By Dr. Asir Ajmal
Having submitted the first draft of my PhD dissertation at Dartmouth College, I was anxious to leave but my supervisor George Wolford told me that I needed at least six more months’s work of solid data analysis and re-writing. Having been in the psychology graduate program for the last four years straight was getting to be too much for me, and I wanted to do something meaningful, so I left to volunteer as a psychologist in Nicaragua, with the hope of returning sometime to complete my dissertation. I subsequently returned after a four year gap and completed my PhD.
As I was learning Spanish in Nicaragua, I noticed many Arabic words. Given that Arabs had ruled Spain for nearly eight hundred years, this was no surprise. What was indeed astonishing was finding a Punjabi word. Chupar means to suck in Spanish and the root choop– means to suck in Punjabi as well. The possibility that the word had come from Arabic in both languages, as the Muslims had ruled both Spain and Punjab, was quickly ruled out. Arabic neither has the ch sound nor does it have the p sound. The Arabs routinely pronounce ch as j and p as b.
So where did the word come from? The answer comes from our common ancestors, the Aryans. They spoke a language called the Indo-European, which then developed into distinct languages such as Latin, Persian and Sanskrit. Incidentally, Arabic does not belong to this group as the Jews, Arabs and Ethiopians constituted a different ethnolinguistic entity.
As I reflected more, I was reminded of my German language class in Heidelberg, where my father had been teaching as a visiting professor. As a curious teenager with a talent for learning syntax and a great memory, I used to bombard my teacher Herbert Adel with questions. As Herbert tried to explain the word Bursche, he said it was impossible to translate it into English. The closest you could come to was a tough guy. As he described ein Bursche, it was clearly a description of the Punjabi equivalent Burchha. I did not know at that time about Indo-European and attributed the similarity between German and Punjabi words to mere coincidence.
I then came across ‘The Origins of Indo-European Languages’ in Scientific American in which Colin Renfrew traced the history of South Asian, Iranian and European languages. And then the classic ‘The Loom of Language’ by Frederick Bodmer. Linguists have since worked on reconstructing Indo-European and they have come up with several hundred words. The root chup- becomes choop and also choos in Punjabi, Urdu/Hindi. It becomes suc– (pronounced sooes) in French and suck in English. While the languages of Eurasia have evolved over centuries into mutually unintelligible entities, the word that represents our first contact with our mothers remains the same.