Names have their own stories

It is unsurprising that the two main ideologues of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal Lahori and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were both from recently converted Hindu families. Iqbal’s grand father Rattan Lal Sapru was a Kashmiri Pandit who went rogue (i.e. married a Punjabi Muslim and converted), whereas Jinnah’s grand father Meghji Thakkar a Gujarati Lohana (Khatri/trader class of Saurashtra) converted, as far as we know, of his own volition.

I am told (by fellow blogger Omar Ali) that there seems to be some confusion around Jinnah’s name. I was not aware of this. However, hopefully this post would clarify any confusions that may exist and raise other interesting questions.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born “Mahomed-ali Jinnahbhai” to one “Jinnahbhai Poonja”. Apparently the name change (dropping the -bhai) was deliberately done by Jinnah himself:

From BR Nanda’s “Road to Pakistan”, biography of Jinnah

Note that it is customary in the Indian regions of Gujarat and Maharashtra to use one’s father’s name as the middle name followed by a caste/occupation denoting surname. So, say, the Indian PM Narendra Modi’s full name is Narendra Damodardas Modi, where the middle name takes after his father’s first name: Damodardas Modi. The surname Modi is the Gujarati caste of shopkeepers/traders (common amongst Parsis too).

Furthermore, Gujarati language uses the suffix -bhai as an honorific. Its use in polite discourse is similar to Sindhi -saeeN or Japanese -san. So, Narendra Modi would be formally referred to as Narendra-bhai Modi in formal speech, say, when addressing the person on a letter. Even within close family, people can be referred to as “bhai” (or “behen”) when the addressee is not actually a brother (or sister) – leading to hilarious results in some situations.

Frequent formal usage of “bhai” (especially as a part of one’s registered name) is rather antiquated in urban areas and I’d be hard-pressed to find many such examples in city-dwelling Gujaratis of my generation. As is the norm for most social conventions in the Subcontinent, however, things take longer to change in the rural hinterland. My own anecdotal understanding is that the practice survives in mofussil towns and villages of Gujarat and nearby areas. The use of “bhai” in the Mumbai underworld (and now in the vernacular and popular culture) to refer to local crime lords also takes after the same custom due to the preponderance of Gujaratis in Mumbai.

So, it is rather obvious that the suffix -bhai in Jinnahbhai is a common Gujarati honorific. The same suffix can also be found in its Anglicized form -bhoy within Gujaratis (cf. Rai > Roy is an equivalent Anglicization in Bengali surnames). But what of the root morpheme “Jinnah”? The Gujarati context clarifies this too, as Jinna (pronounced jiNa, with a retroflex N) simply means “small” or “little” in Gujarati and is often used as a diminutive. So, the name “Jinnabhai” would really imply “little Sir” or “little mister” and is a well-attested name amongst Gujaratis. E.g. see this (excerpt below):

Jinabhai as a Gujarati first name

Finally, as far as I am aware, there is no native IA etymology of Gujarati jiNa. The apparent lack of a phonetic correlate in Sanskrit makes me conjecture that the word is actually a Dravidian lexical borrowing (maybe part of the Dravidian substrate). Sure enough Tamil (and sister Dravidian languages Telugu & Kannada) has the word chinna with an equivalent meaning and similar usage in nomenclature (e.g. chinnappa lit. “little father” or “little lord”, being a common South Indian name / surname). The word-initial /ch/ <> /j/ phonetic shift between affricatives is entirely plausible. However, we would need more examples to see if this is a systematic effect in Dravidian loanwords to IA (or vice versa).

Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

7 thoughts on “Names have their own stories”

  1. Wow… I never imagined “jinna” meant ‘small’ or ‘little’ in Gujarati. Good to know. The connection with Dravidian *cin is very plausible in my view too. In fact, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary at explicitly connects Marathi cinkA, ‘small’, ‘tiny’ to the Dravidian cognates in the entry 2594. And in case it was really Dravidian, it could have been a borrowing or a part of the substrate as you mentioned. If substrate, it is such a tender testament to the “little” things that the pre-Indo-Aryan Dravidian speakers (possibly speaking a language of a Kannada-like and in the eastern parts of Maharashtra, Gondi-like or Telugu-like and Central Dravidian Kolami-like nature) of Maharashtra and perhaps Gujarat still retained with themselves for millennia to come, quite literally. And you may be already aware of this, but this paper of Prof. Southworth’s talks about the Dravidian presence in core Marathi lexicon and argues for the case of a presence of a Dravidian substratum in Marathi. (

    1. tender testament to the “little” things that the pre-Indo-Aryan Dravidian speakers .. of Maharashtra and perhaps Gujarat still retained with themselves for millennia to come

      Absolutely! the entire mUrdhanya (retroflex) series of Sanskrit is a tender testament to our ancestors who spoke some form of proto-Dravidian. Proto-Dravidian is to Sanskrit what Etruscan is to Latin.

      Good point re *cin and I agree with /cinkA/ in Marathi (I can understand the language). Adds more evidence to the hypothesis that “Jinnah” is essentially a Dravidian loanword. And yes, the Dravidian substratum in Marathi is quite well known in IA linguistics circles – after all, the “RashTra” in Maharashtra refers to the RashTrakuTa Empire (750-1000 CE), when Kannada was the preferred language of administration and culture in most of the Deccan plateau.

