Some etymological notes on words for invertebrates

Words for insects and other invertebrates are well-known to be etymologically unstable: they are easily replaced, and also susceptible to divergent developments such as irregular sound changes and folk-etymological distortions. Despite of this, a few such words in the Uralic langauges can be traced back to Proto-Uralic. I will discuss four new or rehabilitated etymologies here.

Saami *ću(o)rō– ‘fly’ ~ Khanty *sī̮r ‘fly eggs’ ~ Mansi *sūrǝ ‘parasitic worm, woodworm’

A Proto-Saami word for ‘fly’ is preserved by all Saami languages, although it has not been included in Lehtiranta’s (1989) reconstruction of the Proto-Saami lexicon. The reason for its exclusion may be that western and eastern Saami languages show different variants of the word which do not correspond to each other completely regularly:

  • SaaS tjovrehke ~ tjovrege ~ tjoere (!), U tjuvrake, P tjuruk, L tjurok ~ tjirok (!) (gen. tjuroga ~ tjiroga), N čurot (gen. čuroha) ~ čurrot, čuru (gen. čurroha ~ čurroga) ‘fly’ (< PSaa *ćurōkkē ~ *ćurōk : *ćuruke̮-)
  • SaaI čuáruš (gen. čuárruš) ‘fly eggs’, Sk čuâraš ~ čuâr (gen. čuõr’ru), K čuõraš (gen. čuõrraš) ~ čuõr (gen. čuurrâ), T čïïʹres (gen. čïõrraz) ‘fly’ (< PSaa *ćuorōś : *ćuoruśe̮- ~ *ćuorōj : *ćuoru.e̮- ~ *ćuorēs : *ćuorāse̮-)

The different morphological formations notwithstanding, the only irregularity here is the correspondence between western Saami *u and eastern Saami *uo. This is a minor irregularity, though, considering that we are dealing with an insect name. Presumably the diphthong *uo is original, as there is also a trace of it in the SaaS variant tjoere (< *ćuore̮); this may have originated as a back formation of some kind, as it differs from all other variants in not containing any suffix. On a further note, in several dialects of North Saami the word for ‘fly’ is homonymous with čuru ~ čuoru ~ čurrot ‘unripe cloudberry’, but this seems to result from folk-etymological contamination, because most eastern Saami languages point to an original *o in the first syllable of this word: SaaI čoorooh, Sk čååraǩ, K čorâh (< PSaa *ćorōkkē) ~ T čurag ‘unripe cloudberry’ (< PSaa *ćurōkkē).

In phonological terms the PSaa stem *ćuor(V)- would presuppose PU *će̮rV- or *ćara-. There are completely straightforward comparanda in Khanty which can reflect the latter form:

  • Vj si̮r ‘fly eggs’, Irt sir-wojǝ ‘a large black fly’ (wojǝ ‘animal’) (< PKh *sī̮r)
  • O seri ‘fly eggs’ (< PKh *sī̮r-ī̮)
  • Ni Kaz sĭrǝnt- ‘lay eggs (of flies); get infested with maggots or fly eggs (of meat)’ (< PKh *sī̮r-ǝnt-)

This comparison has indeed been made by Collinder (1977: 30), but abandoned by subsequent research; there are good grounds for rehabilitating it, though. The default reflex of PU *a(–a) is PKh *ā, whereas PKh *ī̮ is the high grade of underlying *ā in the Khanty system of ablaut. Therefore, we can assume that PKh *sī̮r earlier contained a second-syllable vowel which functioned as an umlaut trigger. Although the background of this assumed vowel remains unclear for the time being, there are several parallels for PU *a(–a) developing into PKh *ī̮ despite the absence of an overt umlaut trigger:

  • PU *aŋa- ‘take off, open’ > PKh *ī̮ŋk- (> Irt eŋx-, Ni eŋx-, Kaz εŋx-,O eŋx- ‘untie, unbind, take off (clothes)’)
  • PU *kačka- ‘bite’ > PKh *kī̮č- (> VVj Sur ki̮č-, Irt xeč-, xeš-, Ni Kaz xĭš- ‘hurt, ache; sting (of nettles)’) (Aikio 2014: 7–8).
  • PU *kara- ‘dig’ > PKh *kī̮r- (> Irt xer-, Ni Kaz xĭr-, O xir-) (Aikio 2015: 55).
  • PU *kaδʹa- ‘leave (tr.)’ > PKh *kī̮j- ~ *ki̮j- (> VVj kăj-, Sur ki̮j-, Irt xăj-, Ni xĭj-, Kaz O xăj-); the short vowel which occurs in most varieties is irregular, but the long vowel is preserved throughout Khanty in the derivative *kī̮ć- ‘stay, remain’ (> VVj Sur ki̮ť-, Irt xeť-, Ni xĭś-, Kaz xĭś-, xăś-, O xiś-).
  • PU *ńanča- ‘stretch’ > PKh *ńī̮ṇč- (> VVj Sur ńi̮ṇč-, Irt ńinč-, Ni ńĭš-, Kaz ńĭṇš-, ńĭš-, O ńins-, ńis-)
  • PU *parma ‘gadfly’ > PKh *pī̮rǝm (> Ni Kaz pĭrǝm, O purǝm) (Aikio 2015: 65).

Therefore, a common PU stem *ćara- can be quite straightforwardly reconstructed for the Saami and Khanty word-sets, and there should be no doubt that they are cognate. Collinder also cites further comparanda from Mansi and Samoyed. From the latter branch he adduced Kam šurǝľār, šürijar, and Mat kürär(ä) ‘fly’, which cannot be related, however, as they have been formed from PSam *kür (> Ngan kir ‘fly’, Kam šür ‘worm, maggot’) (Janhunen 1977: 79). From Mansi he cites K ser-wöärǝp, W sēr-wārǝp, N sēri-wārǝp ‘fly’ (< PMs *sīrī-wǟrǝp). The first part of this compound is W sēr, N sēri ‘whte mold (in meat or fish)’ (~ T sēr ~ sēri ‘maggots, insect eggs’ < PMs *sīrī), and it is derived from the verb T K W N sēr- ‘spawn (of fish), lay eggs (of insects)’ (< PMs *sīr-). Although these match the Khanty words in meaning, the front vowel *ī makes cognation phonologically impossible. Instead, the Mansi words could be explained as early borrowings from Western Khanty, where a sound change *ī̮ > *ī took place. Because the regular relfex of PU *a(–a) is PMs *ū, the true inherited reflex of PU *ćara- instead seems to be PMs *sūrǝ > K sūr ‘parasitic worm (in humans or animals)’, W N sūr ‘woodworm’. The meaning s quite close: we only need to assume a straightforward change from the concept of a fly larva (infesting spoiled foodstuffs and the like) to another kind of larva or worm infesting bodies of live animals or rotten wood.

Interestingly, the reconstructed PU stem *ćara- ‘fly’ turns out to be homonymous with *ćara- ‘shit, defecate’ (> MdE śeŕńems, M śarǝndǝms ~ śärǝńďǝms, MariE šoram, W šaram, Hung szarik ‘shit, defecate’; cf. also Hung szar ‘shit (noun)’). It seems very probable that these word-sets are etymologicaly related; the semantic connection could be explained in two ways. First, the word could simply have been motivated by the fact that many flies are attracted to fecal matter; for this reason a word for ‘shit’ can appear as a modifier in compound words such as SaaS bajhke-tjovrege and Fin paska-kärpänen ‘blowfly’ (literally “shit-fly”). Another possibility is that the verb meaning ‘shit, defecate’ became semantically extended to refer to laying of eggs by flies, as has happened in the case of SaaS bejhkedh, L bajkket, N baikit, Sk pâʹškked ‘shit, defecate; lay eggs (of flies)’ (< PSaa *pe̮śkē-). This interpretation would be supported by KhNi Kaz sĭrǝnt- ‘lay eggs (of flies)’ (and also ‘get infested with maggots or fly eggs (of meat)’); this derivative appears to be identical with the aforementioned MdE śeŕńems, M śarǝndǝms ~ śärǝńďǝms ‘shit, defecate’ (< PMd *śarǝnd-).

The Uralic verb *ćara- has been recently explained as a borrowing from Indo-Iranian *ćar(H)- ‘shit, defecate’ (< PIE *ḱerH-); this is only attested in the Avestan noun sairiia- ‘manure’, but a verbal cognate is found in Slavic (Russian срать, Polish srać, Serbo-Croatian srȁti ‘shit, defecate’, etc.) (Holopainen 2019: 324–326). If the etymology is correct, the word belongs among the oldest Indo-Iranian loanwords in Uralic. Previously also a different Khanty reflex of PU *ćara- has been proposed: KhNi Kaz śɔr ‘shit’ (< PKh *ćār). However, as pointed out by Holopainen, this cannot have been inherited from *ćara- because the regular reflex of PU *ć is PKh *s.

Mansi *tāńćǝ ‘worm, earthworm’

PMs *tāńćǝ can be reconstructed on the basis of MsT tańś, K tōńś, W tōńś, N tōńś ~ tuńś ‘worm, eartheworm’. According to UEW the word has a possible cognate in Finnic: Ludic čünǯ ‘angleworm’ and Veps čunz ‘earthworm’. This etymology is obviously false, however. The phonological shapes of these Finnic forms suggest that we are dealing with an expressive word of recent origin; this data does not allow the reconstruction of any Proto-Finnic form, let alone a Proto-Uralic one. Therefore, another etymology should be sought for the Mansi word.

PMs *tāńć would go regularly back to PU *tońći or *sońći. The latter form allows it to be regularly matched with the Samoyed and Khanty words for ‘common lizard’:

  • NenT tanc° ‘common lizard; (dial.) snake’, EnF tasu, EnT taďu, Ngan (Castrén) tansú ‘lamprey’, PSlk *tüśu ~ *tȫśu (Ta tüši̮,Ty čöž, O tȫs), Kam tonzǝ, Mat tanǯV ‘common lizard’ (< PSam *tånsu)
  • VVj sosǝl, Sur săsaʟ, Irt săs, Ni sŏsǝl, Kaz sŏsǝʟ, O săsǝl ‘common lizard’ (< PKh *sasāl ~ *si̮sāl)

It is well-known that this word goes back to Proto-Uralic and has cognates also in more western branches which, however, feature numerous phonological irregularities (cf. SaaN deažžalakkis, Fin sisilisko, MariE šǝŋšalʹe, Komi ćoʒ́ul, Udm keńʒ́alʹi ‘common lizard’). Nevertheless, for the Ob-Ugric and Samoyed words a common proto-form *sońći can be quite regularly reconstructed. The Khanty word contains an opaque derivational element *-(ā)l, which is apparently present in all the more western forms, too. The development PU *ńć > PKh *s is not completely regular, but besides PKh *sasāl ~ *si̮sāl ‘common lizard’ it is attested at least in the following words:

  • PU *kuńći- ‘urinate’ > PKh *kus- (> V Vj Sur kŏs-, Irt Ni Kaz O xŏs-)
  • PU *kVńćV ‘star’ > PKh *kɔ̄s (> VVj kɔs, Sur kos, Irt Ni xus, Kaz xǫs, O xos)
  • PU *peńćä- ‘go numb’ > PKh *pis- (> V Vj Sur Irt pĕs-, Ni Kaz păs-, O pȧ̆s-). The Khanty verb is cognate with MsK pĭńśǝt-ɔw- (pass.) (< PMs *pińćǝt-), W pińśǝml-ɔw-, N pińśaml-awǝ- (pass.) ‘get frostbitten’ (< PMs *pińćǟmlǝ-), and Komi poźav-, KomiJ poʒ́al- ‘go numb’.

Thus, the addition of PMs *tāńćǝ ‘worm’ to the Uralic cognate set for ‘common lizard’ features no phonological problems. Its different meaning is not a problem either, considering that the Nenets cognate has also the dialectal meaning ‘snake’, and the meanings ‘worm’ and ‘snake’ are frequently colexified; cf., e.g., Est uss, Liv ūška, Veps mado, Old Norse ormr, Old English wyrm, Lithuanian kirmis, Tundra Yukaghir čitnej-godʹe, Chukchi kǝmʔǝɬɣǝn, Central Siberian Yupik nemeghyaq ‘snake; worm’. As regards the development of the meaning ‘snake’, cf., e.g., Old English snaca ‘snake; reptile’ and Czech had ‘snake’ ~ Polish gad ‘reptile; scoundrel’ ~ Serbo-Croatian gȁd ‘scoundrel; snake; lizard’ ~ Old Church Slavonian гадъ ‘reptile’.

