The curious Mari word шнуй šnuj ‘holy’

The first time I ever came across Meadow Mari шнуй šnuj ‘holy’, I was quite struck by the word. It resembles nothing in Chuvash, Tatar or Russian, but the initial consonant cluster means that it cannot be a native Mari word.

While used in the modern literary language, the word is notably missing from the dialectal dictionaries compiled by late 19th-century or early 20th-century fieldworkers. As far as I can tell, the first dictionary to include the word is V. M. Vasil’ev’s Марий Мутэр (Moscow, 1926), where it is glossed ‘святой’ with the example sentence Шнуй пийал дэнэ йумо ий мучашы̆м шуйа маны̆т. The word is not present in the 1956 Mari–Russian dictionary, possibly on account of the anti-religious edicts of the time, but it is found in the 1991 Mari–Russian dictionary and the 10-volume Словарь марийского языка, where it seems to have long become an established feature of the literary language.

An initial cluster is also found in Eastern Mari spaj ‘beautiful, graceful’, a loan from Tatar zipa, in turn from Persian zibā (see Paasonen’s Ost-Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch pp. 112–113), so I looked for some Turkic or Perso-Arabic word of a similar shape for šnuj, but I eventually gave up. As the word has generally been overlooked in discussions of Mari etymology, there the matter rested for some time.

However, I recently saw that Raija Bartens took a look at šnuj in her paper “Marilaista Isä meidän–rukouksen käännöksistä”, a contribution to the Festschrift for Seppo Suhonen Oekeeta asijoo (Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura, 1998). In coming across šnuj in her survey of Mari translations of the Lord’s Prayer through the ages, Bartens was just as baffled by the word was I was. Noting that it is used only in Christian contexts, Bartens asks if it isn’t simply a corruption of Russian священный.

Oddly, in his История марийского литературного языка (p. 137), I. G. Ivanov lists this word among terminology from the Mari pagan religion that fell out of active use during the rise of the Mari literary language. Not only was this word not used for Mari paganism, but it is the rise of the literary language in the 20th century that propelled this word from some extremely obscure origin to common use by Meadow Mari-speaking writers everywhere.

Mari words in Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism

J. L. Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism (Wiesbaden, Reichert Verlag, 2002), which goes well beyond what its title suggests, is in many respects an updating or refinement of Abaev’s Ossetian etymological dictionary. Cheung’s monograph also has an index for each of the languages, Iranian or otherwise, drawn on in the work. Unlike Abaev’s enormous, and mostly wrong, use of Mari, Cheung limits his etymologies to just four Mari words: βerɣe ‘kidney’, kutkə̑ž ‘eagle’, ož(o) ‘stallion’ and pire ‘wolf’.

Thus we are on much firmer ground than in Abaev’s dictionary, although Cheung again misrepresents the Mari word for ‘wolf’ as pirägy, and that is probably a borrowing from Tatar anyway.

Battle of the etymologists

The verb MariE püč́kampəčkäm ‘cut off’ is funny. In the Uralisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (367) the word is derived from a supposed Proto-Uralic *pečkä‑ (päčkä‑) ‘to cut’ on the basis of North Saami bæsˈkedi‑ ‘cut hair or wool off’ and Mordvin E M pečke ‘cut off, chop off’. Bereczki upholds this etymology in his Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Tscheremissischen (Mari) without mentioning any alternatives.

On the other hand, Fedotov in his Этимологический словарь чувашского языка (I 409) etymologizes Chuvash păčkă ‘saw’ on the basis of Turkic – namely the widespread *pïčak/bičäk ‘knife’ – and claims (again without mentioning any alternative) that MariW pəčkäm is a borrowing from Chuvash. Who is right here?

There is only one Uralic etymology in Bereczki where *pe‑ gives MariE pü‑, namely püńč́ö ‘pine’ < *penčä (UEW 727). Otherwise pü- in Mari is normally from *pä‑, e.g. pükš ‘hazelnut’ < *päškз (UEW 726–7). However, if we assume that the Proto-Uralic form was *päčkä, that would conflict with the Mordvinic forms, as Moksha Mordvin usually preserves PU *ä and does not raise it to e. I suppose that is why the UEW placed a question mark before the Mordvinic forms.

Can derivational morphology settle the question? The frequentative of this verb is püč́keẟem, and a quick search of the Mari–English Dictionary shows that ‑eẟem is overwhelmingly found in inherited Uralic vocabulary (or at least pre-Chuvash borrowings), not Turkic loanwords. It is not exclusively so – note joɣeẟem ‘flow’ < Chuvash and tojeẟem ‘hide’ < Tatar – but I would think it probable that MariE püč́kem is inherited.

