Plant names in India

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At least four groups of languages are spoken in India: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Munda and English.

It is very difficult to distinguish languages, because a same language may have been given various names, or different languages the same name. Due to the size of the Indian peninsula, political dynamics and isolation of speaker groups, people often disagree about the linguistic status of their own language. Moreover, each language may present many dialectal differences which are not clearly documented. In fact, many books written in India and giving Indian plant names prefer sorting them by region or state than by language.

Studying Indian languages is further complicated by the number of scripts. Scripts as Devanagari are based on consonants, but letters vary with the following vowel, and many ligatures are used. In addition, the phonology of most languages is complex. This is not or badly reflected in transcriptions in Roman scripts. For example, there are 4 distinct types of d in Hindi, normally transcribed d, ḍ, dh and ḍh. Vowels can also be short or long. This gives 8 variants for the syllable loosely transcribed as da, to be found in 8 different places in Hindi dictionaries. (see our comment on Wagenaar dictionary below).

Indo-Aryan languages

Historical sketch

This sketch has been extracted from Masica (1993). A comprehensive overview is given in Wikipedia.

The Indo-Aryan languages are a branch of the large Indo-European languages. A group of Indo-European speakers migrated to the East, and split into two parts, Indo-Aryan and Iranian, ca. 2000 BC. or before. The Indo-Aryans arrived to northern India ca. 1500 BC. (between 1700 and 1200).

Ancient Indo-Aryan (OIA)

Early OIA

A language spoken in 1500-600 BC. It is called Vedic, and is based on a farwest dialect, maybe influenced by Iranian. Rig-Veda Books 2-7 are considered the most archaic. Also Brahmanas (including Upanisad) and Sutras.

Late OIA

Classical Sanskrit, based on a Midland dialect (western Gange valley, esatern Punjab, Haryana), influenced by Vedic. Later influenced by MIA.

Panini grammar (4th century BC.), which is the reference work for scholars, includes less than 4000 sutras, and was transmitted by oral recitation (before invention of writing in India!).

Sanskrit has been used as a scholarly language for two millenaries. So, saying that a plant bears a Sanskrit name is quite meaningless (as with Latin), unless we are able to date correctly the source. Indo-Aryan invaders didn't know the local realia, and plant names will often have been borrowed from tribal names, and later from Dravidian names.

Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA)

From 600 BC. to 1000 AD.

Early MIA
  1. Asoka Prakrit: several dialects of the 3rd century BC.
  2. Pali, apparently based on the Midland dialect influenced by esatern forms and later by Sanskrit.
  3. Early Ardhamagadhi (language of the Jain Sutras).

Pali is a scholarly language. Prakrits are spoken languages. European plant names said to come from Sanskrit will often come in fact from Prakrits, which were spoken by traders, and not from Sanskrit itself, which was used by Brahmans. Other names in Ayurvedic materia medica come from Sanskrit.

Middle MIA
  1. Niya prakrit, Gandhari
  2. Ardhamagadhi
  3. Late Prakrit (post-Asoka) of inscriptions, later replaced by Sanskrit.
  4. Magadhi (Bihar and Maurya empire, 4th-2nd century BC.
  5. Sauraseni, which is the prakrit of drames, originating from Pali.
  6. Maharashtri, a south-western dialect.
  7. Sinhala Prakrit, in cinghalese inscriptions from the 1st century BC.
Late MIA
  1. Apabhramsa, arising from Sauraseni.
  2. Elu, "A kind of cinghalese Apabhramsa".

New Indo-Aryan (NIA)

From 1000 AD onwards.

Includes Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya, Sindhi, Nepali, Sinhala (as far south as Sri-Lanka).

References for all Indo-Aryan languages

  • Masica, Colin P., 1991. The Indo-Aryan languages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 539 p. (Cambridge Language Surveys).
  • Turner R.L. 1966-71. A comparative dictionary of the Indo-Aryan languages (CDIAL). vol.1-2. London, Oxford Univ. Press ; vol. 3 (Addenda and Corrigenda), London : SOAS. A reference.