Previously another Mansi word has been included in the Uralic cognate set for ‘common lizard’: MsN (Upper Lozva) sosla ‘some kind of mythical animal’, (Sosva) sosǝl ~ susǝl ‘some kind of mythical animal; common lizard’. UEW, however, considers it possible that the word was borrowed from Northern Khanty. This is obvious indeed, considering that the distribution in Mansi is limited, the Sosva form shows irregular variation between o and u, and the change *ńć > *s has occurred in Khanty only.

Saami *kikse̮ ‘larva (esp. one that infests skin clothing and foodstuffs)’

This Saami word can be reconstructed on the basis of SaaL N giksa, I kiksâ, Sk ǩihss, T kïkks ‘the black larva of a species of beetle which infests foodstuffs and skin clothing’; in Inari and Skolt Saami the word is also used in the general sense of ‘larva’ or ‘worm’. No etymology has been proposed for the word, but in phonological terms it could be projected back to Pre-PSaa *kīksi. This kind of phonological structure is not possible for a Proto-Uralic simplex stem, but it could have regularly developed from a derivative of the shape *küj-ksi, with the denominal noun suffix *-ksi attached to the consonant stem of PU *küji ‘snake’ (> Fin kyy ‘adder’, MdM kuj, Komi and Udm ki̮j, SlkTa šǖ ‘snake’). As a phonological parallel one can mention SaaS jæjhka, U ihkkuo, I iho, etc. ‘at night’ (< PSaa *ikō); this fossilized adverb goes back to Pre-PSaa *īko < *üj-ko, a prolative form of the noun *üji ‘night’ (> PSaa *ije̮ > SaaS jïjje, U jïjja, I ijjâ, etc.). The different meaning of the Saami word poses no problem for the etymology: as noted in the previous etymology (Mansi *tāńćǝ), ‘snake’, ‘worm’ and ‘larva’ are meanings that are easily interchanged.

Samoyed *sǝ̑jwå ‘worm / botfly larva’

Gusev (2012: 78) regards NenF xæwa ‘worm’ cognate with SlkTa solʹči̮ ‘botfly larva’; we can postulate the Proto-Samoyed form *sǝ̑jwå for them. The comparison is quite compelling: although there is no surface similarity, the developments PSam *s- > NenT x-, PSam *-ǝ̑j- > NenT æ, and PSam *-jw- > PSlk *-lʹć- (> SlkTa -lʹč-) are fully regular. Previously Janhunen (1977: 132) had compared NenF xæwa to Mat simǝrendä ‘snake’ and reconstructed the variant PSam forms *sǝ̑jmå ~ *sǝ̑jwå; Helimski (1997: 340), however, finds the appurtenance of the Mator word questionable because of its irregular m and because -ndä seems to be a participle suffix.

PSam *sǝ̑jwå would go regularly back to PU *ćujwa, *ćulwa or *ćuδʹwa. The first option allows us to connect it with the following cognate set in UEW:

  • MariE šüɣö ~ šüwö, W šǝɣǝ ‘woodboring beetle’ (< PMari *šü̆gǝ ~ *šü̆wǝ)
  • KhVVj soɣ, Sur săɣʷ, Irt sȧw, Ni Kaz sɔw, O săw ‘caterpillar, worm (esp. in plants, leaves, dry wood; not in meat or fish)’ (< PKh *saw)
  • MsK sǝw, (Munkácsi) ‹såu›, ‹jiw-såu› ‘woodworm’ (jiw ‘tree, wood’) (< PMs ?*saw ~ ?*si̮w)
  • Hung szú (acc. szút ~ szuvat) ‘woodworm, woodboring beetle’

UEW further adduces Komi pu-će̮j and Udm pi̮-ćej ‘woodworm’, which are however problematic due to their word-initial ć- instead of ś-, and proposes several alternative proto-forms (*ćuɣV / *ćukV / *śuɣV / *śukV). Nothing, however, seems to oppose the reconstruction of the form *ćujwa presupposed by Samoyed; indeed, the sequence *-uj- also neatly explains the front vowel *ü̆ < *ü in Mari. Semantically the comparison is straightforward; the cognates in Mari and Ugric refer to insects that consume wood, but even this meaning is found also in the NenF compound ṕa-xæwa ‘woodworm’ (cf. ṕa ‘tree, wood’).

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Selkup *ētǝ ~ Kamas jada ‘village’ < PU *ajta

My attention was recently caught by this word shared by Selkup and Kamas, but lacking any further etymology so far: SlkTa ɛ̄ti̮ ‘camp’, Ty ēd ‘village, dwelling site, house, yurt’, K ētǝ ‘village’ (< PSlk *ētǝ) ~ Kam jada ‘village’. This word shows an unusual sound correspondence. Word-initial j- is rare in Kamas; Proto-Samoyed word-initial *j- has undergone fortition and become a palatal(ized) stop or affricate [dʹ] ~ [ʒ́] ~ [tʹ] ~ [ć] in Kamas, so any word-initial j- in the language must be of secondary origin. As I began looking for an explanation for this apparently unique case of the correspondence PSlk *ē- ~ Kam ja-, it quickly dawned upon me that the word must be of Proto-Uralic origin.

There are no other examples of Kamas ja- correspoding to a vocalic initium in other Samoyed languages, but obviously this word-initial ja- must result from the same development as sequences of the type Ća-. When we look at the etymologies of Kamas words that show a palatalized consonant followed by the vowel a, it turns out that in several cases the sequence Ća- goes back to PSam *Caj-, *Cåj- or *Cǝj-. Consider the following examples:

  • Kam hʹama ~ jama ‘boot’ < PSam *pajmå (> NenT ṕīwa, EnT pee, Ngan hᵘajmu, PSlk *pēmǝ (> Ta pēmi̮, Ty , K pȫwǝ) ‘boot’).
  • Kam hʹaʔ- ~ jaʔ- ‘chop, mow, peck’ < PSam (?)*pǝj-t-; cf. PSam *pǝjä- (> Ngan hoi-, Kam påj- ‘chop (wood)’), PSam *pǝjǝ-t- (> NenT °ʔ-, NenF păjăʔ-, PSlk *paćǝt- (> Ta pači̮t-), Kam påjåʔ ‘chop (wood)’).
  • Kam kʹama ‘marrow’ < PSam *kåjmå (> NenT xæwa, EnT kaa, Ngan kojmu, PSlk *qǖmǝ (> Ta qümi̮, Ty qöwǝ, K qǖwǝ) ‘marrow’)
  • Kam ṕago ‘pelvis’ < PSam *påjkV; cf. *påjkV-tǝ̑ (> NenT pæxǝd° ‘pelvic bone’, Ngan hojkaδǝ ‘buttock’, hojkaδǝǝ ‘pelvic bone’)

The first two words show the change *p- > *h- which is regular in Mator but not in Kamas, and therefore they may be borrowings from Mator. Even if this is the case, they were probably borrowed relatively early: Kam hʹama ~ jama ‘boot’ (< *häjma) could stem from a Pre-Mator form *häjma or the like, but not from Mat hīma. Regardless of whether Kam hʹama ~ jama and hʹaʔ- ~ jaʔ- are inherited words or early borrowings from Mator, in any case they demonstrate the regularity of the change *Cäj- > Kam *Ća-. It appears that the change was limited to cases where *-j- occurred in coda position, as in open syllables the change is not attested; this is demonstrated by Kam påj- and påjåʔ- ‘chop wood’, which must be inherited reflexes of PSam *pǝjä- and *pǝjǝt- (< PU *puδʹa-; on the Uralic etymology see Aikio 2006: 22–23).

As regards PSlk *ētǝ ~ Kam jada ‘village’, we find a perfect parallel for the vowel correspondence in the aforementioned PSlk *pēmǝ ~ Kam hʹama ‘boot’ (< PSam *pajmå). Thus, we can reconstruct PSam *ajtå ‘village’ as the proto-form of the former word. This can be further traced back to PU *ajta ‘fence’, an etymon which can be reconstructed on the basis of Fin aita, Est aed (< PFi *aita) and Kh VVj atʹ, Irt otʹ, Kaz ɔś ‘fence, enclosure’ (< PKh *āć) (Aikio 2014: 1–2). The sound correspondence is fully regular. The default reflex of PU *a is PSam *å, but PSam *a occurs before tautosyllabic *j; compare the following cases:

  • PU *kajwa- ‘dig’ > PSam *kajwå- ‘dig up; shovel’ (> NenF śewa-), *kajwå ‘spade’ (> NenT śīwa, NenF śewa, EnT sea, Ngan kajbu, Kam ‘spade’). — Cognates are widely attested in other braches, e.g. SaaN goaivut ‘dig, shovel, ladle’, goaivu ‘spade’, Fin kaivaa ‘dig’, MdE kaja- ‘throw; hit; pour’, MariE kuem ‘shovel’, Komi koj- ‘pour; scoop out, bail’, Hung hajít ‘throw, hurl, fling’ (Aikio 2002: 41–42).
  • PU *wajŋi- ‘breathe’, *wajŋi ‘breath, soul’ > PSam *wajŋǝ̑- (> PSlk *kuǝjǝ- > Ta ke̮ji̮-, K kwej- ‘breathe’), *wajŋǝ̑-w (> EnT beu, Ngan bǝü, PSlk *kuǝji (> Ta ke̮ji, K kwej), Kam mājǝ, Mat möjüh ‘breath, soul’), *wajŋ-čut (> NenT jīnt°ʔ ‘breath, steam, air’, Ngan baćüʔ ‘soul’). — The Samoyed word-stem is cognate with SaaN vuoigŋa ‘breath; spirit’, vuoigŋat ‘breathe’ (UEW), Hung vágy ‘desire, wish, longing, eagerness’, vágyik ‘desires, wishes’ (Aikio 2018: 84–85), and MariE üŋǝ̑šö ~ üŋšö ‘quiet, calm, mild’ (Metsäranta 2020: 120–121). Note, furthermore, the obscured consonant-stem derivative *waj[ŋ]-ma(-), which is attested in Mordvin (E ojme, M vajmä ‘breath, soul’; E ojma-, M vajma- ‘rest, calm down; breathe’) and Finnic (Fin vaimo ‘wife’, Est vaem ‘spirit, soul, ghost’; Fin vaimea ‘muffled (of voice, sound); light, gentle (of wind, waves, etc.)’, vaimeta ‘fade away (of voice, sound); subside (of wind, waves, etc.)’). The last two Finnish words have not been previously included in this cognate set, and other etymologies have been suggested for them, but their connection to the aforementioned Mordvin verb is both semantically and phonologically obvious.

As regards semantics, there are several independent parallels for the semantic development ‘fence, enclosure’ > ‘dwelling site, village’ which is assumed for PSlk *ētǝ and Kam jada. The following examples can be mentioned:

  • English town < Old English tūn ‘enclosure, garden; homestead; village, town’ ~ German Zaun < OHGerm zūn ‘fence’ (< PGerm *tūnã-)
  • Latvian pilsēta ‘city, town’ < pils ‘castle’ + sēta ‘fence; wall; yard; farmstead’
  • Old Church Slavonic gradŭ ‘castle, fortification, city, town’, Russian город ‘city, town’ ~ Lithuanian gar̃das ‘fence, enclosure, stall’ ~ Old Norse garðr ‘fence, wall; courtyard; dwelling, house’, Old English geard ‘enclosure; yard; dwelling; court; region’ ~ Albanian gardh ‘fence; enclosure; barricade’ (< PIE *gʰórdʰos); note also SaaS gaertie ‘reindeer corral’, SaaN gárdi ‘reindeer corral; enclosure; a kind ptarmigan trap’ (< PSaa *kārtē), which was borrowed from Proto-Norse *garda-.
  • Kh VVj wač, Irt woš, Kaz wɔš ‘village, town’ (< PKh *wāč) ~ Ms T ōš, K ūš, W wūš, N ūs ‘town; fence, enclosure’ (< PMs *ūšǝ) ~ NenT waʔ ‘fence, enclosure’, En baʔ ‘reindeer corral’, Ngan bǝʔ ‘fence’, SlkTa kūt ‘reindeer corral’ (< PSam *wåč) < PU *woča. — Note that many references, UEW included, cite a different Selkup cognate: PSlk *quǝččǝ (> Ta qē̮tti̮, Ty quǝǯ, K quǝččǝ ‘town’). This cannot be related, however, because PSlk *q- reflects PSam *k- and not *w-.

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The etymology of Mari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’

In this post I will present a new etymology for the Mari word for ‘sky’ and ‘god’, which can be reconstructed as PMari *jŭmǝ on the basis of MariE jumo, MariNw jŏmŏ and MariW jǝ̑mǝ̑. In present-day usage the meaning ‘god’ is predominant, but also the meaning ‘sky’ is widely attested in Mari dialects. This may be a surprising word to discuss etymologically, as it has a well-established and generally accepted Uralic etymology already.

