The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Indo-European


Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.



Thrice Greatest: Maha, Machen, Magnus

I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject.  More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.

Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”.  However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word.  I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.

But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately.  The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”.  I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.

I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.

I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively.   This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power.  In other words, something is great because it can do things.

Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”.  My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”.  In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus.  For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”

At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.”  From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne.  Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.

Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes.  Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things.  In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.

In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit.  Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages.  However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script.  Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.




This one has been staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it.  Regulate is a very common word meaning to control or impose order on something by setting limits.  In other words, to lay down rules and impose punishments or disincentives for breaking them.

What eventually caught my eye about this word is its obvious connection to various Indo-European words related to the concept of kingship.  The root of regulate is reg-, which literally means “a straight line” or “to direct in a straight line;” in other words to rule.  There are numerous cognates of reg- that mean “king” in Indo-European tongues:

  • Rey (Spanish)
  • Raja (Sanskrit)
  • Rex (Latin)
  • (Irish)
  • Re (Italian)

This list is notable in that it is limited to the Celtic, Romance and Indian branches of the tree.  Being a native English speaker, I wondered why we say king and what that says about the differing concepts of kingship within the Indo-European language family.

King, and its relatives in the Germanic language family (König in German, koning in Dutch, kung in Swedish, konungur in Icelandic, etc.) stem from a different Indo-European root altogether, gen-, which means “to give birth.”  This meaning is clear in modern English words such as generate and engender, but there are cognates in numerous Indo-European languages which denote more than the simple fact of being born, but also membership in a tribal or ethnic group:

  • Gente (Spanish)
  • Jánas (Sanskrit)
  • Genus (Latin)
  • Cine (Irish)
  • Genus (Italian)
  • Génos (Greek)

The Indo-European root gen- came into English as kin, meaning “family.”  King is the result of a compound Old English word, cyning, which combines the noun cyn (equivalent to modern English kin), and the suffix -ing.  In this usage, the suffix denotes belonging to or being descended from the noun it follows, a pattern often seen in family and tribal names in the ancient Germanic world (think of the Scyldings from Beowulf).  So cyning literally means something like “member/descendent of the family/tribe.”

Based on the above, it is clear that the Celtic, Romance and Indian words for king are all formed from a root (reg-) that emphasizes the legalistic exercise of executive power, while the root used by the Germanic languages (gen-) emphasizes membership in a group that defines itself through shared descent.

This difference seems to have its origin in the differing political systems found in the cultures themselves.  Ancient Romans, for instance, viewed themselves as being citizens of a state that imposed laws and exacted punishment for breaking them, whereas Germanic tribesmen viewed themselves as being just that; members of a tribe.  Even though the political situation on the ground has changed over time, the ancient distinction between the etymologies of the words remain, much like the silent “gh” in the word “night”.





The question of whether there is an etymological connection between the words “new” and “nine” at the Indo-European level has been debated for the better part of a century based on the similarity between the words in a number of European languages and their seemingly common connection to the root for the word “now”.  For example, the new/nine/now complex is neu/neun/nun in German, ny/nio/nu in Swedish, and novus/novem/nunc in Latin, etc.

The existing debate (a short, if technical, summary can be found here) has tended to focus on the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European roots of the words.  This debate is both interesting and valid, but is, in my opinion, incomplete because it fails to take into account the symbolic associations of the words.  I believe that an analysis of these associations as found in mythological contexts and an understanding of how these associations derive from phenomena observable in the natural world supports the idea that they are fundamentally connected.

In a variety of cultures (at least ones with Indo-European languages), the number nine represents wholeness and completeness.  This can be seen in the nine-fold conception of the universe found in Norse and Hindu mythologies (the “nine worlds” and the navagraha or “nine houses, respectively), or the fact that Odin hung on the world tree Yggdrasil for nine nights before acquiring the runes.  Alwyn and Brinley Rees devote a short section (pp. 192-196, part of Chapter 9) of their excellent Celtic Heritage to the prominence of the number nine in Celtic culture.  One of the connections they mention is that the ancient Celts are believed by some to have had a nine day week, which lends credence to the number being associated with a complete cycle.

But why is the number nine traditionally associated with completeness?  I know there is a long tradition in numerology related to the number nine and I don’t discount this out of hand.  To give just three examples: nine is the minimum number needed to construct a magic square; many significant numbers related to the proportions of the earth and the solar system add to nine; and nine is the product of 3 (a number that is considered special in many cultures) multiplied by itself.

However, I think there is an obvious, common sense explanation that may help to explain the origins of the association of the number nine with the concept of “new”: the period of human gestation is nine months, after which, a new life is born.  Viewed from this perspective, when Odin hangs on Yggdrasil for nine “nights”, he is essentially in a period of incubation, at the end of which he is “born” in possession of new, secret knowledge in the form of the runes.  When the fulfillment of nine is reached, something new is born, and what is new is that which is happening now.


MacGowan, Son (Mac) of the Smith (Go-w/bh/v-an)

Recently I was reading a book by Sir Alex Ferguson, the now retired manager of Manchester United football club, in which I learned that he grew up in an area of Glasgow called Govan.  This name gave me pause.  I know, largely based on researching the roots of my own family, that the west and northwest of Scotland are the areas that were conquered by Irish invaders in the 6th century.  Gaelic language influence is therefore concentrated in these areas of the country.

Considering the likely Gaelic roots of Govan, I made the connection to the last name of one of my favorite singers, Shane MacGowan.  MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents and lived part of his childhood in Ireland, in County Tipperary.  Surely Govan and Gowan come from the same root?  And, assuming they do, what does it mean?

It didn’t take long to find out.  As it turns out, Gowan is derived from the Gaelic word for “smith”.  Examples from modern Celtic languages include gabha in Irish and gofaint in Welsh.  So, the last name MacGowan is occupational in nature (like the English last names Taylor, Smith, Hooper, etc.) and means “Son of the Smith”.

The core element of the Celtic words appears to be gab- or gob-, which correlates with the Indo-European concept of a “lump” or a “piece”.  Example cognates that come to mind here are gabalas in Lithuanian and gabals in Latvian.   There is even a connection with Slavic languages in that the word for “smith” begins with a kow/v– root, with kowal in Polish and kovac in Slovak being prime examples.

The Germanic language family stands in contrast to its cousins, in that it employs a totally different root.  The English word smith is closely cognate with the German schmitt, Dutch smid, Swedish smed, etc.  All of these are derived from the verb “to smite”.  I find this contrast between the concepts underlying the word in each language family to be fascinating.  The focus in the Celtic languages is the material that is being worked, while the Germanic word derives from the action being taken.