Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Linguistics

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.

 

 

The Boys Will Be the Boys

Anyone with knowledge of the history of sports in South Africa and the ways in which it is entangled with its political and social history might be surprised to know that the nicknames for their national Rugby team, the Springboks (Springbokke in Afrikaans, sometimes shortened to Bokke), and their national soccer team, Bafana Bafana (Zulu for “The Boys, the Boys”), are, in essence, the same.

On its surface, this is surprising for a few reasons.  In modern South Africa, Rugby has traditionally been viewed as a “White” sport, while soccer has been considered a “Black” sport.  Despite this apparent difference, both team names suggest a rambunctious, wild, but not lethal, masculinity: the essence of boyhood.  The Zulu term does this directly, while the Afrikaans term needs a bit of interpretation to get there.

How did I find myself in this particular linguistic cul de sac?  It all started when I began using the Duolingo app to learn Irish.  One of the first words that I was given to learn was buachaill, which means “boy.”  I have learned over the years that when assessing a word, one should focus on its core, by which I mean the initial and second consonant sounds, as these are the elements that are most likely to connect to other words in the same language or cognates in other tongues.  Vowels tend to shift frequently and endings tend to be unique to each language group or even each language within a group, so I tend to give the former secondary importance and simply ignore the latter.

So, back to buachaill.  Like many people, I had long ago made the observation that Irish contained a lot of extra letters, both vowels and silent consonants, so my brain automatically focused on the core of the word, bu(a)ch-, and the English word buck sprang to mind, followed by the phrase young buck.  In my experience, this phrase refers to a young man or teenage boy who is acting in an aggressive or cocky manner.  I wondered, of course, if buachaill was connected to buck.

As it turns out, they do seem to be related at the Indo-European level.  Buck goes back the Old English bucc, which means a male deer.  A similar Old English word, bucca, means a male goat.  The fact that a very similar word was used to denote the male version of multiple animals indicates that the root word carried the basic connotation of “male”.

Given the fact that English and German are “cousin” languages that sometimes demonstrate close cognates, but are at other times widely divergent, I like to triangulate my etymological thinking by incorporating Scandinavian into the analysis of Germanic words.  In this case, it worked surprisingly well in that the Swedish word for “boy” is pojke (pronounced like “poika”).  This is an extremely close cognate to bucca if one accounts for two things.  First, Swedish often treats the letter “j” (at least unofficially) like a vowel (see hjärta, “heart” and jord, “earth”) and its function in pojke is to act like the English “i” in forming the “oi” diphthong.  Second, the “b” sound in English and German often becomes a “p” sound in Swedish (see , “at”, cognate with bei in German and by, in the sense of nearness, in English).  Put in phonetic terms, English and German tend to use a voiced bilabial stop where Swedish tends to use a voiceless one.

This is what I love about investigating the roots and origins of words.  Not only do you gain insight into the way related languages developed via subtle phonetic changes, you stumble across pleasing instances of synchronicity that reveal prosaic truths about the world we live in.  In this case, sports teams tend to be given names that evoke energetic, dangerous masculinity and this concept has validity across a wide range of languages and cultures.

If you don’t believe me ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Milwaukee Bucks.

From Llyfr to Livre to Leaf

I recall reading some years ago that the Celtic languages are more closely related to Latin and its daughter languages than they are to the Germanic languages.  This may seem at first glance to be a bit counterintuitive, given the fact that the living Celtic languages are clustered in Northwestern Europe and fairly well surrounded (with the exception of Breton) by English.

However, in ancient times the Celtic peoples were close neighbors of the Romans.  The history of Rome is littered with wars against the Celtic peoples to their north and west and it was largely the conquest of the Celtic tribes in places like modern day France that brought the Romans into contact with the Germanic peoples further north.

I recently embarked on an intensive study of Celtic history and myth.  During my reading I came across a number of words that caught my interest for various reasons.  The one that sticks with me the most is the Welsh word for book, llyfr.  When I first encountered this word I immediately noticed its similarity to the French word for book, livre, but for some reason, I did not pursue the line of inquiry any further.

A few months later, I happened to stumble across the Irish equivalent, leabhar (pronounced, I am assured by a native Irish speaker, like “lao-wer”) and fireworks went off in my brain.  I connected the Welsh, French and Irish words to the Spanish word for book, libro, and derivative forms such as the English library, which solidified the word in my mind.

When I say the “word” I don’t mean any of the words I have mentioned above, but rather the triliteral root of l-b/v/f-r.  The different permutations of this “word” show the interrelatedness of and gradual transitions between different languages within the Indo-European language family and serve to drive home the point that the idea that languages are related is a literal, rather than a figurative, concept.

Ultimately, all of these words stem from the Indo-European root of leup- / leub- / leubh-, which is generally found in words having to do with things that are loose (such as lips), things that are peeled off (such as the bark of a tree or a leaf).

It gives me great joy to know that this primeval meaning, this base connection to the idea of something that is loose, a slice of something more substantial, has been carried through to modern times in such a consistent way in a series of related languages.