The Theosophical Forum – October 1941


This question, if it keeps on cropping up, will divide students into not two but several camps — that of the plain person who has little faith in his capacity for judging and perhaps little time for study; the devotee (a trifle inert very often) who thinks that ethical teachings are enough; the brilliant mind that is too impatient to be profound; the congenital reformer who knows that he ought to learn but, alas! would rather teach; and, rare nucleus for the future! those quiet and genuine students who see that the hurdle of a handful of technical terms is very little indeed to consider in view of the tremendous speeding-up, spiritual and intellectual, that he sees also is the sure reward of taking it. In addition, there is the puzzled inquirer who doesn't know what he is, or where, but who, come wind come weather, is going to find out about Theosophy somehow, yet is confused by this wordy fog.

One is amazed at the persistence of this question, for the answer is simplicity itself. Theosophy will be written in English when we who speak this language have English words to express, understandably and succinctly, its clear direct teachings and ideas. Unfortunately, when Theosophy was brought to the West we had no such words. How could we have names for teachings and ideas of which our dictionaries were chemically pure and even Western scholars had never heard? Alice in Wonderland might uncover an answer, but we are speaking from Globe D.

As a matter of fact, the question as stated is purely rhetorical. What it means is, When will Theosophy be written in English without the inclusion of Sanskrit words and terms? However, let us take it as it stands, and the first step is to settle upon what we mean by "English." Just what is English? A dictionary might know something about it and one happens to be before us — the Funk and Wagnalls Collegiate. A less than ten-minute perusal of its pages discovers the following Sanskrit words: atman, amrita, buddha, guru, dharma, prakriti, sakti, sati (suttee) maya, sutra, Indra, Vishnu, Siva, trimurti, nirvana, Mahabharata, vina, yoga, and yogi.

Whatever these words were once, they're English now, as English as Chicago or Des Moines, regime, bouquet, piano, molasses, or some thousands of others once immigrant and suspect, now citizens. Returning however to the dictionary: it doubtless contains other Sanskrit words, perhaps many, but here we have twenty, a larger number than one can find in any but the most exceptional, even a technical, article. An Editorial Board composed of scholars, note, includes these words, without benefit of apology, in an English dictionary known to probably every college in America, thus posting them as belonging to the English language. Incidentally, before passing on, we check this list against the Practical Standard Dictionary on the shelves across the hall. We find every word there, too — and this in a dictionary described on the title-page as "Practical."

So what is this "English" in which Theosophy cannot be written, and yet can be? For we cannot repudiate these Sanskrit words without repudiating equally the almost numberless technical words today found not only in dictionaries but in dozens of glossaries on law, medicine, anatomy, botany, chemistry (Sanskrit, a language of compounds, has nothing to compare with the 40-letter unpronounceables of the chemist); or on pharmacy, versification, engineering, electrical science, etc., etc. Or on any subject that is technical but that, like Sanskrit, belongs in the now rising cycle of human knowledge and thus is worthy the steel of the worthwhile mind. Or glance down the columns of a competent Index in a technical book — say on botany which is well past its youth and harmless — and note the multitudes of words and terms at one time as strange to us as Sanskrit, but now by rite of adoption full citizens of the fatherland we call English. A bit of history must be inserted here, for the question, What is "English?" requires something more than a categorical answer.

What in due course came to be known as English had its roots in a spoken speech brought over to the island now called England, from the continent — from the forests of the North Sea and the Baltic, the low terrain of the Elbe, the Weser, and the Rhine, by migrating groups sifted from populous clans. First the Angles, then the Saxons, then the Frisians, the Norsemen, and the Danes. They brought their wives and children and their strong will to stay; they brought their household goods and gods; they brought their speech, their dialects, whose words were as exotic, as wholly strange, as Sanskrit is to most of us today. They fought their way to and into this island-country, and they settled down to stay.

It does not make the politest picture, but history paints it so, and after a century of the spade-work which was to make "Anglo-Saxon" the speech of this new land, its inner terrain of thought and communication was plowed and furrowed and seeded-down with these new, strange words. The native Celtic, hardly more than spattered with Latin, mingled with the dialects of the invaders, for Rome had moved out, bag and baggage, and had taken its language along. The day of books and scholarship was to come. Fat books and many have been written around these proceedings and migrations, but a bare summary will suffice. So much however is indispensable, for we must define that word "English" and definitions have to rest on a foundation or they cannot define.

There were law-courts, and there was of course a church, but these alone concerned themselves with Latin. The vernacular was simply Old English, familiar in the college Manual, and comprised roughly of three main dialects: the Northumbrian, brought in by the Angles and so named because spoken north of the Humber; the Mercian of the Frisian clans, spoken south of this river to the Thames; and the Wessex or Saxon, still further south, the mother-tongue of Alfred the Great. Certainly there were minor dialects, and no doubt overlappings, but this will do. It is the dialect of Wessex that became the Anglo-Saxon of English history, its very name compounded of foreign words.

Now for the superstructure which is to furnish forth our definition. Not only were these outland dialects taken into the Celtic fold as they came to be needed, or pushed their way in, but the native dialects borrowed words from foreign tongues, as well as from each other. So that by the time we arrive at Middle English, with its greater solidity and exactness, some hundreds of French words had filtered in, derived from the usages of the aristocracy, the clergy, and the courts of this now Norman England.

