Sanskrit has many words for animals and trees that do nothing else than describe one of their characteristic features. These words always consist of a noun or adjective, to which the shortened form of a root is added (for this process c.f. the article entitled: Words for king in Sanskrit, Greek and Old English). By this combination an associative observation is documented, which expresses, in a very primary and unprejudiced way, the impression the observed object left on the speaker of the language. Among the most frequent roots used in such formations are: गा (gā), to go, पा (pā), to drink, and जन् (jan) to be born.

Using गा (gā), two common words for snake are formed. The first adds the participle पन्न (panna), fallen, to the root, which results in पन्नगः (pannagaḥ): the one who goes having fallen, i.e. who does not go on legs. The second word is based on exactly the same observation of the snake’s characteristic lack of legs, which, in one or the other form, most animals use for locomotion. Here the first element is the noun उरः (uraḥ), breast. Combined with the same root, this results in उरोगः (urogaḥ), the one who goes on the breast.  The root गा (gā) is also used to describe the motion of a bird through its natural habitat, the ख (kha), the void, i.e. the air, making a bird a खगः (khagaḥ), one who goes through the empty spaces in the sky. Since the horse’s swiftness, in cultures around the world, has long fascinated man, it is not surprising that it can be called तुरंगः (turangaḥ) in Sanskrit, which means the one who moves with speed.

Words for elephant and tree are made by adding different first elements to the root पा (pā), to drink. Having observed that an elephant does usually drink in two steps, i.e. by sucking up water with its trunk and then squirting it into its mouth, the speakers of Sanskrit came up with the idea of calling the elephant the one who drinks twice: द्विपः (dvipaḥ). The observation that trees suck up water through their roots, and a comparison between the roots on which they stand and our feet, gave rise to the word पादपः (pādapaḥ) for tree, lit. the one who drinks with the feet.

Another word for bird is made with a second element derived from जन् (jan). The first element is the same as already used in the first word for elephant above, making a bird a द्विजः, one who is born twice, i.e. as an egg from the mother’s womb and from the egg into the world.

The beauty of these simple associative words lies in the tense receptivity of a first look unto the  billowing clouds of rainbow-flakes of smells, sounds, colours and forms scattered across the canvas of the universe. They are a kind of haiku or a couplet reduced to its simplest form – they are poetry as the act of looking at the world in disbelief for the very first time and being filled with wonder at the very possibility of its lush vigour.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages