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?
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)