How to translate śabda?

When philosophers and translators approached Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of langue vs parole, they initially thought of translating parole with ‘word’ or its various synonyms in many languages. The problem is that parole can mean ‘word’, but that in French there is a more specialised word for that, namely mot. Parole can mean ‘word’ only if we are non-technical, but it would be hard to claim that a philosopher of language like Saussure was not technical in his terminological choices!
Now, I think that the same story, mutatis mutandis, applies to the case of śabda in Sanskrit philosophy of language. śabda can mean ‘word’, for instance as the second member of a compound in expressions like dharmaśabdaḥ prītyarthaḥ upayujyate (the word dharma is used in the sense of ‘happiness’). However, there is a more specialised term for ‘word’, namely pada, and śabda has a way wider field of application, including:
śabda as an instrument of knowledge
śabda as any linguistic unit, ranging from phoneme to word to sentences, according to context
śabda as sound, especially in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika.
In other words, ‘word’ is at best imprecise and at worst misleading. What can one do instead? In some cases, one needs to add something, but I think it is fair to keep a shared element in all translations. I, for one, think that language/linguistic work best in this sense. I therefore use “linguistic communication” or “linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge” for śabda in the sense of śabdapramāṇa. What to do when śabda is used to cover any unit of language, be it a phoneme, a word, a sentence, a textual passage? I used to use “linguistic expression” or “linguistic unit”. What do you think?

Alternative proposals
Recently, a colleague wrote me he could not understand what “linguistic expression” means. Do you?
I also read the comment of a colleague telling me that “linguistic expression” is too technical. This is true. But, the point is, Sanskrit philosophy of language is technical. It is not at all an easy reading meant for relaxing times. Would you want to tell a phonetician they should stop speaking of “fricatives” because it is too technical?

Alternative proposals count ”speech unit” and ”speech” for śabda in some cases, then ”verbal cognition” in others and so on. But I am afraid that ”speech unit” cannot cover sentences and other bigger chunks of language and that in general it is too closely connected to the phonic representation of language (whereas śabda could cover also unspoken but thought linguistic expressions). As for ”verbal”, I like it, but the corresponding noun (verb) has now a different meaning in English and might therefore be misleading.

(I am grateful to Elliot M. Stern for disagreeing with me and forcing me to spell out my reasons)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

5 Replies to “How to translate śabda?”

  1. I think the author has that freedom to choose the ‘words’ which seem to convey the meaning in the best possible way. If that translation is not popular, may be a footnote might suffice explaining the reasons for same. Of course, this is not possible for every case.

    And what I have noticed is that while translating words from a language belonging to a particular family to a language from another family, it is better to have a translation in phrases rather than looking out for a one-to-one literal translation.

    (Like in the above case, linguistic unit / linguistic expression / linguistic communication seems more apt rather than just ‘word’).

    • Thanks, your comment “while translating words from a language belonging to a particular family to a language from another family, it is better to have a translation in phrases rather than looking out for a one-to-one literal translation” seems very apt. May I repost it? And, yes, I agree that footnotes are helpful!

  2. Brings back a recent conversation I was having with a friend. We were wondering what would be the Indian/Sanskrit word to translate ‘language’. ‘Bhasa’ is good for a particular language, but ‘language’ is a very broad, abstract term, which covers the whole of linguistic phenomenon as a whole. And the use of ‘language’ can be extended to non-linguistic phenomena as well, for example, the language of emotions, of nature, etc. It seemed to me that the only word with a comparative range and abstraction would be ‘sabda’. Therefore, I would translate sabda as ‘language’, unless of course in specific contexts, where linguistic expression, unit etc. may suffice.

    Of course, ‘sabda’ and language, reflect different thought-worlds. As heard sound, sabda is deeply rooted in orality, and conveys a sense of temporality. Language, on the other hand, seems to convey a sense of simultaneity, like a ‘text’, something that is read rather than heard.

    • Yes, I agree that ‘language’ is often a very suitable translation. And I like the fact that it gives one some flexibility via the adj ‘linguistic’. I also agree that the thought-worlds embedded in śabda and ‘language’ are different. But even different Sanskrit authors used śabda differently (think of Mīmāṃsā and Vaiśeṣika authors!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *