Colegiul National "Moise Nicoara" Arad


Laura Ardelean

West University of Timişoara

Trans is not a foreign term for most of us. We find it in almost all the internationally spoken languages such asEnglish, French, Spanish or Italian. I would illustrate that by taking into consideration the English term transfer. It has a Latin origin, being made up of the preposition trans “beyond, across” and the radical of the verb fero “to bear”.  Almost the same form is inherited by the other three languages mentioned above (thus we have transfert in French, transferencia in Spanish and transferimento in Italian).

Hence we are all familiarized with this specific word and we immediately, automatically – if requested – offer its meaning: “beyond”. Therefore, something residing “beyond cultures” is an element that unites those very cultures, a common aspect for all of them. But in fact what are we talking about when we use the term trans? Which is the reality that we actualize by using the same word? Which was the context when this notion was first pronounced?

To answer these questions we have to move back in time to the origin of many of the languages we speak nowadays. Thus trans is a very old term that is deeply rooted into the primitive mentality. Its traces are to be found in the oldest Indo-European languages.

One of the most ancient and most complex languages ever spoken is Sanskrit. Its plentiful vocabulary comprises terms that reflect many levels of thought and its well-structured grammar permits the lector to firstly understand the essence of a word (thus of the reality behind that word) and subsequently to see how that essence comes into substance, by changing different phonemes and adding endings to some basic roots that are never used in speech.

I made this parenthesis for a better comprehension of what I am going to say about the Sanskrit variant of the word that makes the subject of our discussion. For this language, in Arthur MacDonell’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1893), we find the basic root trī with many meanings: “to cross over, to traverse, to get to the end of, to accomplish, to fulfill, to pass through, to overcome” (p.111). As I pointed out above, the spoken Sanskrit does not use the form trī, but tar-, to which different endings are added in order to create verbs and nouns. However, the basic root presents more interest for this work because there is a very curious resemblance between that trī and the numeral tri (with short ri) meaning “three”. I would go further saying that this situation is not just a mere happening, but there is a real connection between the idea of “beyond” or “crossing over” and the widely-spread idea of the “hidden third” (concept proposed by Professor Basarab Nicolescu). Even the etymology of the word trans reveals that only a third element could go beyond two antagonistic aspects. Of course, such a profound thought as the one that gave rise to the Sanskrit language could not have missed the revelation of such an essential fact. As considered above, the primitive mentality and also the ancient one – and the reflection of these mentalities in language – are the standpoint for the etymological explanation of those terms that reveal universal, unchangeable truths. The reason for considering so resides in the fact that the primitives were more connected to a certain superior reality which they tried to understand because they felt themselves overwhelmed by an unseen, silent power – known as “divine” – that comes from that uppermost, transcendental realm. They also tried to gain its favor by the means of different rituals created for this specific reason, rituals where many sacrifices and incantations were performed so that the Divine should properly answer their faith.

Furthermore, I would bring under discussion an idea that was first formulated by the French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. It is about “the law of participation” of all the things and beings in a collective representation (« Sous des formes et à des degrés divers, tous impliquent une « participation » entre les êtres ou les objets liés dans une représentation collective. »[1]). Regarding these aspects, it is important to underline that for the primitive mentality, things like uncertainty or doubt were non-existent. The primitives just felt those transcendental realities that are so widely theorized – and even rejected! –nowadays. This is why they had no doubts, because they could not deny the exterior influences inflicted upon them, influences that also corresponded to the inmost, latent directions of each and every of their souls.

After insisting for a couple of lines on the accord between language and thought, I move onto the Mediterranean Archipelago, considering now two other terms that reflect the same idea as the Sanskrit root trī. It is about the Greek variation of this notion. Here we find the root tér- that gave rise to terms like térma, térmōn, térthron, all of them being nouns that bear the meaning of “limit, term, extreme point”. Moreover, the Greek form of the numeral “three” is treis, tría. The main body of these words is represented by the root tr- that is nothing else than the ablaut at zero degree of tér-[2].

Regarding the Greek variant, the correspondence between the meaning of the words derived from the root tér- and the numeral “three” reflects an interesting conclusion: the ultimate, farthermost point of the reality is to be found in the third element.

An even more recent Indo-European language, Latin, offers another similar form to represent in speech the idea of transgression. It is about the preposition trans mentioned from the very first lines of this presentation. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, in their Latin Dictionary, give the following meanings of the word under discussion: “across, over, beyond, on the farthest side of”.

Moreover, we find the same analogy with the numeral “three”. The Romans called it trēs (also treis and trīs). Here, the root of these two words (the preposition and the numeral) is one and the same: tr- (ablaut at zero degree). Therefore, the Latin language, more than the other two Indo-European languages, reflects the explanation offered by Professor Basarab Nicolescu regarding the etymology of the word trans and its kinship with the numeral “three”. In his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, he says that “the words three and trans have the same etymological root: « three » represents the transgression of two, what goes beyond two”[3].

[1] Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), p.54,

[2] In the Indo-European languages, roots are made up of two or three elements. Basically, there are two simple consonants that in specific cases allow between them the presence of a certain vowel. For example, in Greek, there are three possible combinations (known as “degrees of qualitative ablaut or vocalic alternation”): the normal degree (the vowel e is to be found between the consonants), the full degree (the vowel o stays between the consonants) and the zero degree (where there is no vowel between the consonants).

[3] Basarab Nicolescu, Transdisciplinaritatea. Manifest (2007), p.66.