Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Symphony of Names

The other day I truly, madly, deeply wanted to find out why the guitar was called the ‘guitar’. Uncle Wikipedia gave me a rather unsatisfactory explanation that it may have originated from the Greek ‘Kithara’. A music buff named Paul Guy made me wonder if Sanskrit may have played a role here.

Because the Ektara is a one-stringed instrument. The Dotara has two strings. Tritara (or as the Persians say ‘Setar’) has three strings. By that logic, Chauthara must have been the one with 4-strings. The Italians might have interpreted it as Chittara. The Arabians may have made it Qithara and in Spanish it could have become Quittara - from where we get the original renaissance period 4-stringed Guitar!

Sanskrit also gave us Ghatam (meaning ‘pot’), Mridangam (‘clay body’ – those days it was made of hardened clay) and the Bansuri (‘bamboo melody’). Sanskrit’s country cousin Prakrit is said to have birthed Pakhawaj (‘side instrument’).

Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man owes the Arabs his name. They say Tambourine is derived from Tambur (‘drum’). Even Amir Khusro’s invention the Tabla (‘drum’) is Arabic in conception.

The violin family has an interesting story. The Roman goddess of joy is Vitula. Now Vitulare in Latin also means ‘to sing or to rejoice’. Vitula evolved into Fiddle (I sense a German angle as they have a habit of pronouncing ‘V’ as ‘F’) and it also spawned the Old French word ‘vielle’ which later became Viola. In the initial days, ‘Violone’ meant the big Viola, ‘Violine’ the smaller version and ‘Violonecello’ the intermediate size. With passage of time Vilonecello became ‘cello then the apostrophe was dropped. Today, there are just 3 sizes - Violin, Viola and Cello.

Let’s change our tune to the exotic. Morsing is from the Rajasthani Morchang. My surmise is that the instrument shape resembled a peacock’s mouth. That explains the Mor. ‘Chang’ could be onomatopoeic. Didgeridoo is also said to be mimicking the sound made by the instrument. Oboe is a French loan word from ‘haut buoy’ or ‘loud wood’. Ukelele is Hawaiian for ‘the gift that came from here’. And Trombone is Italian for ‘large trumpet’. With that we end our name orchestra.