Saturday, February 22, 2003

A living language

BIOLOGY, the bane of many a student, comes from the Greek bios that meant course of human life and logos that means a study of. Compound words relating to life have been formed with ‘bio-’ for over three centuries now, and even the ancient Greeks used it as a combining form. During the second half of the 20th century, advances in biotechnology and the increasing interest in Green issues led to the proliferation of compounds in these areas, mostly using bio- to mean organic life. Green, by the way, no longer refers to merely the colour green but it has become an umbrella term for anything related to the conservation of the environment. Poor Othello can now be proud of being a Greenie!

The coinage of the word biodiversity at a forum held in Washington in 1986 gave a deeper hue to bio-, as it led to an increasing awareness of the richness and variety of the natural world and the growing threat posed to it both by intensive agriculture and the destruction of the world’s rainforests. Bio- soon became a shibboleth to be prefixed onto any environment-related issue; today it means natural, organic, green or environment-friendly. Concern for the environment created another kind of human: the biospherian. Between September 1991 and September 1993 eight experimenters, biospherians were sealed in an artificial habitat, Biosphere 2, Earth being Biosphere 1. The idea was to test whether an artificial environment could be created and sustained independently of life on Earth, partly as an ecological experiment and partly to determine whether space habitats or colonies on other planets were practicable.

The New Year - III
February 1, 2003
The New Year - II
January 18, 2003
The New Year
January 4, 2003
Lively lives
December 21, 2002
Fashion statements
December 7, 2002
Spreading wings
November 23, 2002
Borrowed words
November 9, 2002
Multiple facts
October 26, 2002
October 12, 2002
Where did this one come from?
September 28, 2002
Who changed the meaning?
September 14, 2002

New disciplines like biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and biodynamics, the study of physical motion in living systems mushroomed rapidly. The measurement of the concentration of a substance by its effect on living cells came to be called bioassay. Bioavailability is the proportion of a drug or other substance that enters the circulation when introduced into the body, thus having an active effect. Ecological concerns led to biocentrism, the view or belief that the rights and needs of humans are not more important than those of other living things. A host of terms like biofuel, bioethics and biodegradable came up to describe the steps taken to save the world from biocide. Biocide, meaning the destruction of life, was coined along the lines of genocide, which came from genos (race) and caedere (kill). In the negative strain were coined words like biohazard that stands for a risk to human health or environment arising from work with micro-organisms and biofouling, the fouling of underwater pipes and other surfaces by organisms.

All these new words saw the light of day due to a process called derivation. Morphology, the study of word structure, recognises two processes that create new words. Inflection is the process whereby words take various grammatical forms; as, for instance, pipe becoming pipes. Derivation is that process which constructs entirely new words, as, for instance, biological from biology.


In Hindi, a derivation-like process takes place but there the similarity ends. The words belonging to that group of derivative may not necessarily be related in meaning. For instance, the root bhu or to be gives bhav (feeling), bhavi (future), bhavik (natural), bhavan (mansion), bhav (god) and bhavya (grand). The root brha or to grow gives brhat (large), Brahma (god), brahmi (a medicinal plant), Brahmi (goddess of speech) and Brahman (a member of the priestly class).

This feature was published on February 15, 2003