I’ll first discuss the previously held etymology connecting Mari *jŭmǝ with Finnish jumala ‘god’, and then present an argument supporting the overlooked alternative possibility that Mari *jŭmǝ is a cognate of Finnish ilma ‘air’ (< PU *jilma ‘sky’). In addition, I will also briefly discuss the etymologies of Mari *jŭt ‘night’, *kŭrǝkt-e- ‘to lie, to babble’, and *ŭžed-a- ‘to hate’, as they provide previously overlooked parallels for the vowel development I assume for Mari *jŭmǝ.

The established etymology: Mari *jŭmǝ ~ Finnic *jumala ‘god’

All references (including UEW and SSA) agree that Mari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’ goes back to (post-)PU *juma and is related to the Finnic word for ‘god’, Fin jumala, Est jumal, etc. (< PFi *jumala). According to SSA the comparison of the Finnic and Mari words was first suggested in the 18th century already. In addition, possible Mordvin cognates have also been proposed. First, it has been suggested that MdE jondol, M jondǝl ‘lightning’ (< PMd *jondǝl) is an obscured compound word reflecting Pre-PMd *juma-tuli ‘god-fire’ (cf. PU *tuli ‘fire’ > MdE M tol). Second, it has been proposed that the obsolete Mordvin deity name ‹Jumishipas› could also contain the reflex of the word *juma. The appurtenance of both Mordvin words has been regarded uncertain.

The generally accepted etymology of PMari *jŭmǝ is in itself plausible, although not perfect: there are potential weak points. The etymology is based on a comparison of two forms only, PMari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’ and PFi *jumala ‘god’. The etymologies of the allegedly related Mordvin words are speculative, and they do not actually provide any independent evidence for the former existence of the noun *juma ‘god’. On the contrary, only if such a noun can be securely reconstructed on the basis of other evidence, it makes sense to hypothesize that PMd *jondǝl ‘lightning’ could be an obscured compound word containing a reflex of this word. Nothing in the structure of the Mordvin form itself, however, suggests that it was originally a compound noun. As regards the deity name ‹Jumishipas›, it is an obscure hapax legomenon found in Strahlenberg (1730), and as such its etymological interpretation remains entirely speculative; it offers no independent evidence for the former existence of a noun *juma ‘god’.

Thus, the reconstruction of the noun *juma is depends wholly on the assumption that PMari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’ and the part *juma- in PFi *jumala ‘god’ reflect the same etymon. Phonologically and semantically the comparison is unproblematic. The only thing in the etymology itself that can be seen as an obstacle is the assumption that a derivational suffix *-lA was added to the word in Finnic. Nothing in the Finnic data, however, suggests that *jumala is a derivative, and there is moreover very little evidence of the existence of a denominal noun suffix of this shape in Uralic. A possible example is found in the word for ‘hare’: cf. SaaN njoammil, MdE numolo, Komi (dial.) ńimal, Hung nyúl (< PU *ńomala) ~ NenT ńawa, Ngan ńomu, SlkTa ńoma (< PU *ńoma). In this case the underived basic form (which is attested in Samoyed) appears to have been augmented with an opaque suffix *-lA that lacks any discernible semantic function, but invoking such an isolated and morphologically obscure example as a parallel would not yet offer strong support for the alleged derivation of *jumala ‘god’. The problem is that the modern Uralic languages do not seem to preserve denominal noun suffixes that could be plausibly connected with this hypothetical PU suffix *-lA; there is a productive oikonym suffix of this shape in Finnic, but it would be semantically and functionally arbitrary to compare the opaque ending in PFi *jumala ‘god’ and PU *ńomala ‘hare’ to a morpheme that forms house and settlement names. Also, there is an unproductive and rather infrequent denominal adjective suffix of the same shape, found in formations such as Fin vetelä ‘watery, washy; limp’ (← vesi : vete- ‘water’). Frog (2020: 215) has suggested that *juma-la could have originated as a derived adjective (‘divine one, one of the sky’), but this is speculation as the word is nowhere attested as an adjective.

Motivated by the obscurity of the alleged “suffix”, Saarikivi (2014: 207) has suggested that PFi *jumala could be analyzed as an obscured compound word instead. He proposes that it developed from earlier *juma-ülä, containing the relational noun root PFi *ülä- ‘place on / above / up / high’ (with widely attested Uralic cognates) as its second member. This explanation fails to convince, however. While it is true that words meaning ‘upper’, ‘high’, and the like, commonly occur as epithets of supreme deities, one expects such an epithet to occur as the modifier of the compound word, not as the head: cf., e.g., Fin yli-jumala ‘supreme deity’ (yli- < *ülä-j-). One would expect a compound noun with the relational noun *ülä as its head to denote some kind of concrete locality, but not an entity like ‘god’. What is more, I have not found any actual examples of Finnic compound nouns that contain the relational noun *ülä as their head, nor of Saami ones containing the cognate relational noun PSaa *e̮lē. Therefore it is highly unlikely that PFi *jumala ‘god’ has developed from such a compound noun.

When the etymology connecting PMari *jŭmǝ and PFi *jumala is evaluated solely by its own merits, the presence of an opaque suffixal element in the latter form could not be seen as a conclusive argument that would refute an otherwise completely regular comparison. The situation changes, however, as an alternative etymology can be proposed for the Mari word.

The new etymology: Mari *jŭmǝ < PU *jilma ‘sky’

I suggest that the generally accepted comparison of Mari *jŭmǝ to Fin jumala ‘god’ is wrong, and that the word actually belongs in the following well-known Uralic cognate set:

  • SaaS elmie ‘sky, heaven; air; storm’, SaaU albmie ‘sky, heaven’, SaaP albme, SaaL almme, SaaN albmi, SaaI alme ‘sky, heaven; storm’, SaaSk âʹlmm, SaaK âʹllm, SaaT âʹllme ‘sky, heaven; storm; world’ (< PSaa *e̮lmē)
  • Fin ilma ‘air; weather’, Ol ilmu ‘air; weather; world’, Veps iľm ‘air’, Vote ilma ‘air; weather; world’, Est ilm ‘weather; world’, Võro ilm, Liv īlma ‘world’ (< PFi *ilma)
  • Komi jen (jenm-) ‘god’, KomiJ jen ‘sky, heaven; god’, Udm in (inm-) ‘sky, heaven’ (< PPerm *jen : *jenm-)
  • KhIrt itǝm, KhKaz jeʟǝm, KhO ilǝm ‘world, weather’ (< PKh *ēlǝm)
  • MsW jēlǝm, jelǝm, elǝm, MsN ēlǝm ‘weather; time; life’ (< PMs *īlmǝ)

Let us first consider the phonological reconstruction of this word. Both UEW and Sammallahti (1988: 541) reconstruct is as PU *ilma, which agrees with the Saami and Finnic forms; the Finnic cognates indeed quite unambiguously point to an original disharmonic stem with the vowel combination *i–a. The vowel e in Komi and KomiJ jen also agrees with this reconstruction: Komi e goes back to PPerm *e, which is the regular reflex of both PU *i(–a) and *i(–ä). However, the vowel correspondence Komi e ~ Udm i is very rare, and it apparenly occurs in no other word of Proto-Uralic origin, so the Permic evidence as a whole is somewhat ambiguous. A more difficult problem is encountered with the Ob-Ugric forms, which contain a front vowel (PKh *ē, PMs *ī) although the expected reflexes of the PU disharmonic vowel combination *i(–a) are PKh *a / *i̮ and PMs *a.

In addition to the aberrant vowel correspondence there is also another noteworthy phonological feature: the word-initial j- in Komi jen. One can indeed plausibly explain the exceptional vowel correspondence Komi e ~ Udm i by reconstructing the PPerm form as *jen : *jenm-, and assuming that the word-initial palatal glide prevented the otherwise regular development PPerm *e > Udm e, o. The question is, then, where the word-initial *j- comes form. UEW states that it is secondary, but provides no argument or justification for this view. The problem is that the secondary addition of prothetic j- would not be a regular development outside Jazva Komi: compare the correspondence Komi jen ~ KomiJ jen ~ Udm in against that in Komi eski̮- ~ KomiJ jeski- ~ Udm oski̮- ‘believe’. In order to plausibly account for these two different patterns we can reconstruct PPerm *jen : *jenm- ‘sky / god’ with word-initial *j-, in contrast to PPerm *esk- ‘believe’ without word-initial *j-. One should note that this issue is not directly connected with the word-initial j- in some of the Ob-Ugric forms (KhKaz jeʟǝm, MsW jēlǝm, jelǝm): these can indeed be regarded secondary, as maintained by UEW, because the addition of prothetic j- before word-initial *ē- or *ī- is indeed regular in certain Khanty and Mansi varieties.

As the traditional PU reconstruction *ilma does not account for the sound correspondences in this cognate set, it needs to be revised. It is important to note that we are not dealing with a unique irregularity here, as Finno-Saamic *i- ~ PKh *ǟ- / *ē- ~ PMs *ī- is actually a regular sound correspondence (note that in the Khanty system of ablaut, PKh *ē represents the mid ablaut grade of underlying *ǟ (Zhivlov 2007), and the two vowels thus reflect the same Pre-Proto-Khanty vowel). Pystynen (2015) notes that in addition to Fin ilma and its cognates, it also occurs in the following cognate set:

  • Fin ien (pl. ikenet), Ol igen (pl. igenet), Veps igeń, Vote ičemet (pl.), Est ige (pl. igemed), Liv i’gmõd (pl.) ‘gum(s)’ (< PFi *igen : *ikene- ~ *ikeme-)
  • KhVVj äɣǝṇ, KhSur ȧɣǝṇ, KhIrt ȧŋǝṇ, KhNi aŋǝn, KhKaz aŋǝṇ, KhO ȧŋǝn ‘chin, lower jaw’ (< PKh *ǟɣǝṇ)
  • MsT jīn, MsK ǝɣǝn, ēn, MsW jēn, MsN ēŋǝn ‘chin, lower jaw’ (< PMs *īɣnǝ)
  • Hung íny ‘gum’

I have myself proposed a third example of the same correspondence (Aikio 2015: 8–10):

  • SaaL amás, N amas, I oomâs, Sk õõmâs, K ā̮ma̮s ‘unfamiliar, strange, odd’ (< PSaa *e̮me̮s)
  • Fin ihme, Vote ime ‘wonder, miracle; strange’, Est ime, Võro imeh, imeʔ, Liv i’m ‘wonder, miracle’ (< PFi *imeh)
  • KhVVj jim, KhNiz jem, KhKaz jεm, KhO jem ‘taboo’ (< PKh *jēm); KhVVj jimǝŋ, KhIrt KhNiz jemǝŋ, KhKaz jεmǝŋ, KhO jemǝŋ ‘sacred’ (< PKh *jēmǝŋ)

Yet a fourth example of the correpondence can be proposed. The following verbs may be cognate and go back to PU *jičV-:

  • ? MdE ičems, MdM ičǝms (past.3sg ičś) ‘knead’ (< PMd *ičǝ- : *ič-)
  • ? Mari:E jǝ̑čem, MariW jǝčem ‘ache, smart, hurt’ (< PMari *jĭč-(e-))
  • ? KhIrt ič- ‘push; press; shove’, KhNi KhKaz ĭš-, KhO is- (passive) ‘get damaged by pressure’ (< PKh *īč-)
  • ? MsT jīš-, MsK ješ-, jes-, MsW jēš-, ješ-, MsN jēs- ‘rub; chafe’ (< PMs *jīš-)

UEW presents the last etymology in a different form: the Mansi verb is not mentioned, and another Mari cognate is suggested (MariE išem, MariM iśem, MariU jǝ̑šem ‘press, squeeze, grasp, clasp, clench’ < PMari *is-(e-) ~ *jĭs-(e-)). This is clearly in error: according to Bereczski (2013) this Mari verb was instead borrowed from Early Middle Chuvash *xis- (> Chuvash xĕs- ‘press, squeeze, grasp, clasp, clench’), and the Mari sibilant *s could not reflect PU *č anyway. However, even in its modified form the aforementioned Uralic etymology is not entirely straightforward: the Mansi verb clearly had a word-initial *j- already in Proto-Mansi (in contrast to PMs *īlmǝ and *īɣnǝ), and the vowel of the Khanty form (PKh *īč-) has to be assumed to represent the I-grade of underlying *ǟ, which developed due to the presence of an umlaut trigger in the second syllable which was later lost. But in any case the reconstruction *ičV- proposed by UEW can be ruled out as impossible; it also does not explain PMd *i-, the default development being PU *i > PMd *e.