Ultimately, however, with the resemblance between the Proto-Turkic and Proto-Uralic forms, we might have to take the dreaded notion of “sound symbolism” into account here, something which usually makes me want to drop the question entirely, leaving it for someone else with a greater gift for linguistics.

A curious source of /a/ in both Meadow and Hill Mari

When I first encountered the Mari words MariE paŋga, paklaka ‘stick, lump’, MariE W paŋgə̑ra ‘hard, stiff’, I was inclined to view them as loanwords due to the vocalism and a hunch that ‑ə̑ra and ‑laka are suffixes from some unknown substrate. (My ground for the latter suffix was a very un-Finno-Ugrian vacillation between l and r, cf. kakraka ‘hard, dry soil’ < kaŋga ‘poor, barren soil’.)

However, these words appear to be internally derivable in Mari. While Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch lists paŋga and paŋgə̑ra (paklaka is not in TschWb, only the Mari–English Dictionary and Paasonen’s Eastern Mari dictionary) under their own entries with no further comment, dozens of pages later under the entry for pu ‘wood’, one finds the verbal derivation puaŋeš ‘harden, become like wood’.

Surely we are dealing with the same word here. That the paŋga words were originally compounds, the first element of which was pu ‘wood’, would do much to explain the semantic range of paŋga, which includes ‘lump; stick; piece, figure (in a number of games), stick game; bead (on abacus), fishing float’. The vocalism is strange, however. Are there any other examples of the sequence *‑ua‑ producing /a/ in both Meadow and Hill Mari? (One would be tempted to explain other MariE a ~ W a matches with such an original sequence; could the verb manam ‘to say’ and the noun mut ‘word’ be thus related?)

And while we’re on the subject, MariE W peŋgə̑de ‘hard’ would be much more satisfyingly explained as related to these words and a compound with pu ‘wood’, than the traditional derivation from a supposed PU *piŋka ‘taught, tight’ (UEW 731, upheld in Bereczki’s etym. dictionary) where the semantics don’t seem to match.

Before I discovered the Mari words where pu ‘wood’ is visible, my candidate for the source of the Mari paŋga words was Iranian *fanai̯aka-, cf. Ossetian fäjnäg ‘board’. I suppose that link must now be abandoned, although the distribution of the Ossetian word – it is found elsewhere in Iranian only in Khwarezmian as fnyk ‘shield’, is certainly interesting.

Mari words in Abaev’s etymological dictionary of Ossetian

V. I. Abaev’s Историко-этимологический словарь осетинского языка (published in four volumes in 1958–1989) is quite famous and I was happy to discover a PDF on everyone’s favourite filesharing community for linguistics books. You can also order a paper version from some Russian online bookstores as print-on-demand. However, it wasn’t until I browsed the Helsinki library shelves that I discovered there was an index for it as well. The Указатель volume was published in Moscow in 1995.

(Furthermore, Abaev also published 22 pages of addenda and corrections to the dictionary as his contribution to the Festschrift for Ladislav Zgusta Historical, Indo-European and Lexicographical Studies ed. Hans H. Hock, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.)

The index contains sections for all the various languages Abaev dealt with, including individual Finno-Ugrian languages. As I am very interested in late East Iranian loanwords in Mari, I looked at what Mari words Abaev had mentioned. Below I present a list, with Abaev’s representation of the Mari (a jumble of transcriptions and dialect forms) replaced by the Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch headwords. Unfortunately, most of these can be treated as Chuvash or Tatar loanwords, inherited Uralic vocabulary or coincidential resemblances, and certainly not as the result of direct Iranian–Mari contact. Clearly the field has moved on since Abaev’s heyday.

