9 Jan 2010

Rubbing away the shine (2)

More skepticism of PIE *mer- 'to shine' is to follow. Apparently it was back in 1891 when Friedrich Müller questioned the sense behind attributing the Vedic storm deities called Maruts to a root meaning 'to shine' as opposed to a homophonous root meaning 'to crush', reasoning it out thusly:
"Another etymology, proposed in Böhtlingk's Dictionary, which derives Marut from a root mar, to shine, labours under two disadvantages; first, that there is no such root in Sanskrit; secondly, that the lurid splendour of the lightning is but a subordinate feature in the character of the Maruts."[1]
None of these facts have changed. The verb mṛṇā́ti 'crushes, grinds' is always available to the Sanskrit etymologist but a verb root paralleling Greek marmáirein 'to shine' is absent. Does a 19th-century scholar still have a point? Have Indo-Europeanists gotten ahead of themselves attributing a PIE root behind every relationship blindly? Skepticism concerning this root, in regards to another meaning given to it which strives to explain Greek words relating to 'portion' and 'fate', is echoed more recently by Peter Schrijver in Indo-European *(s)mer- in Greek and Celtic published in Indo-European Perspectives (2004): "Yet the other cornerstone of IE reconstruction beside archaic morphology, viz. comparative evidence from other IE languages, would seem to be almost completely lacking."[2]

If मरुत marút may be so etymologized, such that these storm gods 'crush' and 'pummel' with thunder[3] rather than 'shine' through lightning, then surely so may Sanskrit márīci- 'mote or speck in the air' or 'particle of light' be likewise attributed to the homophonous root referring to crushing, grinding and wearing things away. Latin merus 'pure, unmixed, unadulterated' can also make better sense this way too (ie. 'worn away' → 'mere' → 'unadulterated', 'pure', 'bare'). Nothing here requires a source from 'to shine' and the issue seems even to become burdened by extra assumptions when we do. So it really begs the question whether it existed at all in PIE. Perhaps we should wonder from where Greek obtained marmáirein and related words pertaining to 'shining' if not from PIE and resist a biased tendency to see Indo-European in everything beyond what's sensible.

[1] Müller, Vedic Hymns, Part I: Hymns to the Maruts, Rudra, Vayu, and Vata (1891) (see link).
[2] Schrijver, Indo-European *(s)mer- in Greek and Celtic published in Indo-European Perspectives (2004) (see link).
[3] Griffith/Shastri, The hymns of the Rgveda (1995), p.398 (see link).


  1. I think we should be careful finding any type of etymology for words like marút- and márīci-, because, let's be honest, these are bizarre formations.

    The first one to find another word that can convincingly be derived from root +-ut or root +-īci will get śravo 'kṣitam from me, in my book at least.

    I checked Macdonell's Vedic grammar, which has an extensive list of noun suffixes, -ut is only mentioned for mar-ut, -īci isn't mentioned at all. Not to mention that neither of these suffixes look at all indo-european, coming up with etymologies for them seems silly. I'd feel more comfortable with saying it's a loanword from 'somewhere', and this somewhere currently being unclear.

    But just out of curiosity, how would you want to connect 'particle of light' with 'crush' semantically?

  2. Phoenix: "But just out of curiosity, how would you want to connect 'particle of light' with 'crush' semantically?"

    Simply put, a 'speck' can come from the act of grinding or crushing, as when grinding down wheat into flour. When applying this speck analogy to sky phenomena, the 'shining' of these particles becomes a secondary feature. So I'm not convinced that 'shining' is at the root of this term.