  • Macdonell A.A. and Keith A.B., 1958. A Vedic index of names and subjects. Part II. Varanasi (Inde), Motilal Banarasidas & Co. Quoted by Pareek, gives precise references in Vedic texts.
  • Mayrhofer Manfred, 1953-72. Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen / A concise etymological Sanscrit dictionary. Heidelberg, C. Winter.
  • Mayrhofer Manfred, 1986-2001. Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen. Heidelberg, C. Winter. 3 vol. 32 Lieferungen. BSLP 97 (2002): 115 "c'est à l'EWAia que l'on doit recourir pour instaurer toute recherche étymologique propre à une autre langue indo-européenne". serait terminé.
  • Monier-Williams Monier, 1988. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Etymologically and philologically arranged with special reference to cognate indo-european languages. New ed., greatly enlarged and improved with the collaboration of E. Leumann, C. Cappeller and others. Oxford, Clarendon Press. XXXVI-1333 p. ed. 1 1872. ed. rev. 1899. Reprints from 1951 to 1988. This classical work compiles words from 500 sources, some of them being late. Dates are unfortunaly not given.
  • Monier-Williams Monier, 1988. An English-Sanskrit Dictionary. New-Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal Publ. XII-859 p. Reprint of ed. 1, 1851. on line
  • Sanskrit and Tamil dictionaries

Sanskrit plant names are of utmost importance for the history of plants. Unfortunately, the lack of well dated sources limits thir use. One should dig into critical editions of the basic texts, if they exist. Another problem is polyonymy, a feature particular to Sanskrit, by which a name can be replaced by several different attributes.

(If you know more about Sanskrit names, please amend this text).


  • Davids Rhys et Stede Williams, 1994. Pali-English Dictionary. New-Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal Publ. XV-738 p.ed. 1 in 4 vol., 1921-25.

Hindi and Urdu

It is quite the same language, but Hindi is written in Devanagari script and used by Hindus, whereas Urdu is written with an Arabic script and is used by Muslims. Hindi borrowed many words from Sanskrit, whereas Urdu borrowed many words from Persian (part of those words being of Arabic origin). In previous centuries, the language has been called Hindustani.


  • Crooke W., 1879. A rural and agricultural glossary for the N.-W. provinces and Oudh. Allahabad; Calcutta, 1888. Source of McGregor.
  • McGregor R.S., 1997. The Oxford Hindi-English dictionary. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press. 1083 p. ed. 1 : 1993. A very good dictionary. Most words come with an exact transcription. They are arranged according to Devanagari letters, which makes searches difficult when checking a word written in an anglicized transcription. It is much easier to start with Waganaar.
  • Platts John T., 1884. A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi and English. London. Reprint Oxford Univ. Press, 1930.
  • Wagenaar Henk W., Parikh S. S., Plukker D. F. & Veldhuijzen van Zanten R., 1993. Allied Chambers Translitterated Hindi-Hindi-English Dictionary. New-Delhi, Allied Chambers. 1149 p. Hindi words are given in their Roman transcription, without considering diacritic signs in the alphabetical order. Such signs are limited to the macron and the suscribed dot, and differ from the transcription of Mc Gregor. The choice of a "loose" alphabetical order makes this dictionary easy to use for a non-specialist.

Other Indo-Aryan languages

  • Gila-Kochanowski, Vania de, 1994. Parlons tzigane. Histoire, culture et langue du peuple tsigane. Paris, L'Harmattan. 264 p. (Romani).
  • Sukumar Se., 1971. An etymological dictionary of Bengali : c. 1000-1800 AD. 2 vols. Calcutta, Eastern Publ.
  • Turner R.L. 1931. A comparative and etymological dictionary of the Nepali language. 2 vol. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. ed. 2 : 1965.

Dravidian languages

A group of languages spoken in southern India and Sri-Lanka. It is important in the history of plant names, as southern India is tropical, and most Indian tropical plants bear Dravidian names. Such names could be borrowed early by Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages. At the time of European spread, many have been borrowed by Portuguese and hence by all European languages. Later, with human migrations to Mauritius and East Africa, many names have been borrowed by English and French.

Dravidian languages include Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Brahui. Malayalam is the language spoken in Goa, and was the first Indian language to be known by Portuguese. Later, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French had contacts with Tamil-speaking areas. Much later, Tamil immigrants came to Mauritius and East Africa.

Unfortunately, most existing dictionaries only give Dravidian words in their own script (without transcription), and this script is specific to each language. Such dictionaries can only be used by a couple of specialists outside the language speakers.