These paved the way inevitably for more and more of Latin, the beloved of the scholar and the church, while inflexions were changed and exchanged, added and lopped away; prefixes and suffixes were born and reborn; and participles and prepositions, adverbs, infinitives, and gerunds had their own growing-pains to modify forms here and there. It all seems curiously fluid. Yet it was natural, since language is essentially a fluid thing. One is reminded here of Blackstone's quite unforgettable definition of water (somewhere in his section on the Rights of Things) that

Water is a movable and wandering thing, but the land below it is permanent.

So is a language a "moveable and wandering thing," but the inner, the deeper forces that shape and in fact create it — these are permanent. While all the time more words come filtering in, raining in, dancing in, and muscling in, some to be adopted intact and unchanged, some to melt and fuse together with words they found, like candles left in the sun. By the fourteenth century, for instance, we find French words flowing like a tide, to rock merrily along with the rest in the cradle of a grammatical frame thoroughly Teutonic. Until at last, out of the crumble and break-up of the dialects there we find emerging a language. They called it "English," and it too went on borrowing, clasping strange, foreign words in its motherly embrace like so many breathless young children. But unlike the Old Woman who lived in the Shoe, English did know what to do. It adopted them — an irrevocable step, but by no means unique. For this is a language-habit, sprung from the essential nature of free utterance in its youth — and the Occident, bear in mind, is very young, compared with the Mystic East.

What, then, is English? A melting-pot? Not that exactly, for mostly the new words fit unchanged into the niches suddenly ready to receive them. They are adopted, and this because English finds suddenly that it needs them. By the mysterious, because trackless, procedures of the past they come in because they "belong." The English language is a hierarchy, therefore, with many hierarchies folded in it, but most of these left to remain just themselves to the degree that they co-operate with the rest. They become, thus, integral with that rest, tissue of its tissue now, life of its life. And just as English has welcomed the stranger-words that knocked for admission in the past, so will it in the future, because it is a hierarchy, in other words, a family, before all. It is the One cherishing within it the Many. Here is our definition, then, and should English ever cease to justify it, it would cease, in the deeper sense, to be English. But it will not cease. It will live its life, and normally, reach its prime, grow old, decline, and pass away as all composite things do, to give place to another language and a nobler — Sanskrit perhaps! (Very wise Teachers have said so, not today only, but in ancient days — but that is another story).

The point is, so English came to be, for with every new adventure, discovery, importation, gadget, horizon, or idea, in would come a new word or two, often a flock of them. This did not have to happen, to be sure. We might have refused the discovery, shut our eyes to the new horizon, our mind to the idea, and declined all that looked like adventure. But as it chanced, we didn't want to. We chose adventure and the new frontier, and English therefore took the path of growth and power and enchantment, and kept on inviting foreign words in, and is doing it still as the dictionaries attest — with each new edition we find the family enlarged — and never in all the history of English has anyone ever thought it queer.

Here are a few words, for instance, imported through the centuries from Holland — sturdy Dutch words, every one: botch, brake, spool, ruffle, tuck, cough, muddle, nag, luck, trick, sloop, mop, and so forth for the better part of a page, not to mention easel and landscape, and (quickly seized upon by writers) Boer-African trek and veldt. Alien and exotic once, they are English now because adopted, and have all the rights, hereditaments, and smoky flavor of "a good old Anglo-Saxon word." We would not, because we positively could not, dispense with a single one, and incidentally, did it cost us hours of painful application to learn them? Is the use of them confined to the scholar, the bookworm, or those who have "time to study?" Such an argument doesn't stand up.

Nation after nation, foreign language after language past and present, has stamped its soul-impress upon English in just this way, some more indelibly, and some more spiritually, than others; but here these once-strange words are, all of them, without benefit of protest, English words now. And it will continue, the hoary process, because we who speak English are that way. When the first Giant Panda, for instance, was brought to our shores, or the little Koala-bear from Australia (with apologies, since it isn't a bear) did we accept them, and adopt the unknown words which they brought along as names? Or did we ship them back with the message that if the donors (or discoverers) "will give them English names we shall be pleased to look them over?" Of course not. We did the sensible and simple and perfectly obvious thing — we adopted these hitherto unknown Chinese and Blackfellow words, and hurried to the dictionary-makers with them.

But Sanskrit is different, you say, and you are right: it is very different. It is not bringing us curious animals, or insect-pests, or dangerous weeds with strange names, as the scientists do; not even nourishing foods and fruits like the mango, anone, cherimoya, and avocado pear; like the orange and lemon, apricot, sago, cinnamon and chocolate, molasses and marmalade, coffee and tea — words as foreign once as Sanskrit ever was. Nor does it vie with the native dialects of North America which have given us so lavishly of their words for names of lakes, rivers, cities, counties and states, that whole pages in a competent atlas make you wonder if geography is but another name for some verbal melange or pot pourri.

Sanskrit is different, for the burden of its strange new words is no material thing. What it does bring is best described, perhaps, in the familiar words of our Leader: "Light for the mind, love for the heart, understanding for the intellect." What it has to offer is a nosegay of forgotten truths and teachings — truths, by the way, upon which the great spiritual civilizations of the distant past were founded, and by which they lived out their cycle to reach a point of (relative) spiritual perfection.

What Sanskrit has to bring us, in a word, is Light — but some, because it is offered in lamps whose name and pattern are strange, must hesitate. (English doesn't hesitate: English adopts them. Question: does a language have more courage than a man? But that is an aside.) To imagine that any protest of ours can make a language stop dead in its tracks is to imagine something that simply does not happen. Languages do not evolve that way, and certainly English did not. That is why it is not ready-made and static; that is why it is spiritually alive. It is learning and growing as we are. What do we want to be polarized to, anyway — Spirit or Matter? What do we really want for our spiritual Polar Star?

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