Tag Archives: panini


I had a panini for lunch today, which, as always, set me thinking about grammar.

You’re probably thinking “Oh! Because panini comes from Italian, where it’s a plural, and panino is the singular!” You may also be thinking “He used panini as a singular. What an ignoramus.”

In fact, panini makes me think about grammar because of Panini – which is more properly written Pāṇini (which means the “ah” takes twice as long to say as it otherwise would, and the first n is said with the tongue tip farther back in the mouth; also, since it’s not written with a Ph, the P is closer to an English “b”). He was a Sanskrit grammarian; he lived in India sometime before the Buddha was born (and thus also sometime before Socrates and everyone after that), probably around the 6th century BCE. You could almost say he was the Sanskrit grammarian, though others came after. Panini wrote the authoritative manual on Sanskrit grammar. It is a concise work, effectively an algorithm. It’s an exercise in figuring out a natural phenomenon, and at the same time it’s what computer dorks might call an API (basically a set of instructions on how to make a certain kind of thing work). He observed something, figured out as best he could how it worked, and set down as elegant a description of it as he could, which thereby became a means of standardizing its production in formal contexts. I don’t want to go on too long here; this Scroll.in article on him is worth your 5 minutes to learn more.

Do I think of him every time I see panini because I’m a pretentious self-regarding twerp who is mighty pleased with himself for knowing something to do with Sanskrit? Of course not. I mean, I am a pretentious etc., but the reason I think of him every time is that I knew Panini as his name for years before I ever saw it as a name of a food item. I learned about him in university in the mid-1980s; paninis (or panini, if you prefer) didn’t encroach on my sphere of existence until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Our firstborn impressions of a lexeme have birthright: they get the full baby albums and all the brand new toys and clothes. The later impressions get the hand-me-downs.

So. First the Sanskrit, then the sandwich. When it showed up in North America, the average Anglophone saw panini and took it for the singular. People who know some Italian say “No, panino is the singular,” but they might as well be saying “No, it’s Panini’s monster. Panini is the one who created it.” Ask yourself how often you see biscotto or graffito. Even I, who know enough Italian to pass a graduate proficiency test in it (it was one of my two for my PhD, the other being French), seldom make a point of using the Italian singular. It would almost be like asking for a wedgie instead of a sandwich.

Look, Panini saw grammar as a means to understanding the divine, and thus perhaps good grammar as next to godliness, but he still worked with the data he had before him in the state it was in. He didn’t, for example, try to reverse sandhi. And I won’t try to reverse the sandwich. In Italian, after all, panino just means ‘small bread’ or ‘bread-ette’ and that’s often all they mean when they say it (though they can mean the sandwich too). If you’re going to be a purist, get that meat and cheese out of it.

And if you think someone who takes a word that is one thing grammatically in the source language and makes it another thing grammatically in English is an ignoramus, allow me to remind you that ignoramus is, in Latin, a verb in the first-person plural indicative, meaning ‘we don’t know’ (it comes to us by way of a character named Ignoramus in a 17th-century play of the same name). And you have just used it as a singular noun, sans critique. You’ll have to eat your words.

panini, Paganini, pagan

“And I’ll have the panino with ham and cheese,” Jess said, handing her menu to the waitress.

“Ham and cheese panini,” the waitress said, writing. She took the menu – “Thank you” – and headed off to the kitchen.

“If I’d wanted more than one,” Jess said sotto voce, eyebrow half-raised in half-amusement, “I would have said so.”

“Well, she doesn’t speak Italian,” Daryl pointed out unnecessarily.

“Just as well,” I said. “If she were Italian, she might have thought you wanted a little bun, rather than a grilled sandwich.”

“True!” said Jess. “Pane, bread; panino, little bread. The name of the bread transfers to the name of the sandwich… Didn’t you do one of your notes on another such?”

Muffuletta,” I said.

“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Daryl japed.

“The waitress probably thought you were being capricious,” I said.

“Well, if I’d asked for Panini,” Jess said, “I would have been requesting the founder of Sanskrit grammar and the forerunner of linguistics.”

“Only you would have had to say it with a lengthened and stressed first vowel and a retroflex first n.” I demonstrated.

“Then she might have thought I was possessed,” Jess said.

“You say panini, I say Paanini,” Daryl half-sang. “Actually, I’d rather have Paganini.”

Jess turned and looked at him. “Speaking of capricious! I thought you preferred heavy metal.”

“I’m not narrow, you know. Anyway, Niccolò Paganini has had an important influence on metal music.”

“Because he was pretty much the first real violin solo superstar and helped shift the focus from bowing to fast fingerwork and technical pyrotechnics? Thereby setting the stage for the very similar phenomenon in metal?”

“Yup, that’s surely part of it,” Daryl said. “And his music in specific has been quite popular among some of the metal guitar gods.” He was flipping through some files on his iPhone as he spoke. “Here we go. Yngwie Malmsteen – big fan of Paganini and one of the greatest gutarists of all time, including future times.”

“Not a fan of moderation, are you?” Jess said. “Actually, I’ll moderate that. You seem normal enough when you’re not talking about stuff like this.”

“Look, here, have a listen, he uses Paganini’s Caprice number 24 as the solo in ‘Prophet of Doom.'”

Jess held up her hand. “Email me a link. …‘Prophet of Doom’? Do you suppose Paganini would be flattered?”

“I think that Paganini would have been a metal guitar god if he’d been living today,” Daryl said. “Anyway, he lived a wild life and, just like some metal musicians, he was accused of having sold his soul to the devil – or even of being possessed.”

“Well,” I said, “he was, in a way, a little bit of a pagan.”

“He wasn’t a pagan, ninny,” Daryl said. “The Church just wouldn’t let him be buried properly because he died before he could have last rites.”

“It’s just that Paganini and pagan are, the evidence suggests, related,” I said. “Paganini is a family name formed on a genitive of Paganino, which is a diminutive of Pagano.”

“Just like panino is a diminutive of pane,” Jess said. “A little bread, a little pagan.”

“But his forebears may not have been declared heathens,” I said. “They could have just been villagers or country folk. Latin pagus meant ‘village’ or ‘country district’, and so pagano means someone from the country. Which was of course that heathen area, away from the enlightened, Christianized towns, hence the developed sense of pagan.”

“Anyway,” Daryl said, “the point is that he played a little role in the development of metal music. Sort of like Panini did for linguistics.”

“He played a little roll?” Jess said. “I thought it was a violin. Now you’re telling me he was fiddling with a panino.”

Just then the waitress passed back by. “Your sandwiches and panini will be ready in a couple of minutes,” she said. “Can I get you anything else while you’re waiting?”

Jess made a mischievous smile. “I’d like a martino, please…”