  • Burrow T. and Emeneau M.B., 1984. A Dravidian etymological dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint 1986. XLI-853 p. on line.
  • Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju, 2006. The Dravidian Languages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 576 p. (Cambridge Language Surveys). 61 £
  • Steever, Sanford B. (ed.), 2006. The Dravidian languages. London, Routledge. 436 p. (Language family descriptions). 45 £

Munda languages

Munda languages are a branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family. They are spoken today in the north-eastern part of India, but are supposed to have been spoken in much larger areas before the spread of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian peoples. This is why Sanskrit is considered to have borrowed a number of words, including plant names, from Munda.

  • Kuiper F.B.J., 1948. Proto-Munda words in Sanscrit. N.V. Amsterdam, Noord-Hollansche Uitgevers Maatschappij.


  • Yule Henry & Burnell A.C., 1969. Hobson-Johnson. A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. XLVIII-1021 p. ed.1: 1886; new ed.: 1903; reissued 1968; reprint 1969. A classical work, which goes far beyond its scope, and gives broad histories of words and things.

Borrowings from and to European languages

  • Dalgado, Sebastião Rodolfo, 1919-21. Glossário luso-asiático. Reprint 1988, New-Delhi, Asian Educational Services. vol. 1 : A-L, LXX-535 p. vol. 2 : X-580 p. Basically a dictionary of Indo-portuguese, it compiles many data on early borrowings of Portuguese from Indian languages during the first decades of Portuguese expeditions, and also includes data in French and English.
  • Dalgado, Sebastião Rodolfo, 1913. Influencia do vocabulario portugués em linguas asiáticas (abragendo cerca de cinquenta idiomas). Lisboa, Academia das ciencias.
  • Dalgado, Sebastião Rodolfo, 1988. Portuguese vocables in asiatic languages. From the portuguese original of Monsignor Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado. Translated into English with notes, additions and comments by Anthony Xavier Soares. New Delhi, Asian Educational Services. Reprint of the 1936 ed., translated and adapted from ed. 1913.

This dictionary deals with the words borrowed by Asian languages to Portuguese. Such words had in fact been previously borrowed by Portuguese to other Asian languages, which gives a fascinating view of plant and culture travels in South and South-East Asia.

Sources of plant names

  • Wealth of India (The), 1948-1976. A dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products. New-Delhi, Council of scientific and industrial research. 11 vol. + 2 suppl. for raw products, and 9 vol. for industrial products (not documented here).
    • Vol. 1. Raw materials : A-B, 1948, XXVII-254 p. 39 pl.;
    • Vol. 2. Raw materials : C, ?
    • Vol. 3. Raw materials : D-E, 1952, XX-236-XXX p., 22 pl., index vol. 1-3.
    • Vol. 4. Raw materials : F-G, 1956, XXVIII-287-VIII p. 13 pl., 145 fig. Reprinted 1988.
    • Vol. 5. Raw materials : H-K. XXV-332-XII p. 1959. Reprinted 2007.
    • Vol. 6. Raw materials : L-M, 1962, XXXI-483-XIV p. 6 pl., 175 fig.
    • Vol. 7. Raw materials : N-Pe. XXVIII-330-IX p. 1966. Reprinted 2007.
    • Vol. 8. Raw materials : Ph-Re. XXX-394-XII p. 1969. Reprinted 2005.
    • Vol. 9. Raw materials : Rh-So. XXXVIII-472-XIV p. 1972. Reprinted 2005.
    • Vol. 10. Raw materials : Sp-W. XLIX-591-XV p. 6 pl., 175 fig. 1976. Reprinted 1982.
    • Vol. 11. Raw materials : X-Z and cumulative indexes. XXVIII-385 p. 1976. Reprinted 2005.
    • Vol. 1 : A. LX-514+54 p. Revised edition. 1985.
    • Vol. 2 : B. XLII-350+90 p. Revised edition. 1988.
    • Vol. 3 : Ca-Ci. 684+119 p. Revised edition. 1992.

A fantastic encyclopedia, initiated by Nehru at the dawn of independent India. It is unfortunately difficult to find, and should now be available on the Internet! It gives many Indian names for all useful plants known to exist in India. Few countries have similar reference series of books.

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