As there are at least three (and perhaps four) independent examples of the sound correspondence discussed above, it appears obvious that it results form regular phonological development of some sort. The question, then, is what exactly this development was. One can immediately rule out the idea that this exceptional vowel correspondence was conditioned by the occurrence of *i in word-initial position. In Ob-Ugric the default reflexes of PU *i are PKh and PMs *ä, and this development is also attested word-initially:

  • PU *imi- ‘‘suck’ > PKh *äm- (> KhVVj em-, KhSur ȧ̆m-, KhIrt em-).
  • PU *ipsi ‘smell (noun)’ > PKh *äpǝl (> KhVVj ewǝl, KhSur ȧ̆pǝʟ, KhIrt epǝt, KhNi epǝt, KhKaz epǝʟ, KhO epǝl), PMs *ätǝ (> MsT ät, MsK MsW ǟt, MsN at) . — Note that UEW cites also another Mansi cognate, PMs *(j)īp ‘steam, vapor’ (> MsT jīp, MsK ep, MsW jep, MsN ēp), and reconstructs the word as PU *ipV ~ *ipV-sV ~ *ipV-ćV. This extremely odd reconstruction and the ad-hoc morphological segmentation are motivated by the aforementioned Mansi noun and by MdM opǝś ‘smell, scent’, but both are phonologically so aberrant that there is no reason to assume they have any etymological connection to PU *ipsi in the first place. MdM intervocalic -p- is the regular reflex of the PU geminate stop *-pp-, and moreover, the development PU *i > MdM o would imply a PU disharmonic stem which is not supported by any of the other forms in the cognate set. As regards PMs *(j)īp ‘steam, vapor’, there is absolutely no reason to postulate an etymological connection to PMs *ätǝ ‘smell’ because the gap between these two completely dissimilar Mansi words cannot be bridged by any known phonological developments and derivational processes.
  • PU *iskä- ‘believe’ > PKh *äɣǝl- (> KhVVj öɣǝl-, KhSur ȧ̆ɣʷǝʟ-, KhIrt ewǝt-, KhKaz ewǝʟ-, KhO ewǝl-), PMs *äɣt- (> MsK äɣt-, MsN aɣt-). — The only cognates are found in Permic (Komi eski̮-, Udm oski̮-). For unclear reasons UEW reconstructs the verb as *eskV-, and Sammallahti (1988: 543) as *äski-, although the vowel correspondences quite unambiguously point to PU *i–ä.
  • PU *itä- ‘appear, come out’ > PKh *ät- (> KhVVj et- ‘wax (of the moon)’, KhSur ȧ̆t- ‘dawn; come out, grow’, KhIrt KhNi et- ‘arise, stand up; dawn; come out, grow’, KhKaz εt-, KhO et- ‘arise, stand up; rise (of the sun)’). — The Khanty verb has cognates in Finnic (cf. Fin itää ‘sprout, germinate’) and Samoyed (cf. Ngan ŋǝtǝďa ‘see’, ŋǝδusi̮ ‘be visible; seem’). Both UEW and SSA regard the comparison between the Finnic and Khanty verbs as uncertain, but without any good reason; the Samoyed cognates discovered by Helimski (2000: 199) further verify the etymology. The meaning of the Finnic verb is a secondarily development; the original meaning is indirectly attested in SaaN ihtit ‘come out, appear’ (< PSaa *itē-), which on account of its first-syllable vowel must have been borrowed from (Proto-)Finnic, and also implied by the related Fin itä ‘east’ (“the direction of sunrise”; cf. Latin oriēns ‘east’ ← orior ‘rise, appear, become visible’).

Thus, the correspondence pattern seen in the Ob-Ugric cognates of Fin ilma, ien and ihme cannot be explained by reconstructing the PU forms with word-initial *i-, and another solution is needed. A clue is provided by the word-initial j- in Komi jen ‘god’. Pystynen (2015) suggests that the word-initial sequence *je- should be reconstructed for the PU forms of Fin ilma and ien, and that a regular development PU *je- > *ji- > *i- took place in Finnic (and probably in Saami, too). In Ob-Ugric the PU sequence *je- would then be reflected as PMs *ī- and PKh *ǟ- / *ē-. Pystynen’s suggestion was earlier supported by me (Aikio 2015: 8–10), but there is an obvious problem: if PU *e is postulated as the original first-syllable vowel, then there is no way to account for the disharmonic vowel combination in PFi *ilma ‘air, weather’. The vowel *e is not known to have been harmonically neutral in Proto-Uralic, and no vowel combination *e–a can thus be reconstructed. For this reason Pystynen postulates the front-harmonic proto-form *jelmä and assumes an ad hoc irregular change *ilmä > *ilma in Proto-Finnic (cf., e.g., Fin silmä ‘eye’ < PFi *silmä < PU *ćilmä, which shows no change in its second-syllable vowel).

Zhivlov (2023) reconstructs PU *jilma ‘sky’ and *jikin : *jikini- ‘gums’, thus modifying Pystynen’s proposal as well as his own earlier reconstruction *ikin (2016: 297, 299), which cannot explain the vowel development in Ob-Ugric, as we saw above. This solution is presumably motivated by the problem discussed above, although Zhivlov does not explicitly mention the issue. This is indeed a much better alternative, as it allows us to assume that the disharmonic vowel combination in PFi *ilma was simply regularly inherited from Proto-Uralic. To explain the Ob-Ugric reflexes, then, Zhivlov needs to make two assumptions: 1) that the word-initial palatal glide prevented the default development of PU *i(–a) into a back vowel, and 2) that the Ob-Ugric reflex of PU *ji- is different from the default reflex of PU *i. The second assumption is unproblematic as it is already supported by two parallels, the cognates of Fin ien and ihme discussed above. I will return to the first assumption below.

A phonological parallel: Mari *jŭt ‘night’ < PU *jita

At this point it is illuminating to look at the Mari noun *jŭt ‘night’, as it provides a perfect phonological parallel for the new Uralic etymology I’m suggesting for Mari *jŭmǝ ‘sky, god’. UEW suggests that the Mari word belongs in a cognate set with Ob-Ugric and Samoyed cognates:

  • MariE jüt, MariV jŭt, MariNw jŏt, MariW jǝ̑t ‘night’; MariE jüδǝ̑m, MariV jŭδĭ̮m ~ jŭδŭm, MariNw jŏδŏm, MariW jǝ̑δǝ̑m ‘at night’ (< PMari *jŭt : *jŭdǝ-m)
  • KhSur KhIrt ȧt, KhNi KhKaz at, KhO ȧt ‘night’ (< PKh *ǟt); KhVVj KhSur KhIrt itǝn, KhNi KhKaz jetǝn ‘evening; in the evening’ (< PKh *ētǝn)
  • MsT jīt, MsK īť, MsW ēť, īť, MsN ɛ̄t, ēť, ēťi ‘evening, night’ (< PMs *īt ~ *īť)
  • Slk *ǖtǝ (Ta ǖti̮, Ty ǖdǝ ‘evening’), Kam nu̇ďi, Mat ńǖdɜ, nǖdɜ ‘evening’ (< PSam ? *üǝtV ~ *ńüǝtV)

The Mari noun displays irregular dialectal variation between front and back vocalic forms: the forms in Hill Mari and in the Northwest and Volga dialects are back vocalic and suggest the PMari reconstruction *jŭt : *jŭdǝ-. Evidently this is the most archaic form, and the front vowel in most Meadow and Eastern Mari varieties resulted from an irregular change *u > ü which was influenced by the preceding palatal semivowel j-. There are also a few other words showing the same change: e.g., MariE jük, MariNw MariW juk ‘sound, voice’ (< PMari *juk), MariE jür, MariV MariNw MariW jur ‘rain’ (< PMari *jur), MariE jülem, MariV jŭlem, MariNw jŏlem, MariW jǝ̑lem ‘burn’ (< PMari *jŭl-e-). As can be seen, this irregular change has affected reflexes of both PMari *ŭ and *u, which have merged into u in most Meadow and Eastern varieties.

UEW reconstructs the proto-form as *jitV. However, the etymology cannot be valid in the form presented by UEW, because the dictionary fails to notice that within Mari the word must be reconstructed as back vocalic. Bereczki (2013) points out this fact, and rejects the Uralic etymology altogether for this reason. However, we can still regard the Proto-Mari back vowel *ŭ secondary from the point of view of Proto-Uralic, if we reconstruct a disharmonic stem *jita. This is obviously the correct solution, as the sound correspondence PMari *jŭ- ~ PKh *ǟ- / *ē- ~ PMs *ī- has an exact parallel in the reflexes of PU *jilma ‘sky’.

The proposed Samoyed cognates, however, do not match the PU reconstruction *jita at all, and therefore they must be removed from this cognate set. They point to the Proto-Samoyed rounded front vowel *ü, and moreover the long vowel of the Selkup and Mator forms suggests some kind of original sound sequence instead of a simplex vowel, presumably PSam *-üǝ-; note that reconstructing a sequence *-üj-, *-uj-, or the like, is not possible in this case because PSam *-jt- is reflected as -st- in Mator. Moreover, the alternation between vocalic initium and *ń- is anomalous. If the original form can indeed be reconstructed as PSam *üǝtV, then it is tempting to hypothesize that it is an obscured derivative of the most widespread Uralic word for ‘night’, which has often been reconstructed as PU *üji.

Further parallels for PMari *ŭ < PU *i(–a)

The etymologies for PMari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’ and *jŭt ‘night’ presuppose that PMari *ŭ is the regular reflex of PU *i in “disharmonic” stems (i.e., ones containing the vowel combination *i–a). Two more words showing this development were cited by me in my paper on the reconstruction and development of the Proto-Mari vowel system (Aikio 2014: 156):

  • PU *kićka- ‘tear’ > PMari *kŭšk-ed-ä- > MariE kuškeδam, MariW kǝ̑škeδäm ‘tear off, tear in two’. — The Mari verb is cognate with SaaN gaikut ‘tear’, Fin kiskoa ‘pull hard, tug’, Komi koś-, Udm keśi̮- ‘tear, rip, peel’, KhVVj kös- ‘tear, tear down, break up’, Hung hasít ‘cleave, split, rip, tear’.
  • PU *wiša ‘green’ > PMari *ŭž-ar > MariE užar, MariW ǝ̑žar ~ žar ‘green’. — The Mari word is cognate with Fin viha-nta ‘lush, green (of plants), viherä (obsolete) ~ vihreä ‘green’, MdE ožo ‘yellow, pale’, Komi vež ‘green, yellow’, and Udm vož ‘green’.

In addition, yet another two new examples can be proposed:

  • PU *wiša ‘hatred’, *wiša-ta- ‘hate’ > PMari *ŭžed-a- > MariE užeδam ‘hate’. — The Mari verb is cognate with Fin viha ‘hatred’, vihata ‘hate’, Komi vež ‘envy, anger, malice’ and Udm vož ‘hatred, anger’. It is remarkable that this completely straightforward etymology does not appear to have been previously proposed; probably this is because the Mari verb is rare, being attested only in some Eastern dialects.
  • PU *kira- ‘anger / curse (?)’ > PMari *kŭrǝ-kt-e- > MariE kurǝktem, MariNw kŏrŏktem ‘lie, blather, babble’. — Cognates include SaaN garru ‘curse (noun)’, garuhit ‘curse, swear’, Fin kiro ‘curse (noun)’, kirota ‘curse, swear’, MdE kor ‘annoyance, anger’, KhVVj kăram- ‘get angry’, MsK xɔr-, kʷår- ‘quarrel’, and Hung harag ‘anger, wrath, rage’. Although the original meaning is somewhat difficult to reconstruct, the semantic differences pose no problem to the etymology: the meaning ‘curse’ can easily develop from the sense of verbal expression of anger or hostility, and moreover, also the meaning ‘abuse (verbally)’ is well-attested in Finnic. As further parallels one can mention MariE jatlem ‘abuse, revile; reprimand, reproach; curse, damn’; OHGerm fluohhōn ‘curse; abuse (verbally)’; Spanish maldecir, Italian maledire ‘curse’ < Latin maledīcēre ‘slander, speak ill of; curse’ (← male ‘badly, wrongly, wickedly’ + dīcēre ‘speak’).

There are thus six etymologies in total that display the vowel development PU *i(–a) > PMari *ŭ; this should easily suffice to prove that the development is regular.