Mari Ossetian Page Better etymology
alaša ‘gelding’ alasa id. I 44 < Tatar
čəgət cyxt ‘cheese’ I 328 Not in TschWb, but if Mari it would be < Chuvash
kə̑ńe ‘hemp’ kättag ‘cloth’ I 590
keńe gän id., kättag ‘cloth’ I 513, I 590
kerde ‘sword’ kard id. I 571
kož ‘spruce’ k’ozä ‘conifer shoot’ I 638 < PU *kose
kukšo xysk’ id. IV 270
mör ‘berry’ myrtkä id. II 141 < PU *mïrja
naməs namys id. II 155 < Tatar
pire ‘wolf’ biräğ id. I 263 < Tatar
pursa ‘pea’ pysyra ‘nettle’ II 248 < Chuvash
rüzem ‘to shake (trans.)’ rizyn ‘to shake (intrans.)’ II 418
rə̑βə̑ž ‘fox’ ruvas id. II 434
sokə̑r ‘blind’ soqqyr id. III 138 < Tatar
šu ‘bristle, fishbone’ syg ‘barb’ III 186
šüĺö ‘oats’ syl ‘rye’ III 194 < Chuvash
šur ‘horn’ sy id. III 181 < Proto-Iranian
toβar ‘axe’ färät id. I 451
tomaša ‘strange thing; commotion’ tamaša id. III 228 < Chuvash or Tatar
tul ‘stormwind’ tyfyl ‘whirlwind’ III 328 < Cv. tăvăl or Tat. tawïl
tumna ‘owl’ tojmon id. III 298 < Chuvash
tə̑rke ‘young pine’ tägär ‘maple’ III 252 TschWb says < Tat./FU?
umla ‘hops’ xymlläg id. IV 262 < Chuvash
uža ‘sells’ wäj id. IV 67 < PU *wosa, borrowed from PIE
βaraš ‘hawk’ wari ‘falcon’ IV 50
βürɣeńe ‘copper’ ärxy id. I 186
[eŋer-]βaze ‘fishing rod’ wis ‘rod, pole’ IV 111
βerɣe ‘kidney’ wyrg IV 123

It’s worth mentioning that Abaev’s supposed Mari word for ‘wolf’ is pirägy, clearly from MariE pire but in itself clearly erroneous. Abaev’s ghost word was later perpetuated in J. L. Cheung’s Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism, p. 173, about which more later.

Have the Mari always been a forest people?

The self-image of the Mari during the last couple of centuries, reinforced by state-sponsored representations of Mari culture in the Soviet era, is that the Mari people have since time immemorial been dwellers of the forests. Marij kalə̑k – č́oẟə̑ra kalə̑k ‘the Mari people are a forest people’ is a saying that foreigners interested in the Mari come across early on.

I was struck today by how D. E. Kazantsev even used this image of the Mari as evidence against a proposed etymology for the ethnonym черемис, which the Russians and surrounding Turkic peoples used to denote the Mari but which was not used by the Mari themselves. In Формирование диалектов марийского языка (Йошкар-Ола: Марийское книжное издательство, 1985), p. 7–8, Kazantsev dismisses Gordeev’s derivation of the name from Iranian *čar ‘wander, roam’, thus ‘the [from the Iranian tribes’ view] people wandering nearby’, writing […] вызывает сомнение, что кочевой или бродячий образ жизни был мотивирующим признаком в этническом названий марийцев, всегда связанных с зоной лесов.

But are the Mari people truly a forest people? In his From Fugitive Peasants to Diaspora: the Eastern Mari in Tsarist and Federal Russia, Seppo Lallukka notes that the Mari often ended up dwelling deep in forests because they had been pushed there by the advance of the Russians across the Middle Volga region. The earliest significant depiction of Mari life, Nicolaas Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tatarye (in the second edition of 1705) indicates that many Mari lived in forests at that time, but he also mentions plains­dwellers and the breeding of cattle (and cattle appear to have been known to the Mari at least as early as the 1st millennium AD on the basis of the words skal ‘cow’ and šör ‘milk’). I don’t necessarily want to defend Gordeev’s etymology of черемис, but to claim that the Mari (who were at some point, after all, hunter-gathers) could not have been a mobile population and were perennially settled in forests is, I think, untenable.

Headwear exonyms

Recently I’ve come across two odd exonyms based on distinctive headwear.

While looking up MariE č́uŋgə̑la ‘rutabaga, turnip’ (a word which interestingly lacks an etymology), I saw that the entry in Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch offers as an example sentence a riddle originally published in Timofej Jevsejev’s Morko text collection: βə̑ržə̑m salẟak č́uŋkə̑la βatə̑m poktə̑leš. – pə̑rə̑s ‘A soldier from Uržum chases the rutabaga women. – the cat’. This riddle would make no sense to us today had Jevsejev (or Sirkka Saarinen when editing the collection) not added an explanation: the neighbouring communities call the married women of Morko č́uŋkə̑la βate ‘rutabaga women’ because of their headwear.

