first millennium BCE.
Yāska applied a practical and scientific method to deriving the origin of words. He was a secular man and did not ascribe any ritualistic, mystic or supernatural elements to his analysis. Yāska’s Nirukta is the earliest surviving etymological treatise in the world.
The basic premise of Yāska’s study was that all words in a language can be reduced to a set of basic elements called roots. No word in a language is underivable from some root or other. He enunciated three general principles for deriving words from roots.
The first principle is: derive words from roots in the normal fashion modifying the root to get regular grammatical forms. For example, pācaka from the root pac “cook”, bheda from bhid ‘break”, bodha from budh “know” etc. These words are formed by taking the root, modifying the root (guṇating or vr̥ddhi-ing) and adding standard suffixes. But Yāska says that one need to be careful when applying this principle to go back to the root, as the word may have undergone
- syncope (loss of one or more sounds from the interior of a word) eg. jagmuḥ “they went” from root gam “go”
- metathesis (transposition of sounds and syllables in a word, especially contiguous ones) eg. tarku “spindle, knife” from root kr̥t “cut”
- anaptyxis (insertion of a vowel in a word) eg. bharuja “roast barley” from root bhrajj “fry, roast”
- haplology (elimination of a syllable when two identical or similar syllables occur consecutively) eg. tr̥ca from trir̥ca (tri + r̥ca “three verses”)
- assimilation (vowels or consonants changing to be more similar to nearby sounds) eg. mugdha “simple, naïve” from root muh “be crazed” (we saw this concept of assimilation in consonant Sandhis)
All these processes will make it difficult to get to the original root.
His second principle is: If the first principle cannot be used, use the meaning of the word and derive it from some similarity of form or similarity of letter or syllable. Thus, you can derive iṣṭi “sacrifice” from yaj “sacrifice”. It is important to understand this principle carefully and not misuse it. Many a time words that came from the same source would have altered so much that there is not much in common among them. For example, the Sanskrit word haṃsa, Latin anser, German Gans, Greek χήνα (china) and English goose have the same origin. It is important that this rule be applied only in reference to the context and the meaning of the word.
His third principle is: Derive the word in accordance with its meaning. If the meanings of words are the same, their etymologies should be same and if their meanings are different, their etymologies will be different. For example, the word iṣṭa we saw before derived from the root yaj means “sacrifice”. The same word derived from the root iṣ means “wished”. Similarly, the word anudāra analysed as an-udāra mean “miser”, but analysed as anu-dāra means “followed by wife”. This is true of other languages also. For example, the English word ‘sound’ can mean “noise”, “test the depth” or “strong”. The first two derivations are from Latin through French “son” and “sonder”, whereas the third is from Old English “sund”.
In English, the word clip has two opposite meanings – to fasten together and to cut! The word derives from two different sources Old (Germanic) English clyppan “clasp” and Old Norse klippa “cut”.
Yāska also discusses philology, origin of languages and parts of speech [Yāska names four – noun (being), verb (becoming), preposition and particle].
He has a very detailed discussion on how names of objects are formed. He implies that a particular name comes to be associated with a particular object even though other objects can also have the same name. For example, the word takṣaka “he who cuts wood” means “carpenter”, though others also can cut wood; or the word bhūmija “born of earth” is applied only to the planet Mars, though there are other things born of earth.
Yāska was a person who was remarkably free of fanaticism and bigotry and followed a very rationalistic approach to his deductions and analyses. In one of the chapters there is a frank discussion about the scepticism that obtained then about the authority of the Vedas and which claimed that the Vedic stanzas were meaningless. Yāska himself believed and establishes that the Vedic hymns are revealed (so authoritative) and handed down from generation to generation. His work is to facilitate the careful study of the Vedas.
There have been a few commentators of the Nirukta, the most important of which is by Durga or Durgasiṃha, an ascetic who was descended from Vasiṣṭha and who lived in a hermitage near Jammu in the 13th century CE.
There is an interesting episode in his commentary. Yāska uses the stanza RV 3.23.53 to explain the meaning of the word lodham. Durga refuses to comment on this because “The stanza in which this word occurs is hostile to Vasiṣṭha. And I am a descendant of Vasiṣṭha, of the Kapiṣṭhala branch, hence I do not explain this stanza.” It is interesting to note that the Vedas too sometimes showed the base instincts of people. In fact, Yāska says that some of the Vedic stanzas are imprecatory.