Comparing the two etymologies for Mari *jŭmǝ

Now that we have a two competing etymologies for Mari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’, we need to assess which one is likely to be correct. It is crucial to note that also the new comparison of Mari *jŭmǝ to PU *jilma ‘sky’ is phonologically fully regular. As was seen above, a total of six examples prove that PMari *ŭ is the regular reflex of PU *i in disharmonic stems. Moreover, the word-initial *j- in PMari *jŭmǝ is in full accordance with the revised PU reconstruction *jilma that was argued for above, and the word *jŭt ‘night’ (< PU *jita) even offers an exact parallel for the special sound correspondence between Mari and Ob-Ugric that is found only in reflexes of PU stems of the shape *ji–a. Also the loss of the lateral *l in Mari is predictable, as there are two already established examples of this development in exactly the same phonological environment (PMari *ŭ_m):

  • MariE kum, MariW kǝ̑m ‘three’ < PMari *kŭm < PU *kulmi / *kolmi
  • MariE kumǝž, MariW kǝ̑mǝ̑ž ‘birch-bark’ < PMari *kŭmǝž < PU *kolmiš (Aikio 2013: 168­­­–169)

Thus, we have two hypotheses to compare: PMari *jŭmǝ ‘sky; god’ reflects either PU *jilma ‘sky’ or a distinct noun *juma from which also PFi *jumala ‘god’ was derived. Both etymologies are phonologically and semantically unproblematic, but there are two factors that make the new etymology superior to the established one. First, the alleged connection with PFi *jumala forces us to assume that the Finnic noun contains an unknown and opaque denominal noun suffix *-lA, although otherwise it could be simply regarded as a momomorphemic trisyllabic noun-root. Second, the assumption that PMari *jŭmǝ continues PU *jilma ‘sky’ does not require us to postulate any new etyma on the proto-language level, because the noun *jilma must in any case be reconstructed to Proto-Uralic regardless of the origin of the Mari word. The situation with the noun *juma is different, as its status is wholly dependent on the etymological hypothesis that connects PMari *jŭmǝ with PFi *jumala. If we assume that the Mari word regularly developed from PU *jilma ‘sky’, there is no longer any need to assume that the alleged (Proto-)Uralic noun *juma ‘god’ has ever even existed.

Thus, the etymology presented here provides a more convincing explanation of the origin of Mari *jŭmǝ, and the apparent match with Finnic *jumala can be classified as a “chance correspondence”, a phenomenon I’ve discussed more extensively in this previous post. The only remaining loose end is the origin of PFi *jumala ‘god’, which can now be approached from slightly different premises, as there is no longer a reason to treat the part *-la as a derivational suffix. According to an old etymology proposed by Paasonen (1907) and later rehabilitated by Koivulehto (1999: 228), the alleged noun *juma ‘god’ was borrowed from Proto-Indo-Iranian *dyumā́n : *dyumánt- (> Sanskrit dyumā́n : dyumánt- ‘heavenly, bright, glorious’) or *dyumná- (> Sanskrit dyumná- ‘splendour, (heavenly) glory’); the etymology has been recently supported also by Holopainen (2019: 107–108). The implied sound substitution *dyu- [= *dju-] > *ju- appears possible, even though it has no known parallels, so it is worth considering whether the Indo-Iranian word could indeed account for the origin of PFi *jumala. The problem is that the Indo-Iranian form does not match the ending *-la in Finnic; on the other hand, in its previously proposed form the etymology implied that *-n : *-nt- in the Indo-Iranian stem was deleted when the word was borrowed to Uralic. As an alternative, one can venture the speculation that PFi *jumala has developed irregularly from Pre-PFi *jumana by dissimilation of two nasals. This is an ad hoc hypothesis, of course, but in other regards the Finnic and Indo-Iranian forms are quite close to each other. But whatever the origin of PFi *jumala may be, there are no valid reasons to assume that it is related to PMari *jŭmǝ, despite the superficial similarity.

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Proto-Uralic *korpi

In etymological research it is a standard procedure to group words in the languages studied into ‘cognate sets’, i.e., sets of words that are considered historically related to each other by descent from the same form in the common proto-language. Every once in a while, however, one encounters divergent cognate sets with ambiguous boundaries. The kind of situation I have in mind here is when words across related languages show a ‘family resemblance’ in terms phonological and semantical correspondences, but it is difficult to clearly delimit which forms exactly belong to the same cognate set, and whether one is dealing with one or two (or even more than two) distinct etyma. In this post I will discuss one such case: a set of words that can be phonologically traced back to a single Proto-Uralic shape *korpi(-), but with so widely diverged semantics that it is not evident at first sight that we are dealing with one single etymon in the proto-language.

In a paper published over 20 years ago (2002: 15–16) I discussed the etymology of a Samoyed noun with the meanings ‘aurora, northern lights’ and ‘large fire’, and argued for an etymological connection with Saami, Finnic and Mordvin verbs with meanings such as ‘scorch’ and ‘blaze’. I proposed the reconstruction of a PU word-root *korpi(-) on the basis of the following branch-level cognate sets:

  • SaaL guorbbat ‘be ravaged by a forest fire (of land); go out gradually (of fire)’, SaaN guorbat ‘lose hair; become barren, overgrazed (of pasture); get burnt (e.g., of clothes in fire)’, SaaI kuorbâđ ‘get burnt’, Sk kuõrbbâd ‘go out slowly (of fire)’ (< PSaa *kuorpe̮-)
  • Est kõrbema, Võro kõrbõma, Liv kuorbõ ‘get burnt, scorched, parched; dry up (of soil)’ (< PFi *korpe̮-); Fin korventaa, Ol korvendua, Veps korbeta ‘scorch, parch’ (< PFi *korbe̮-nta-)
  • MdE kurvams ‘blaze’ (< PMd *kǝrva-); MdE kurvaźems, kirvaźems, MdM kǝŕväźǝms ‘light up, flare up’ (< PMd *kǝrvaźǝ- ~ *kǝŕvaźǝ-)
  • NenF karp° ‘large fire (e.g., when a patch of land is set on fire in order to repel mosquitos)’, NenT xarp°, EnF kabu ‘aurora, northern lights’ (< PSam *kårpǝ̑); NenT xarpǝr- ‘blaze’ (< PSam *kårpǝ̑-r-)

On the other hand, in another later publication (Aikio 2014b: 8–10) I proposed the reconstruction of a homonymous Proto-Uralic noun *korpi ‘woods’ on the basis of the following Finnic, Mordvin and Mansi data:

  • Fin korpi (gen. korven), Ol korbi (gen. korven), Veps korb (gen. korben), Est kõrb (gen. kõrve) ‘dense and damp old-growth forest, backwoods, desolate forest land’ (< PFi *korpi : *korpe̮-)
  • MdE kuro, MdM kura ‘bush, shrub; bushes, thicket; row of houses along a street, part of a street in a town, part of town’ (< PMd *kurǝ). — The meanings ‘row of houses’, ‘part of town’ must be secondary; they apparently developed by metaphoric extension of “a cluster of trees or bushes” to “a cluster of houses”.
  • MsT kʷārp, kārp ‘grove’, KL xōrǝp, KM KU P kōrp, VN VS LL kʷōrp, LU xōrp ‘woods, forest’, So xɔ̄rp-ur ‘dense old-growth forest with several species of trees’ (ur ‘hill, mountain, ridge’) (< PMs *kʷārpǝ)

I did not, however, discuss the possible connections between the apparently homonymous PU word-stems *korpi ‘forest’ and *korpi(-) ‘large fire; burn, blaze’. On the face of it, the meanings of the two words do not seem to have almost anything in common, so this would look like a case of coincidental homonymy. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection of Saami data an etymological connection appears likely. In Saami there are as many as three lexemes of different word classes that show a homonymous stem reflecting PSaa *kuorpe̮(-) < PU *korpi-:

  • PSaa *kuorpe̮- (verb) ‘be ravaged by a forest fire (of land); become barren (of land, pasture); lose hair’ (> SaaL guorbbat ‘be ravaged by a forest fire (of land); go out gradually (of fire)’, SaaN guorbat ‘lose hair; become barren, overgrazed (of pasture); get burnt (e.g., of clothes in fire)’, SaaI kuorbâđ ‘get burnt’, SaaSk kuõrbbâd ‘go out slowly (of fire)’)
  • PSaa *kuorpe̮ (noun) ‘land ravaged by a forest fire’ (> SaaS goerpe ‘accident’, SaaU guarbba, SaaL guorbba, SaaSk kuõrbb, SaaK kuurrb-jieʹmmn ‘land ravaged by a forest fire’ (jieʹmmn ‘land’). — The semantic development of SaaS goerpe ‘accident’ is unclear; a more archaic meaning is preserved in the derivative goerpesje-laante ‘land ravaged by a forest fire’ (laante ‘land’), the exact cognate of SaaSk kuõrbâš ‘land ravaged by a forest fire; barren pasture’ (< PSaa *kuorpe̮ś).
  • PSaa *kuorpe̮ (adj.attr.) : *kuorpe̮-s (adj.pred.) ‘barren (of land); hairless’ (> SaaL guorbba : guorbas ‘barren, having no lichen (of pasture)’, SaaN guorba : guorbbas ‘hairless, having a poor coating of hair (of animal skin); barren (of land)’)

The meanings of many Saami forms are connected with the concept of ‘forest fire’, and this suggests that the reconstructed verbs *korpi ‘forest’ and *korpi- ‘(large) fire; burn, blaze’ could actually represent a single Proto-Uralic etymon. Both the verb and the noun stems are archaic in Saami: the PSaa verb *kuorpe̮- corresponds exactly to Est kõrbema, Võro `kõrbõma, Liv kuorbõ (< PFi *korpe̮-), and the PSaa noun *kuorpe̮ ‘land ravaged by a forest fire’ is evidently the cognate of NenF karp° ‘large fire (e.g., when a patch of land is set on fire in order to repel mosquitos)’ (and the corresponding Tundra Nenets and Enets nouns with the innovative meaning ‘aurora, northern lights’).

PSaa *kuorpe̮ and NenF karp° allow us to reconstruct a PU noun *korpi ‘burnt or burning land (?)’, and the reconstruction of a distinct homonymous noun *korpi ‘forest’ thus turns out to be problematic: it would be most unnatural to assume that Proto-Uralic had two homonymous nouns pertaining to different types of terrain with different vegetation. Instead, we must be dealing with a single etymon, and the question is how the meaning ‘forest’ has developed from earlier ‘burnt land, land ravaged by a forest fire’, or the like.

The most obvious solution would be to assume that the meaning first shifted to ‘complex early seral forest’, i.e. an ecosystem that first develops to occupy a potentially forested area after the previously existing forest has been destroyed by wildfire. Especially the meaning ‘bush, shrub; bushes, thicket’ attested in Mordvin could be very naturally derived from this. However, nowhere in Finnic do the attested reflexes of PFi *korpi refer to any kind of young forest, let alone one that has started to grow after a forest fire. Instead, the noun consistently denotes a quite different type of forest ecosystem: a dense, damp, and often boggy old-growth forest. While this could derive from ‘complex early seral forest’ via multiple steps of semantic change, there is another more attractive possibility. The nouns continuing PFi *korpi also have a strong connotation of the absence of human habitation; for this reason, Fin korpi was even used in old Bible translations in the sense of ‘desert’, a type of ecosystem and landscape for which no native word existed in Finnish. Thus, a meaning ‘backwoods, desolate forest land’ seems to have developed from earlier ‘barren land’ – this meaning is found in the Saami cognate, and even Est kõrb has in many dialects also the meaning ‘barren, sandy soil’, which can be interpreted as a vestige of the more original semantics of the noun. In proof of this, there are also many independent parallels for the etymological connection between nouns for ‘forest’ and ‘barren or desolate land’, including the following:

  • Engl heath < OEngl hǣþ ‘heath, wasteland, wilderness’ (< PGerm *haiþī-) ~ Welsh coed ‘forest, wood, trees; shrubs; timber’ (< Proto-Celtic *kaito-)
  • Engl (dialectal) wold ‘unforested plain, grassland, moor’ < OEngl weald ‘forest’ ~  Germ  Wald ‘forest, woods’, ONo vǫllr ‘field, flat ground, meadow’ (< PGerm *walþu-z)
  • SaaL vuovdde, SaaN vuovdi, SaaI vyevdi ‘forest, woods’, SaaSk vuʹvdd ‘forest, woods; area’ < PSaa *vuovtē < Pre-PSaa *awta < PGerm *auþa- (> ONo auðr ‘empty, void, desolate’) (Aikio 2006: 12)
  • SaaL miehttse, SaaN meahcci, SaaI mecci ‘wilderness, wilds, desolate land’ < Fin metsä ‘forest, woods’
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North Saami luohti ‘yoik’ and luohtu ‘pasture’: two old Germanic loanwords

The North Saami word luohti denotes ‘yoik’, i.e., a traditional Saami song typically characterized by a chanting singing style, pentatonic and anhemitonic melody, and lyrics usually consisting of a few phrases attributed to a particular person, place, or the like, and often figurative in nature. It is interesting that although luohti is a central lexical item in the sphere of culture-specific vocabulary, it has very few obvious etymological counterparts outside North Saami. The only transparently related form is SaaI lyeti ‘yoik’. However, the four-volume Inarilappisches Wörterbuch attests the word from a single informant only; according to Jouste (2011 : 77), however, archived audio materials attest to the word having being used by a few Aanaar Saami singers. Even so, lyeti seems to have been a relatively rare word in Aanaar Saami, and may well have been originally borrowed from the immediately neighboring eastern inland dialects of North Saami.