In The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rihm ed. Miyaoka et al. (Oxford University Press, 2007), Oscar E. Aguilera’s contribution on the Fuegian language Kawesqar includes the following:

One of the groups [Captain Fitz-Roy] found about the central parts of Magalhaens Strait he identifies as “Pecherays”, which was the usual exclamation they uttered, “whence Bougainville and others called them Pecherais”. This utterance, reported first by Bougainville, is also mentioned by Gusinde, who attributes this denomination to a Selk’nam loan, but it is no other than the Kawesqar word pælsc’éwe “alien”, “foreigner”, which is used today to designate a non-Chilean person. It is composed of pæls “the bill of a bird”, and -c’éwe a deictic which means “vertical”, “verticality”, pointing out the form of a ship’s captain’s or officer’s hat, and the vertical element referring to the distance from the canoe to the deck of the ship: therefore the meaning of the word would be something like “beak-headed-like man up on board”.

Some Finno-Ugrian victims of Stalinism

Timo Salminen contributed a paper to the collection The Quasquicentennial of the Finno-Ugrian Society ed. Jussi Ylikoski (Helsinki, 2009) on the Society’s relationship with Russia from the 1880s to 1940. I had assumed on the basis of his year of death (1937) that the Mari schoolteacher Timofej Jevsejev, who had spent over two decades providing valuable folkloric material to that Finnish learned society, was ultimately shot for his international connections in those darkest days of Stalinism. Ditto for the poet Kuzebaj Gerd, now regarded as a founding figure of Udmurt literature. Salminen’s article confirms this:

Contacts with the Finno-Ugrian Society were not without problems for the few scholars that the Soviet Union allowed to travel abroad, or had other Western contacts. The Komis Vasilij Lytkin and Vasilij Nalimov, the Mari Timofej Evsev’ev and the Udmurt Kuzebaj Gerd (1898–1937) were arrested in the early 1930s. Lytkin and Gerd were accused of belonging to the Fighting League for the Liberation of the Finno-Ugrian Peoples (SOFIN), a fictional organization created by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union for the purpose of accusing Finno-Ugrian intellectuals of conspiring against the state. Gerd was the alleged chairman of the League. In interrogations, Lytkin was accused of contacts with the Finno-Ugrian Society with its aims of Greater Finland and erasing Soviet rule from the Komi region through armed rebellion. Lytkin also had to deny “bourgeois” comparative linguistics. Lytkin had been sent to Finland by the Institute of Eastern Peoples and said that, upon the urging of the Soviet Embassy, he visited all the places where he was invited. Lytkin was sentenced to a work camp in Far East for five years; the sentence was later reduced to three years. He was not allowed to return to Komi until he was officially rehabilitated in 1957. Kuzebaj Gerd and Timofej Evsev’ev were executed in 1937. Nalimov was released after his first arrest but was rearrested in 1937. He died in a prison camp in 1939.

By not allowed to return to Komi, Salminen must have meant that Lytkin was not allowed to return to the Komi region. He had in fact returned to the study of the Komi language while Stalin was still alive. His still very important book on the language of the Old Permic (early Komi) writings, Древнепермский язык, was published in 1952. That book begins with a disgustingly sycophantic preface that credits Stalin with great linguistic insights (putting an end to the error of Marrism), but now I understand Lytkin must have been under great stress and desperate to stay on the right side of the state.

I also learned of two other Mari activists who perished under Stalinism:

In 1912, the Mari Vasilij Jakmanov (1882–1938) came to Finland, explaining that he was on a study trip. Yrjö Wichmann collected linguistic material from him, and Jakmanov later returned to Russia, from where he sent, among other items, Mari costumes to the National Museum of Finland via the Finno-Ugrian Society. In 1928 it emerged that Jakmanov had fled the Russian authorities, who were looking for him because of his membership in the Mari sect known as Kugu Sorta (‘The Great Candle’), which was regarded as politically dangerous and was banned in Russia. Jakmanov had been banished in 1906 from the Government of Vjatka because of his anti-government activities, after which he hid from the authorities in different parts of Russia. The Finno-Ugrian Society and Wichmann had thus unwittingly given shelter to a political refugee.

Olyk Ipaj (1912–1937), a Mari student of cinematography who sent to the Finno-Ugrian Society an anthology of poetry in the Mari language entitled The Forest Murmurs. No doubt these contacts and other nationalist activity led at least to Ipaj being arrested and executed in November 1937.

