A ‘Small’ Word Leads To A Long History

11I have always wondered whether the English word ‘nano’ has its origin in the Gujarati word nanu (નાનું = small) — the similarity is indeed remarkable. To explore the idea further, I opened the Merriam Webster dictionary and found that it is not so. The English word ‘nano’ has its origin in the Greek word nanos, meaning ‘small’ or ‘dwarf’. That is fine. But then I thought that there could be a possibility of the opposite being the case. That is, maybe nanu was introduced into Gujarati by the Greeks. I spent some time exploring the history of Gujarat to check if there was any trade route or link between Greece and Gujarat, or maybe even western India. It was indeed so. Wikipedia says, “….Between the decline of the Mauryan power and Saurashtra coming under the sway of Samprati Mauryas of Ujjain, there was a Greek incursion into Gujarat led by Demetrius. In the first half of the first century A.D. there is the story of a merchant of King Gondaphares landing in Gujarat with Apostle Thomas…” But wait a minute. Alexander was on Indian border in 327 BC, isn’t it? So there is no reason why there might not have been any exchange or interaction between Indian and Greek culture during that time. Further, Chandragupta Maurya had married Seleucus Nicator’s daughter. Although Gujarat was not covered in Chandragupta Maurya’s empire, we cannot rule out the possibility of interaction between Maurya and neighbouring kingdoms. Anyway, Gujarat was afterwards included in Bindusara’s empire, who maintained friendly relations with the Greeks.


The extent of Maurya empire during Chandragupta Maurya’s reign (left) and after Bindusara’s death (right). Source : Wikipedia.

On a separate page, Wikipedia does mention Greek besides Turkish, French, Persian, Arabic, Portuguese and English among the languages from which words have been borrowed into Gujarati. However, it does not give a complete list; so I am still in dark about the true origins of nanu. Perhaps some learned scholar, well-versed in Gujarati etymology and history, could educate me. However, if it indeed turns out to be borrowed from Greek, then the question arises : how did the Gujaratis denote small objects before the Greeks came? Did they use the Sanskrit word laghu? Was the transition from laghu to nanu slow or immediate? In either case, what might be the reason for preferring a different and new word for a common idea.

Still, it is wonderful to note how much history is contained in such ‘small’ words that we use everyday. Every word that we write, every syllable that we utter, contains in it signatures of civilizations, and their interactions with each other — civilizations influencing each other and in turn getting influenced.

Linguists tell us that to know a word one has to know everything about it — its meaning, part of speech, its origin and usage. Nearly all good English dictionaries contain these information. However, I could not find the corresponding information in dictionaries of any Indian language that I know. Of course, linguists and lexicographers must be having thorough knowledge about these aspects of Indian languages. My concern is that this information is not accessible to the general public, e.g., in dictionaries. As for Hindi, the first thesaurus came into existence only about a decade ago by the efforts of Sri Arvind Kumar. There is still a lack of dictionaries between Indian language pairs e.g., Bengali and Marathi, though that would have made more sense than using English as the medium. Perhaps the latter is preferred in order to increase the scope of the dictionary as the number of readers interested in a particular (Indian) language pair might be less. One option could be to create an online database and portal that would provide information exchange between any two Indian languages. The Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru, has been active in providing education and resources related to Indian languages. Hope further efforts in this direction continue.

photo credit: National Institutes of Health (NIH) Vaccine-Based Immunotherapy from Novel Nanoparticle Systems via photopin(license)

30 thoughts on “A ‘Small’ Word Leads To A Long History

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Thank you Rekha! Yes, when we explore the relationships between words, and also between languages, it appears as if they too behave as human beings 🙂

  1. rationalraj2000

    Loved reading this post and your observation “it is wonderful to note how much history is contained in such ‘small’ words that we use everyday. Every word that we write, every syllable that we utter, contains in it signatures of civilizations, and their interactions with each other — civilizations influencing each other and in turn getting influenced”.
    Kudos for writing this one Amit!

  2. dilkiaawazsunoblog

    Wow Amitji, I was literally awestruck reading so many details that you have mentioned above.

    You really have patience to do so much research and post the details. Hats off to you and thank you for sharing.

  3. The Lunatic In My Head

    Aaahh.. This is such a well-referenced article, that never once did I feel the need to be sure of its credibility. Your words instilled in me a sense of how wonderfully every word carries with it a story, a history and sometimes, a mystery. Loved reading the entire thing. I must admit though that the inclusion of Gujarat could be acting as a bias here. Hehe… On a serious note, thank you sir, for helping me explore ‘small’ words and worlds through this article.

  4. thinkinkadia

    The two mother languages, Sanskrit and Latin, have much in common. I believe that trade helped in linguistic exchanges, but also the roots were fairly common and evolved with different interactions in time. I come across a lot of common European and Indian last names too. Greek and Indian mythology sounds very similar too.
    Am not an expert, but I thought throw in my nano contribution to this discussion!

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Sure. However, all such evolution are well documented, especially in English dictionaries. The best example is the word ‘mother’, for which Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary gives the following information:

      “Middle English ‘moder’, from Old English ‘modor’; akin to Old High German ‘muoter’ mother, Latin ‘mater’, Greek meter, Sanskrit ‘matri’. Date: before 12th century”.

  5. ShySnail

    That’s a really informative piece of writing!

    As a curious kid, I always faced challenges in finding the right words in my native language (Hindi). I sometimes used to scan through dozens of Hindi dictionaries to find etymology/usage/collocations of a word/phrase/idiom/proverb. The dictionaries of Indian languages available for the general public have a very limited information about the source, usage and eventually, value of a word — these dictionaries of different languages with the same root language are also not well linked.

    I think we need a complete renovation for this. The first thing we could do is to make a collaborative programme like Google digitalised all the English texts written since the 1800s all over the world with the help of a small tool that we know as CAPTCHA. This will be really helpful in creating a database of the texts written in our regional languages.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      I completely agree with you. Effort in this direction is made by CIIL, which I have mentioned towards the end of the article. Their language learning books are good, but their research appears to be too academic in nature. I mean, beyond the grasp of general public.

  6. Pingback: How To Watch A Movie Scene — Look For The Basic Rules Of Photography! | Pradyot

  7. Abhayanand singh Maurya

    Nano is not derived from Gujrati certainly. You may find several similar word in various Indian languages that means small. Eg Bhojpuri : nanh means small history goes back to 8th century, Gujarati Nanu means small history goes back to 13th century


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