Thus, the word luohti actually forms a lexical isogloss that rather neatly distinguishes North Saami from all the other Saami languages, which use words of different origin to denote more or less similar traditional singing styles. West of North Saami we find SaaL SaaP vuolle, SaaU vuöllie and SaaS vuelie. A corresponding form vuolli actually also occurs in the westernmost Torne dialects of North Saami, where it must have been borrowed from Lule Saami. East of North Saami another word is found: SaaI livđe, SaaSk leuʹdd, SaaK ʹvvd, SaaT luʹvvde. It is interesting to note that the geographic distributions of the three words quite exactly match the division of traditional Saami singing styles into three groups: South and West Saami chants, North Saami chants, and East Saami chants (Kulonen & al. 2005: 46). Whether this lexical divergence was a direct consequence of divergent developments in singing style is a question for future research; here I will only deal with the origins of the words theselves.

The etymologies of the western and eastern words are well-established. The western words (SaaS vuelie, etc.) belong to the historically oldest lexical stratum: they reflect PSaa *vuolē and ultimately PU *wala, and have cognates in Finnic, Mordvin, and Samoyed languages: cf. Fin vala ‘oath’, MdE val ‘word’, Ngan bǝli̮, EnT bare ‘song’ (Aikio 2006: 26–27). The eastern words, in turn, are early borrowings from Nordic: they reflect (post-)PSaa *livδē which in its turn was borrowed from Early Norse *liuða, the form ancestral to ONo ljóð ‘verse or stanza of a song’, Icel ljóð ‘poem’. The Norse word ultimately reflects PGerm *leuþa- and is cognate with OEngl leōþ ‘song, poem, ode, verses’ and OHGerm liod ‘song’ (> Germ Lied ‘song’).

The origin of SaaN luohti has remained unclear, however. It has been proposed that luohti originally meant ‘song of incantation’ (a meaning attested in some earlier references) and is thus related to SaaT lïïʹhhte ‘sacrifice; pre-Christian religion of the Saami’; these forms could, then, be interpreted as Nordic loanwords deriving from the word represented by ONo blót ‘worship; sacrifice; sacrificial feast; idol’ (LägLoS II: 229–230). However, in light of phonological facts this comparison is clearly in error: SaaT lïïʹhhte presupposes a Proto-Saami form *luottē with a geminate stop, and it would thus regularly correspond to a North Saami noun of the form *luohtti (gen/acc *luohti) – not to the noun luohti (gen/acc luođi), which shows a single spirant đ in the weak grade and can thus only reflect PSaa *luotē with an original single stop *t. Moreover, there actually is another North Saami form that is historically related to SaaT lïïʹhhte: the otherwise unattested North Saami noun *luohtti does occur in its compound form (luohtte-) in the obsolete compound word luohttemuorra ‘sacrificial tree’, which exactly matches the SaaT compound lïïʹhhtemïïrr with the same meaning (cf. SaaN muorra, SaaT mïïrr ‘tree’). It is noteworthy that this compound word further corresponds in both its structure and meaning to ONo blóttré (cf. tré ‘tree’), which in the Hervarar saga is decribed as a holy tree that was reddened with the blood from a sacrificial horse. Thus, it is completely clear that SaaT lïïʹhhte and SaaN luohtte- were borrowed from PNo blót or from its predecessor PNo *blōta-, and probably also the Saami compound word meaning ‘sacrificial tree’ was formed according to the model of ONo blóttré. SaaN luohti ‘yoik’, however, must be an etymologically unrelated word of different origin.

In this connection one can also comment on the Northern Finnic word luote (usually attested in the plural: luotteet, luottehet) ‘spell, magic words’ (< *lōt̆te̮h). This word is sporadically attested in the Kainuu and Southeast dialects of Finnish, and in North Karelian. It is possible that this noun was derived from an underlying but unattested verb *luottaa ‘cast a spell, utter magic words’, which would have been homonymous with (but etymologically distinct from) the actually occurring luottaa ‘trust, rely on’. This lost verb *luottaa could have been borrowed from ONo blóta ‘worship; sacrifice’, a verb related to the aforementioned noun blót ‘worship; sacrifice; sacrificial feast; idol’. The dialectal Finnish verb luotella ‘rebuke, revile’ (attested in the South Ostrobothnian dialect) could then be interpreted as a regular frequentative derivative of the lost verb *luottaa. On the other hand, if the usage of luote as a noun is more primary, it could instead be a borrowing either from ONo blót or from Saami *luottē (> SaaN luohtte-, SaaT lïïʹhhte); in the latter case the source of borrowing would have been an extinct Saami language once spoken in Eastern Finalnd or Karelia. The latter option seems especially attractive when one considers the limited and northerly dialect distribution of the word (cf. LägLoS II: 229–230), but on the other hand, the suffixal element -e(he-) in the noun luote : luottehe- has no obvious correspondent in either the Norse or the Saami form.

The ultimate origin of these Finnish words is, however, of no consequence to the etymology of SaaN luohti ‘yoik’: the attempts to connect it with any of the other words discussed above must be rejected due to the phonological irregularity of the comparison. A much more promising starting point for its etymological analysis is provided by the Norwegian and Swedish noun låt ‘song, tune, track’, which is in both form and meaning strikingly similar to luohti ‘yoik’. Thinking from a purely phonological point of view, luohti could even be imagined as a relatively recent borrowing from the modern Nordic forms, with the Saami diphthong uo replacing the Nordic long vowel /ō/ (spelled ‹å›). This long /ō/ developed in the modern period from earlier /ā/, and borrowing would thus have to have taken place quite recently, because an earlier Nordic form of the shape /lāt/ would have yielded the North Saami form *láhta, or the like. However, it seems a highly unlikely hypothesis that a quite recent Nordic loanword was adopted as the name of a traditional Saami singing style which has throughout history been considered highly distinct from Norse singing styles by Saami and Norsemen alike, and also widely viewed as a sinful relic of pagan traditions by Nordic society. Moreover, also the second-syllable vowel in SaaN luohti could hardly be accounted for by modern Norwegian and Swedish låt. Thus, if the Saami and Nordic words are indeed etymologically connected, the borrowing must have taken place much earlier – as is the case, for instance, with Eastern Saami *livδē from Early Norse *liuða.

Considering the regular changes of vowels in Saami, SaaN luohti ‘yoik’ would go back to PSaa *luotē and yet further to pre-PSaa *lata, exactly like SaaL vuolle ‘yoik’ goes back to PSaa *vuolē and further to pre-PSaa and PU *wala. Modern Norwegian and Swedish låt, in turn, developed from ONo lát ‘sound; behaviour; loss, death’, OSw lāt, lāter ‘sound, tone’, further deriving from PNo and PNwGerm *lāta- (and, ultimately, from PGerm *lēta-). Thus, we can assume that PNwGerm *lāta- ‘sound’ was borrowed into Pre-Proto-Saami as *lata, and then regularly developed into modern SaaN luohti. The semantic development of the Saami word is thus closely paralleled by Norwegian and Swedish låt. The association of the Germanic word to musical sounds seems to be limited to continental Nordic languages, but this might be an archaic semantic feature despite of not being directly attested in Old Norse. The insular Nordic languages have preserved the word in quite different meanings: cf. Faroese lát ‘birdcall’, Icelandic lát ‘death, loss’.

As regards the sound correspondences, there is a nearly homonyous Saami word which provides an excellent parallel for the correspondence between SaaN luohti and its Germanic loan original, namely SaaN luohtu ‘forest, woodland, uninhabited territory; summer pasture of reindeer’. The word reflects PSaa *luotō and has cognates in the eastern Saami languages: cf. SaaI luátu ‘free pasture; uninhabited woodland’, SaaSk luâtt-puäʒʒ, SaaK luõdd-poaʒ, SaaT lïõdd-poaʒaj ‘free reindeer’ (puäʒʒ etc. ‘reindeer’); (locative case forms:) SaaSk luâđast, SaaK luõđast, SaaT lïõdast ‘free (of reindeer in summer)’. West of North Saami the noun *luotō itself is not attested, but it has formed the derivational base of SaaL luodok ‘a bear which has not encountered humans before’, luohtok ‘wild animal (of any kind)’.

Previously the Saami word has been considered a loan from Finnic: cf. Finnish luoto ‘rocky islet’, Karelian luoto,Olonetsian luodo ‘rocky islet; shallows, shallow place in water with a sandy or muddy bottom’, Veps lodo ‘shallows, shallow place in water’, Vote looto ‘rocky islet’ (< PFi *lōto). The etymology would be phonologically quite straightforward, but the semantic connection seems far-fetched: the development from ‘rocky islet’ or ‘shallows’ to ‘(uninhabited) woodland’ and ‘summer pasture (of reindeer)’ would require multiple intermediate steps, but no evidence for such intermediate meanings can be found in either Saami or Finnic. There is also a more marginal meaning ‘stony or rocky place in a field’ in Finnish dialects, and dialectal Estonian lood has been attested in the sense of ‘barren ground with little or no top soil’, but these data do not really bring the comparison semantically any closer. Note, furthermore, that an obsolete Akkala Saami word ‹luott› ‘rocky islet’ has also been attested. This, however, hardly corroborates the idea that the much more widely attested Saami nouns meaning ‘uninhabited woodland’, ‘pasture’, etc. developed from an earlier sense of ‘rocky islet’: the Akkala Saami form is best interpreted as an unrelated word that was quite recently borrowed from (Northern) Karelian luoto ‘rocky islet’, and it does not need to have any etymological connection with the words in other Saami languages.

Due to these semantic problems it is preferrable to look for another etymology for PSaa *luotō ‘uninhabited woodland; pasture’. The word would regularly reflect pre-PSaa *lato, so it can be straightforwardly compared to PNwGerm *lāþa- ‘land, pasture’. As an independent noun this Germanic word is rather sparsely attested: its reflexes are ONo láð ‘land’ (mostly used in poetic language) and OEngl lǣð ‘an administrative district (containing several hundreds)’. However, the meaning ‘pasture’ is found in a compound word: Sw fälad, OSw fælaþ ‘common pasture, shared pasture’ (< *fehu-lāþa-), the first part of which is ‘cattle’ (< PGerm *fehu-). Ultimately the noun goes back to PGerm *lēþa-; note also the related adjective *un-lēdaz > Goth unleds ‘poor’, OEngl unlǣd ‘poor, miserable, unfortunate’, the original sense of which has been “landless, having no land”.

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Are there Proto-Slavic loanwords in Saami?

The impetus for this etymological case study was provided by the paper Wie alt sind die Kontakte zwischen Finnisch-Ugrisch und Balto-Slavisch? by Jorma Koivulehto (2006). One of the ideas argued for in that paper is that the Saami languages possess a couple of Proto-Slavic loanwords. The presence of Russian loanwords in Eastern Saami has been known for long, of course, but possible older loans from Proto-Slavic into Saami have been little discussed by research. Only a very small number of etymologies suggest such prehistoric language contact, so the topic is quite marginal even in the field of Saami historical linguistics. On the other hand, the scrutiny of this small and very specific etymological problem does raise some methodological questions of more general interest as well.

Koivulehto (2006) presents a Proto-Slavic loan etymology for two Saami words: *multtē ‘soap’ and *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’. The two etymologies have interesting implications, as the alleged borrowing correlates phonologically with the Proto-Saami level of reconstruction and thus suggests direct prehistoric contact between Proto-Saami and some stage of Proto-Slavic. The Slavic etymology of *multtē ‘soap’ had already been proposed over half a century earlier by Y. H. Toivonen (1949: 346–347), but after that the proposal appears not to have been commented upon prior to Koivulehto’s contribution. The handbook of Saami historical linguistics by Korhonen (1981: 52–53) does not mention the possibility of early contacts with Slavic; the only Slavic loanwords discussed there are Russian ones, which at least for the most part have been adopted after the founding of the Pechenga monastery in the 16th century.

