Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Proto Indo-European

Sunyata

As I have been diving back into Buddhism, I am struck by how much my understanding of the idea of sunyata, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “emptiness” has changed over the years, particularly in relation to meditation.  In the past I have interpreted the concept not so much as a nihilistic “void,” which seems to have been the tendency of many early western commentators, but rather as a point of equilibrium, a perfect balance between sleeping and waking, unencumbered by the contingent, physical world. 

Nowadays, though, I pay more attention to words and I recently stumbled across a bit of etymology that added layers of meaning to sunyata.  In digging for the roots of the word, I discovered that it ultimately comes from the Proto Indo-European root *svi– meaning “hollow.” 

This is interesting because the connotation of “hollow” is a bit different from “empty” and “void.”  In modern English, “empty” seems to be a general word for something being missing or lacking.  A cup can be empty, but so can a room or a head or a million other things.  And “void” seems to be used as an intensifier to indicate a sort of extreme form of absence, generally resulting from an action.  One “voids” a sale because a mistake was made, for example.

A better translation of sunyata might be “hollowness.”  If something is “hollow” it implies that there is an outer casing or shell that contains empty space within it.  In terms of meditation, this connotes not so much the total annihilation of the self implied in the terms “empty” and “void” but rather the opening up of space within.     

Here is where sunyata really gets interesting.  The root *svi– caught my eye because it contains two letters whose pronunciation and spelling toggle back and forth in different languages, “s” (often pronounced like “sh”) and “w” (often pronounced like “v” or represented by vowel combinations like “ui” and “eu.”  I began looking for words that had the rough form of “s/sh+w/ui/eu” and came up with two observations.  

First, words that follow this pattern tend to focus on motion or change: swift, sweep, swoop, swell, swing, etc.  The most revealing word in this cluster though, comes from German.  In German, schwanger means “pregnant.”  So now we are dealing with a linguistic complex that includes both the sense of “hollowness,” as well as the sense of movement, growth and “becoming.” 

This is the key to the concept of sunyata.  The creation of “hollowness” isn’t done for it’s own sake and it is not the end goal.  It is a means to an end.  One creates “hollowness” within by removing the mental and emotional underbrush that hinders our progress and creates space for something to grow and take shape. 

One might ask what it is that is being allowed to grow and I believe the answer is suggested by another PIE root in our complex, *s(w)e, which is connected to the word sui in Latin.  In English, this became “self.”  This interpretation may seem counterintuitive and inappropriately Jungian, but there is support for it in the Tibetan tradition.  

In The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Thubten Yeshe, he discusses realizing sunyata as the “way you break down the gross concepts of ego and eradicate the self-pitying image of yourself” (p. 34) that arise from being overly focused on attachment.  He then later makes the revealing comment that “The Buddha is within; that’s where we should seek” (p. 41).   

This makes sense on a practical level, that the realization and acceptance of sunyata is a necessary precursor to enlightenment, to finding your true self and the Buddha within.

 

Toward the Future

I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while.  In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia.  Here are some examples:

  • zukunft (German)
  • toekomst (Dutch)
  • toekoms (Afrikaans
  • framtida (Swedish)
  • fremtid (Danish)
  • framtid (Norwegian)
  • framtíð (Icelandic)

Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word.  This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.

I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”.  After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.

This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected.  It came into English through French, which got it from Latin.  It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.

Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections.  The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.”  Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward.    So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.

However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root.  In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr.  This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.

The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense.  For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”

As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word.  However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.

In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all.  It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.