Of course I heard all this from a Finnish publication and not from any Mari. While the Mari moved quickly to rehabilitate many of their murdered intelligentsia after the death of Stalinism, they tend to keep very quiet about these figures’ grisly end. When I visited the Sergei Chavain museum in Chavainnur, for instance, I heard nothing of his execution, and asking about it only made the guide uncomfortable. Obviously there is a reluctance for public servants to avoid any perceived criticism of the Russian state, but the degree of self-censorship lasting into the new millennium is appalling. I’ve even seen the occasional Wikipedia articles on a Mari or other Volga–Kama cultural luminary that only euphemistically alludes to his fate, e.g. “He died in 1933 during a difficult time.”

“The Marten Playing” (Ой луй модеш), a not-so-traditional Mari folk song

In June 1968, László Víkar and Gábor Bereczki collected this Mari folk song in the village of Ulisyal in northern Tatarstan, sung by a middle-aged woman named M. Dimitrieva. It was published as number 81 in their collection Cheremis Folksongs (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1971).The score of the Mari folk song “Oj luj moẟeš (Ой луй модеш)”

This song is perhaps the most extreme example of a disconcerting feeling that often arises from Mari folk material (and with the indigenous peoples of Russia in general): you initially think that you gazing into some hoary old tradition from time immemorial, but then you encounter a word or phrasing that reveals the text as not so old after all. For example, one might think the Mari pagan religion a conservative and very ancient phenomenon, but the rituals that Paasonen noted down among the Eastern Mari in 1900 abound with Tatar words that were surely picked up only a few decades before. With “Oj luj moẟeš”, the last verse suddenly bursts our romantic bubble and tells us this song as it is couldn’t have been more than 50 years old:

oj, luj moẟeš, luj moẟeš
kuɣu kožola tajə̑leš.
oj mör küješ, mör küješ
č́eβer olə̑k pokšelan.

oj motorem, č́eβerem,
mör poɣalaš kajena.
oj motorem, č́eβerem,
komsomolə̑š purena.

Hey, the marten is playing, the marten is playing
on the sloping bank of the great forest.
Hey, the strawberries ripen, the strawberries ripen
in the middle of the beautiful meadow.

Hey, my bonniest, my sweetheart,
let’s go and pick strawberries.
Hey, my bonniest, my sweetheart,
let’s join the Komsomol.

The Komsomol (Communist Youth League), a product of the Bolshevik revolution, was founded in 1918.

Vanished words for ‘wild animal’ in Mari and Mordvin

In 1960 Thomas Sebeok exhaustively examined the 18th-century Mari wordlist of Pallas (part of the two-volume Linguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa, Saint-Petersburg, 1786 and 1789). The majority of Sebeok’s analysis is very solid. However, with the limited resources he had available at the time, he was unable to determine the exact Mari forms for a handful of words, and he was forced to mark them “unattested” and move on. Furthermore, he misread some of Pallas’ Cyrillic spellings (the typeface uses very similar letter forms for <т> <ш>, etc.). Empowered by the publication of Tscheremissisches Wörterbuch, I’ve written an article filling in most of these gaps and correcting misreadings, which I hope to publish next year.

Always intriguing, however, are the prospects of old Mari words (inherited Uralic material or loans) that subsequently vanished. One item that Sebeok left marked as “unattested” is Pallas’s item 147, Russian звѣрь ‘beast’ = Mari важикъ (which Sebeok reads as važik). No such form is attested even in TschWb. It is not satisfying to explain this as a misprint for MariE voĺə̑k ‘livestock’, as languages in this part of the word tend to carefully distinguish between wild and domesticated animals.

Under the same item, Pallas gives Mordvin пакша. Can we establish some connection between the Mari and Mordvin words, desperately assuming metathesis? If we read Pallas’s Mordvin form as pakša, no such item is found in the Heikki Paasonen lexicon. Erzya pakśa, with a slightly different consonant, is found in compounds like pakśarga ‘wild duck’, but the first element is pakśa ‘field’, and this is a loanword from Chuvash or Mishär Tatar. It is not uncommon for languages in this part of the world to designate wild species by adding words for ‘forest’ or ‘field’ to animal names.

It is nonetheless curious that the first, essentially adjectival element of a compound like this would be separated out and treated as a noun corresponding to Russian звѣрь. Furthermore, Pallas’ spelling suggests š and not ś. Veršinin’s Mordvin etymological dictionary gives a word pakš(a), but with the meaning ‘child’, which doesn’t seem to fit here. However, Erzya has the word rakšańaзверёк, little animal’, a diminutive of rakša attested in Paasonen only with the meaning ‘horse’. Could Mordvin rakša have earlier meant ‘animal’ in general and was then misspelled in Pallas with an initial p- instead of r-? Either way, no connection to the supposed Mari word is possible.