In addition to the two etymologies mentioned, Koivulehto also suggests an early Proto-Slavic or Proto-Balto-Slavic origin for Saami *muottē- ‘snow’ (verb), *ćuorpme̮s ‘hail’ and *ve̮ljē ‘abundance’. These etymologies presuppose a much earlier date of borrowing because the words have undergone the Pre-Proto-Saami vowel changes *a > *ō > *uo and *i > *e̮; the last word also has a cognate in Finnic (cf. Fin vilja ‘grain, cereal; abundance’). As these words seem to belong to a different and older lexical stratum, I will omit them from consideration here. If the etymologies are correct, the sound correspondences imply that they are roughly equal in age with the earliest Germanic and Baltic loans in Saami.

The concept of “chance correspondence”

As is well-known, there are many chance similarities between words in different languages, and it is usually not very difficult to distinguish them from genuine etymological correspondences – at least when they occur in languages whose historical development is well understood. However, there is also another related phenomenon that has not been clearly distinguished from the concept of “chance similarity” in the theory of historical linguistics. I will refer to this phenomenon as “chance correspondence”. Chance similarities between words are based on an impression of likeness of form and meaning, and they are therefore always subjective in nature; it is usually easy to show the coincidental nature of such similarities by applying proper methods of historical linguistics and etymological research. Chance correspondences, on the other hand, differ from the former in that they involve word-forms that show a formally regular or predictable correspondence despite of not being etymologically related at all.

To illustrate chance correspondences, let us look at the following word pairs that Campbell and Mixco (2007: 29) cite among their examples of chance similarity between languages:

  • English much, Spanish mucho ‘much’
  • Hungarian fiú, Romanian fiu ‘boy; son’

These examples do not show mere vague similarity of phonological form and meaning, but a systematic match between two nearly identical forms. The compared words have the same meaning, and the very small phonological differences between them could be easily explained on the basis of the differences between the phonological systems of the two languages:

  • (Old) Spanish mucho /muʧo/ ~ Middle English muche /muʧe/ > modern English much /mʌʧ/ (dialectally /mʊʧ/). The minor difference of second-syllable vowels could be naturally attributed to the very limited vowel inventory of Middle English unstressed syllables: unstressed /e/ was probably realized as [ǝ], and it represented the Middle English outcome of all Old English unstressed vowels.
  • Hungarian fiú /fi(j)uː/ ~ Romanian fiu /fiu/. Here, too, the small difference of form could be attributed to general differences of phonological structure: unlike Romanian fiu, Hungarian fiú is bisyllabic, but Hungarian lacks diphthongs altogether.

The key issue here is this: if we were to ignore everything else besides the formal criteria of phonological and semantic correspondence, then we could convert these word comparisons into formally “flawless” loan etymologies by claiming that Middle English muche was borrowed from Old Spanish mucho, and Romanian fiu from Hungarian fiú (or vice versa).

These “etymologies” are obviously wrong, but that is not because of any flaw in phonological or semantic correspondences. Instead, we know they are wrong because we know where the words actually come from. Spanish mucho reflects Latin multus ‘much’, whereas English much reflects Old English myċel ‘big; much’; Hungarian fiú is formed from a stem fi- which reflects PU *poj-ka ‘son, offspring’, whereas Romanian fiu reflects Latin fīlius ‘son’.

It is not an altogether uncommon occurrence to come across this kind of formally good-looking quasi-etymology for some word. Actually, my impression is that chance correspondences are more common than most professional historical linguists tend to assume, and that they do pose some real challenges for etymological research. In the case of the two examples above it is of course very easy to distinguish between the real etymology and the chance correspondence, but this is not always so. Every once in a while a word turns out to have two quite well-formed alternative etymologies (and sometimes even more than two), and it is difficult to decide which of them is the correct one.

Consider, for example, the case of Fin tuhto ‘thwart (rower’s seat in a boat)’, for which two etymologies have been proposed:

  • Borrowing from PGerm *þuftōn- (> ONo þopta, OEngl þoft, þofte, OHGerm dofta ‘thwart’).
  • Inheritance from PU *tukta (> MariW tǝ̑ktǝ̑ ‘boat rib’, Komi ti̮k ‘crossbar; spoke of a wheel’, KhVVj tŏɣǝt ‘crossbar of a boat’, MsLK tɔxt ‘thwart’, Hung tat ‘stern (in ship)’, NenT tǝdeʔ̰, SlkTa tati̮ ‘crossbar in a boat or dugout’).

Both of these etymologies are phonologically and semantically unproblematic and straightforward, and in the absence of one there would be no reason at all to doubt the other. Nevertheless, one of the two etymologies must be wrong, but it is quite hard to decide which one. The Finnish word does show a somewhat limited dialect distribution and it has no cognates in other Finnic languages, which is more typical of Germanic loans than of inherited words, but this is merely suggestive. At face value the second-syllable vowel of tuhto appears to show a better match with Germanic than with Uralic, but -o could be explained as a derivational suffix, and in Finnish dialects we also find the variant tuhta- in the compound noun tuhta-lauta ‘thwart’ (lauta ‘board’).

The existence of chance correspondences has an important implication for the evaluation of etymologies. We cannot blindly trust that an individual etymological comparison is correct even if it looks convincing by phonological, morphological and semantic criteria. The word might later turn out to have an alternative etymology, or it might be of a different origin even if we could not discover the correct etymology at all. Even convincingly argued etymologies involve some uncertainty; the degree of this uncertainty might be quite small, but that does not make it negligible.

Luckily, such slight uncertainties do not usually have broader implications for our conclusions and theories. Whatever the true etymology of Fin tuhto ‘thwart’ is, it will not alter our knowledge that in the Finnish lexicon both Germanic loanwords and inherited Uralic words number in the hundreds.

The situation is quite different, however, when the existence of a lexical stratum is inferred from a very small number of etymologies. The alleged Proto-Slavic loanwords *multtē ‘soap’ and *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’ in Proto-Saami are a case in point. As the two proto-languages do not date very far back in time, the reconstructed lexicons that can be compared against each other amount to over 2000 words. There is a quite real possibility that a comparison of two such reconstructed lexicons will produce two formally good-looking etymological matches by sheer chance; for this to happen, the probability of an accidental match only needs to be no greater than 1 : 1000. Therefore, we need to carefully assess how solidly argued each of the two etymologies actually is, and to examine whether alternative etymologies for the words could be found.

Saami *multtē ‘soap’

This word is attested in North Saami and in Eastern Saami languages: SaaN *multi (Leem 1768 and Friis 1887: ‹multte›), SaaI multte, SaaSk muʹltt, SaaK muʹlht, saaT mïʹlhte ~ muʹlhte ‘(a kind of) soap’. The common proto-form of the words can be reconstructed as *multtē. The unrounded vowel ï = [] in the Ter Saami variant ʹlhte is irregular, but it could have recently developed by influence of the similar vowel in Russian мыло ‘soap’; also a phonologically regular variant mu´lhte has been attested by Genetz (1891). In modern varieties of North, Inari and Skolt Saami the word seems to be obsolete, and according to dictionaries the word has been used of various kinds of old-fashioned and usually home-made soaps, made with ingredients such as lye, reindeer fat, etc.

The phonological form immediately reveals that *multtē cannot be an inherited word in Proto-Saami: neither the vowel combination *u–ē nor the three-consonant cluster *ltt has any regular Proto-Uralic or Pre-Proto-Saami source. Of course, also the meaning ‘soap’ suggests that we are not dealing with an ancient inherited word. Thus, to the trained eye of a Uralic historical linguist *multtē stands out as a particularly obvious candidate for a loanword.

The source proposed by Toivonen and further argued by Koivulehto is PSlav *mỳdlo ‘soap’, or more precisely its immediate predecessor *mūdlo prior to the regular change of *ū into an unrounded vowel (Proto-Slavic *y = UPA [i̮] / IPA [ɨ]). The etymology is semantically and phonologically quite straightforward, and the only detail requiring an explanation is the metathetic substitution of Saami *ltt for the Slavic cluster *dl. This has a straightforward structural motive: Saami phonotaxis did not allow clusters of the alveolar stop *t followed by a sonorant. Although we do not have a precise parallel involving the cluster *ltt, there are several well-established examples of an analogous substitution of Saami *rtt for the Norse clusters *dr and *þr (Koivulehto 1988):

  • SaaN fiertu ~ viertu ‘fine weather’ < PSaa *vierttō < PNo *wedra- (> ONo veðr ‘weather’)
  • SaaL liertte ~ riertte ‘leather’ < PSaa *lierttē < PNo *leþra- (> ONo leðr ‘leather’)
  • SaaN gurti ‘meat on the neck’ < PSaa *kurttē < PNo *kuþran- (> Icel koðri ‘scrotum’)
  • SaaN vierca ‘ram’ < PSaa *viercce̮ < *viertte̮s < PNo *weþru-z (> ONo veðr ‘ram’)

Thus, the Slavic loan etymology of Saami *multtē is phonologically and semantically quite unproblematic, as long as it is assumed that borrowing took place prior to the unrounding of *ū in Proto-Slavic. Also the cluster *ltt suggests a relatively early date of borrowing, because the cluster *dl was retained only in West Slavic (cf. Polish mydło, Czech mýdlo ‘soap’, etc.), and in other branches of Slavic the stop was lost (cf. OCSlav мꙑло, Slovene mílo, Ukrainian мило, Russian мыло, etc.). At face value this etymology looks quite compelling, and would thus seem to provide good evidence of prehistoric language contact between Saami and an archaic form of Proto-Slavic. Furthermore, we also know that the same Slavic word has been independently borrowed into Finnic: cf. Fin (dialectal) muula, Veps mugl, Võro mugõl ‘(a kind of) lye’ < PFi *mukla < PSlav *mỳdlo. The Finnic word, too, preserves the stop in the cluster *dl; as the cluster *tl did not occur in Finnic, the existing cluster *kl was substituted for it. This pattern, too, is confirmed by Germanic loanwords: cf. Finnish neula ~ Veps negl ~ Võro nõgõl ‘needle’ (< PFi *ne̮kla < PGerm *nēþlō-) and Finnish seula ~ Veps segl ~ Võro sõgõl ‘sieve’ (< PFi *se̮kla < PGerm *sēþla-). Because of this different nativization strategy the Saami word *multtē could not have been mediated by Finnic: the PFi cluster *kl could not have yielded *ltt in Saami.

Although the Slavic loan etymology of Saami *multtē looks quite flawless, the word also has an alternative etymology which has remained overlooked by previous research. The word can be straightforwardly compared to PNo *smulta-, reflected in the following forms:

  • ONo / Icel smolt ‘grease floating on top of hot water’
  • Far smoltur ‘liquid fat (fat from web-footed birds when boiled)’
  • ODan smolt ‘melted fat’
  • Sw (dialectal) smult ‘melted or purified lard or goose fat (used in cooking or on bread)’
  • Nw smult ‘lard (used for cooking and soap production)’

In phonological terms the Norse loan etymology is completely straightforward. The vowel correspondence is paralleled, e.g., by SaaN gurti ‘meat on the neck’, which was mentioned above. Other borrowings showing of the same vowel correspondence include: SaaN rudni ‘hole in the ice’ < PSaa *runnē < PNo *brunna- (> ONo brunnr ‘spring, well’); SaaSk uʹrmm ‘botfly larva’ < PSaa *urmē < PNo *(w)urma- (> ONo ormr ‘worm, snake’); SaaN durdi ‘filth, dirt’ < PSaa *turtē < PNo *turdã- (> ONo torð- in torðýfill ~ tordýfill ‘dungbeetle’; cf. OEngl tord ‘dung’). The substitution of Saami *ltt for Norse *lt is paralleled by the well-known borrowing SaaN sálti ‘salt’ < PSaa *sālttē < PNo *saltã- (> ONo salt). Also a new etymology displaying the same substitution can be presented: SaaN boltut ‘rummage’ < PSaa *poltt-ō- < PNo *bultia- (> Icel bylta ‘throw to the ground, overturn, overthrow’) or PNo *bultō- (> Far bólta ‘turn over, tumble, upset, overturn, roll (down)’). No etymology has been previously proposed for this Saami verb.