      1. Retroflexes would be more of a “cerebral” testament (pardon me for all the cheap puns that I’m making), but on a more serious note, don’t you think the prehistoric Dravidian extent closely matches the current scenario more or less? That is, just Gujarat and Maharashtra (and perhaps Sindh) in addition to the current core south (and arguably only some parts of it (such as north Karnataka and some parts of Western Andhra) seeing the very low amount of diversity of Dravidian languages in current South India)? What I mean is, it may not have been the case that the entire western half populations of the pre-Indo-Aryan subcontinent had spoken some type of Dravidian. India may have had at least a few other languages belonging to different language families and isolates at the time of Indo-Aryan entry. In fact, it is my personal wish that they do vigorous study searching pre-Dravidian words and vestiges in Dravidian languages. As far as I know, a list of 5 words in Irula was given by Kamil Zvelebil as of a possible pre-Dravidian (and that likely is the recent pre-Tamil) origin.

  2. There is a Sanskrit word called Zirna meaning small. The g Gujarati word Zina looks closer to it than to the Dravidian word ‘Chinna’ which itself might be a derivative from Sanskrit. I find this zeal of trying to find Dravidian loanwords into Indo-Aryan languages quite misplaced.

    1. /zIrNa/ (or shIrNa, if one prefers /sh/ instead of /z/ in HKT) does not mean “small” primarily, but emaciated or shrivelled. Though “small” can be metaphorical usage. Monier-Williams entry on the word also does not refer to “small” as the meaning of the word in any Classical or later Indian source.

      In Gujarati (and typically in all languages of W India descended from Sauraseni Prakrit), Sanskrit /sh/ (irrespective of its location in the word) morphs to just a sibilant /s/ in Prakrit. Furthermore, Prakrits elide the word-final schwa of Sanskrit words. E.g. desha (country) > des, shiksha (learning) > sIkh, shata (100) > sau etc.

      So, one would expect /shIrNa/ to modify to /siN/ or /sIN/, not /jiNA/, unless one takes to special pleading.

      Finally, I call the Dravidian source of the Gujarati word in question a “conjecture” and say that we need more proof of a “systematic effect” at play to conclude with any certainty. That does not sound like any zeal on my part. Perhaps we understand the meaning of “zeal” too differently.

      1. When I made the comment on the misplaced zeal, I was not referring to you in particular and it was not meant to offend you. There is this tendency in Indological circles, to prove or argue that Dravidian languages are more native to the subcontinent as compared to the Indo-Europea/Indo-Aryan languages. Therefore, in order to further this point, they try, through some dubious arguments to show that there are Dravidian loanwords in Vedic, Classical Sanskrit as well as modern Indo-Aryan languages, specifically Gujarati & Marathi. While the case for some Dravidian loanwords into Gujarati & Marathi is not unreasonable, considering the fact that Gujarat was ruled successively by the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas for several centuries and Maharashtra even more so, the overwhelming linguistic influence across all of the subcontinental languages, including the Dravidian, has been that of Sanskrit and other Prakrit languages. So we should try to look at what is more probable rather than what is conjectural at the best of times. Let us not allow ourselves to be influenced, in the way we see our own history, by those Western Indologists who sit in their ivory towers. They have done a great deal of misinterpretation and misrepresentation of our history.

        Coming to the topic at hand, I had originally commented based on the information on this online Sanskrit-English dictionary – You’re right, the pronunciation should be /shirNa/ and not /zirNa/.

        According to Monier Williams(pg 1011) – /shirNa/ seems to derive from the root /shru/ and it means ‘withered, shriveled, shrunk, dry, sere, decayed, rotten ; thin, wasted, emaciated, small, slender, broken off, shivered, shattered, injured.’

        Obviously, there is no meaning associated with smallness here. But I would give weight to the online dictionary and accept that a meaning related to smallness may also have been derived, though it does not appear to be the primary meaning of the Sanskrit word.

        The root /shru/ seems to mean (pg 1019, Monier Williams) ‘to injure, hurt, wound, kill, destroy ; to tear or split in pieces, break, tear asunder, to be injured; to be broken or torn or shattered, be split to pieces ; to wither, moulder, decay, waste away

        Certainly it looks improbable that /JiNNa/ could be derived from Sanskrit /shirNa/, the /sh/ to /j/ shift is not easy to explain.

        However, there is another Sanskrit word which is /jirNa/ (pg 350, Monier Williams) which means ‘old, ancient ; worn out, wasted, withered, decayed, ruined, in ruins ; digested’. It is said to be derived from root /jru/ which means ‘to grow old, become decrepit, decay, wear out, wither; to be consumed, perish ; to break up or fall to pieces ; to be dissolved or digested ; (cl. I. P.) to make old or decrepit ; to cause to grow old’

        It becomes clear from this that /shirNa/ and /jirNa/ overlap substantially in meaning and are also quite close in form. It would not be wrong to suggest that both the words are probably cognates deriving from a common single root word.

        While /jiNa/ cannot be derived from /shirNa/, it certainly can be from /jirNa/. Infact, the Pali-English dictionary (pg 319, Pali Text Society – Rhys Davids & William Stede) has the word /jiNNa/ with the same meaning as the Sanskrit word /jirNa/.

        It also appears that the Hindi word /zarA/ and Gujarati word /jarA/, both meaning ‘little’ (also /thoda/ in Hindi) looks like it also derives from this same origin. Again, in Sanskrit, the word /jara/ (pg 340, Monier Williams) is associated with old age and decay.

        It also appears that the Sanskrit word is cognate to Greek /geron/ – old man from which the English term gerontology is derived.

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