/ Linguistics

The linguist in me sees the linguist in you

What does namaste mean? Depends on what language you're speaking.

  1. namaste, नमस्ते (/nəməs't̪e:/): interj.
  • Commonly-used greeting in Prakriti-derived languages
  • Meaning: greetings, hello, sometimes goodbye
  • originally used this way ~500 BCE
  • etymology: Sanskrit नमः (namaḥ) 1 + ते (te), 'hail' + 'to you'
  1. namaste (/nɑːmɑːs'teɪ/): interj.
  • A specialized greeting, usually used at the beginning or end of Hatha yoga classes in the United States and Europe.
  • Meaning: The divine in me sees the divine in you
  • originally used this way ~2000 AD
  • etymology: Hindi namaste, 'hello' + mystic connotations with the East

When is a word a word?

To be clear, namaste, as used in modern Indic languages, is just a normal greeting and does not carry any special mystical meaning (at least no more than any other words). In recent years, however, memes have cropped up saying saying it means 'the divine in me sees the divine in you'.

As poetic of an interpretation as that is, no native Indic language speaker consciously intends this meaning when using the word. In the strictest sense, we can't say this word has that meaning.

As a know-it-all nerd, I have a really strong urge to tell people that, and throw in a little history lesson while I'm at it 🙂

But, the meme and divine interpretation have become so ubiquitous that people have started to behave as if it were true. People (mostly in the West) are using namaste with the intent of expressing 'the divine in me sees the divine in you'.

If one person uses a word to mean X, and the person listening understands it to mean X, doesn't that word now have that meaning? In the end, that's all words are: arbitrary sounds whose meanings are agreed upon. If everyone using it agrees that namaste means 'the divine in me sees the divine in you', the word now has that meaning.

So, as a linguist, I have to recognize that this word now exists in both Indic and Western cultures. The Western word was borrowed from the Indic word, but they're now their own seperate entities, with their own proper uses, contexts, and meanings. This is how languages grow, and there's no 'right' or 'wrong' to word usage once it has become popularly adopted.

Besides, I really like the new meaning 🙂 I think it's poetic and beautiful. The linguist in me acknowledges the linguist in those of you who choose to use it that way.

Namaste. 🙏🏽


A note on नमः (_namaḥ_), the word at the root of namaste

This word is seen in prayers as a greeting to gods. Some people argue that because of this use, when using it with people, it has 'divine' connotations.

This would be true if it was used exclusively in prayers and occasionally used with a person of importance to imply divinity. It's not; it's used as a common greeting, meaning it's a word suitable for both prayers and normal use, like "with" or "the". If we took usage in prayer to imply prayer, then every word would be seen as divine and every utterance would be prayer 🙂

I think this is a beautiful interpretation, but doesn't match the real-world use.

That having been said, the word does carry the additional meanings of 'bowing' or in some other way showing respect. When reading translations of prayers in other languages, I see this concept translated as 'hail', and that word seems to properly convey all the connotations of namaḥ as well.