A notable phonological feature is the simplification of the Norse word-initial consonant cluster *sm- into *m- in Saami. In most Proto-Norse borrowings foreign clusters of the type *sC- have been retained in Western Saami languages, and for the most part also in Inari and Skolt Saami (Aikio 2012: 78). The only other widespread loanword featuring the cluster *sm- in Norse retains the cluster everywhere except for Kola Saami: cf. SaaS smaave, SaaN smávis (attr. smávva), SaaSk smaavâs (attr. smaavv), SaaK mååvv ‘(very) small, tiny’ (< PSaa *(s)māve̮s ~ *(s)māvēs : *(s)māve̮). This borrowing must be younger than Proto-Norse, however: the intervocalic consonant *-v- in Saami reveals that it was not borrowed from PNo *smāxa-z, but from a form postdating the loss of *x / *h (cf. ONo smá-r ‘small, little’); the syllable *-ve̮- was added because Saami morpheme structure does not allow monosyllabic content word-stems. The word *multtē ‘soap’ looks like an older borrowing which dates back to a period when foreign word-initial clusters of the shape *sC- had not yet become established in Saami. At least two other such loans have been discovered by previous research:

  • SaaS -gaejmie in tjeada-gaejmie ‘shimmer, dawn’ (tjeada ‘twilight’), SaaN (dialectal) gáibmu ‘dawn, dusk’ (< PSaa *kājmē ~ *kājmō) < PNo *skaima- > dialectal Swedish skäim ‘dawning, dim twilight’. — The Saami noun was further borrowed into Far-Northern dialects of Finnish as kaimo ‘dawn, first light’.
  • SaaN gáiru ‘great black-backed gull’ (< PSaa *kājrō) < PNo *skairȭ- > ONo skári ‘young gull’

What is more, at least seven new etymologies can be presented which display the same kind of simplification of a word-initial consonant cluster:

  • SaaS baakoe, SaaL báhko ‘word’ (< PSaa *pākō) < PNo *spaxō- > ONo spá ‘prophecy’. — The assumed semantic development in Saami is admittedly not a common one, but on the other hand, the Saami noun has no other plausible etymology although the vowel combination *ā–ō suggests that it is a loanword. According to SSA it could be cognate with (Northeastern) Finnic *pakise̮- ‘speak, talk, chat’, or alternatively a borrowing from Finnic. Cognation is out of the question, however, because the vowel correpsondence is irregular. Neither is borrowing from Finnic plausible, because there is no noun in Finnic that would suit as the source of PSaa *pākō. In Saami there is also a verb that comes somewhat closer to the Finnic forms (SaaU bååhkadit ‘speak (about)’, SaaN báhkkodit ‘say out loud, express’ < PSaa *pākuje̮nte̮-), but this verb is clearly a derivative of the noun *pākō and as such it cannot be direct borrowing from Finnic. SSA also mentions another Kola Saami verb in this connection: SaaK paaʹgge, SaaT paaʹgged ‘quarrel, argue’ (< PSaa *pākē-). This, however, seems to be an etymologically unrelated borrowing from PNo *bāga- (> Far bága ‘harm, injure’). The verb is scarcely attested in Nordic languages, but it must be old because it is cognate with OHGerm bāgan ‘quarrel, argue; engage in a lawsuit’ (which shows the same meaning as the Kola Saami verb). As a side note, SaaN biehkut ‘complain, grumble, whine (about something)’ (< PSaa *piekō-) seems to be an older borrowing from the same Germanic verb, adopted from an archaic form *bēga- prior to the vowel change *ē > *ā in North and West Germanic.
  • SaaU bädtjet, SaaL bádtjit ‘incite’ (< PSaa *pāńć-e̮je̮-) < PNo *spanja- > ONo spenja ‘attract, allure’. — The etymology entails the substitution of PSaa *-Cć- for PNo *-Cj-. Although the phonological and phonetic motivation for this substitution pattern remains unexplained, many examples of it are well-established: cf., e.g., SaaL ávttja ‘bird-cherry’ (< *āvće̮ < PNo *hagja- > ONo heggr ‘bird-cherry’), SaaL ávttjit ‘urge, incite’ (< *āvć-e̮je̮- < PNo *agja- > ONo eggja ‘incite; sharpen’), SaaL guolltje ‘cold north wind’ (< *kuolćē < PNo *kōljōn- > Icel kæla ‘light, cold wind’), SaaL ruvttja-suodna ‘back sinew’ (< *ruvće̮- < PNo *hrugja- > ONo hryggr ‘backbone, spine; ridge’), SaaL sjlávttjá ‘horsefly’ (< *(s)lāvćā < PNo *klagjã- > ONo kleggi ‘horsefly’), SaaL sjkálltjo ‘seashell’ (< *skālćō < PNo *skaljō- > ONo skel ‘shell, seashell’), SaaL skávttjá ‘beard’ (< *skāvćā < PNo *skagja- > ONo skegg ‘beard’), SaaL sjtádtjo ‘casting ladle; frying pan’ (< *stāńćō < PNo *stainjō-; not attested in Norse, cf. OHGerm steina ‘stone or earthenware pot’).
  • SaaS baenie, SaaN bátni, SaaSk pääʹnn, SaaT paaʹnne ‘tooth’ (< PSaa *pānē) < PNo *spānu- > ONo spánn, spónn ‘chip, shaving; spoon’. — Published references present no etymology for the Saami word, but it is obviously an innovation because it has replaced the reflex of PU *piŋi ‘tooth’, which is retained by almost every other branch of the family. The Norse loan etymology was suggested to me by Jorma Koivulehto in the course of personal communication in 2003, but to my knowledge he never publicly presented the etymology. At first sight the comparison looks semantically far-fetched, but in Saami also meanings much closer to the Germanic forms are attested: SaaN bátni refers not only to ‘teeth’, but also to tooth- or rod-like parts that occur in rows in various kinds of objects: the teeth of a saw, a rake, or a comb; the rungs of a ladder; the steps of a staircase; the spokes of a wheel; the horizontal bars of a gate; the vertical strips of a weaver’s reed. Notably, the predecessor of the Norse word, PGerm *spēnu-, was borrowed into Finnic: cf. Fin piena ‘wooden slat, crosspiece’. On the other hand, a later borrowing of the same Norse word into Saami is SaaS spaanese, SaaN spánas ‘wood shaving’ (< PSaa *spāne̮s). The semantic correspondence displayed by the earlier loan *pānē ‘tooth’ is similar to that in Ancient Greek γόμφος ‘peg, bolt, nail’ ~ OEngl camb ‘comb’ ~ Sanskrit jámbha-, Old Church Slavonic zǫbъ, Latvian zuobs, Albanian dhëmb ‘tooth’ (< PIE *ǵómbʰo-) (note also Fin hammas ‘tooth’ < Pre-PFi *šampas < Proto-Baltic *žámbas, a borrowing which replaced the inherited Uralic word pii in the primary anatomical sense).
  • SaaU gáddiet ‘suspect; accuse’, SaaN gáddit ‘think (mistakenly), believe (falsely); mistake (something for something else)’ (< PSaa *kāntē-), SaaL gáddalit ‘suspect, mistrust’, SaaSk kaddled ‘slander, abuse verbally; quarrel’ (< *kānt-e̮le̮-) < PNo *skandia- (not attested in Norse; cf. OEngl scendan ‘put to shame, abuse, insult, harm’, MDu schenden ‘stain, dishonor; ruin (someone’s standing or happiness)’, Germ schänden ‘desecrate, dishonor; violate’). — Among the Saami forms the semantically most archaic one is SaaSk kaddled. T. I. Itkonen (1958: 77) suggested that this Skolt Saami verb could have been borrowed from Finnish kannella (: kantele-) ‘tell on, go tell about (someone’s illicit behaviour to a superior); file a complaint’. This appears unlikely, however, because SaaSk kaddled is formally identical to SaaL gáddalit ‘suspect, mistrust’ and therefore it can be straightforwardly analyzed as a derivative within Saami. Although Fin kannella is also attested in the meaning ‘quarrel; scold’, this meaning only occurs locally in Northern Savo dialects and it is not attested in Finnish dialects that have been in direct contact with Skolt Saami. The Norse loan etymology for the Saami verb presupposes the original meaning ‘slander, abuse verbally’; this can easily develop into ‘accuse’ (which is attested in Ume Saami and also in the 1780 “Swedish Saami” dictionary by Lindahl & Öhrling), and that further to ‘suspect (someone of something)’ (which is attested in most of the Saami cognates). The loan original itself was lost in Norse, and reflexes of PGerm *skandja- are only attested in West Germanic; this is not a problem, however, as also many other such Proto-Norse loans are known (Aikio 2020).
  • SaaN givdnjut, SaaSk ǩeunnjad, SaaK kïvvnjâ ‘shimmer, flicker, appear by glimpses, appear briefly and repeatedly’ (< PSaa *kivńō-) < PNo *skiuma- (< *skeuma-) > Nw (dialectal) skjoma ‘flicker, shine with flickering light’ (cf. ONo skjómi ‘flickering light’). — The cluster *vm does not occur in Saami, which explains the substitution of Saami *ń for Norse *m in this context. The same pattern is attested in at least two other loanwords as well, although in these cases the eastern Saami languages partially show *ŋ: SaaN rávdnji, SaaSk räuʹnnj ~ räuʹŋŋ, SaaK raʹvvnj ‘current, stream’ (< *rāvńē ~ *rāvŋē) < PNo *strauma- > ONo straumr ‘stream’; SaaN sávdnji, SaaSk säuʹnnj ~ säuʹŋŋ, SaaK saʹvvŋ ‘seam’ (< *sāvńē ~ *sāvŋē) < PNo *sauma- > ONo saumr ‘seam’.
  • SaaS laekedh ‘hit, strike, beat; strike dead, beat to death’ (< PSaa *lākē-) < PNo *slaxa- > ONo slá ‘hit, strike, beat’. — The verb occurs in South Saami only, but the sound substitutions *sl- > *l- and *-x- > *-k- reveal that the borrowing must be quite old. One parallel for the latter substitution is PSaa *pākō ‘word’ (< PNo *spaxō-) which was discussed above; another is SaaL láhko, SaaN láhku ‘highland plain, gently sloping valley in highlands’ < PSaa *lākō (< PNo *flaxō- > ONo flǫ́ ~ flá ‘rock ledge; gently sloping valley in highlands’, Nw flå ‘plateau; valley in highlands’) (Aikio 2020: 21). Note, by the way, that there is another isolated verb somewhat similar to SaaS laekedh in the opposite geographic end of the Saami language area: SaaT lïïʹgged ‘chop (wood)’ (< PSaa *luokē-). This seems to be an even earlier borrowing from Germanic that has undergone the regular change of Pre-PSaa *a to PSaa *uo: it was probably borrowed from PGerm *slaxa- into Pre-PSaa as *laka-.
  • SaaS laehpedh ‘leave (transitive)’, SaaN láhppit ‘lose; shed (antlers, hair)’, SaaSk ʹpped, SaaT laaʹhhped ‘lose’ (< PSaa *lāppē-) < PNo *slãppia- (< *slampia-) > ONo sleppa (past.3sg sleppti) ‘make slip, let slip’, Icel sleppa ‘release, let go’. — This weak verb is a causative of the strong verb sleppa (past.3sg slapp) ‘slip, slide’ (< PNo *slẽppa- < *slempa-). A parallel for the consonant correspondence can be found in another new etymology: SaaN ráhpis, SaaSk rääʹppes, SaaK raaʹbbes ‘rough and rocky (of terrain)’ (< PSaa *rāppēs) < PNo *krãppa-z (< *krampa-z) > ONo krappr ‘narrow’, Icel krappur ‘narrow, scarce, difficult, dangerous’, Far krappur ‘acute-angled, extremely bent, bowed, curved’. This word has also been reconstructed as PNo *krappa-z without a nasal, but Kroonen (2013: 301) reconstructs PGerm *krampa-z and considers the Nordic words cognate with OHGerm krampf ‘bent, curved, crooked’.

In light of the etymologies discussed above, there is no doubt that the Saami languages possess a stratum of early Proto-Norse loanwords in which the sibilant was dropped in word-initial clusters of the type *sC-. The word *multtē ‘soap’ could thus have been borrowed from PNo *smulta- and belong in this stratum of loanwords.

Now that two possible sources of borrowing have been identified for Saami *multtē ‘soap’, we have to evaluate which of them is likely to have been the actual source of the word. However, the basic criteria of phonological and semantic correspondence do not help in settling the issue, because in this regard both etymologies are completely straightforward and unproblematic. The phonological shape of the Saami word is perfectly well explained by Proto-Norse *smulta- and early Proto-Slavic *mūdlo- alike. As regards semantics, the Saami word shows a more precise match with the Slavic one, but there is no real semantic problem in the Norse etymology either; the assumption of an unremarkable semantic shift like “key ingredient of soap” > ‘soap’ could not, by itself, provide a serious argument against the etymology.

There is another key criterion, however, which is independent of the features of the individual etymologies themselves. On the one hand, there are literally hundreds of ancient Norse loanwords in Saami, including dozens upon dozens of Proto-Norse ones; on the other hand, there are next to no plausible candidates for Proto-Slavic loanwords. In addition to *multtē ‘soap’, the only other promising example of such a borrowing is the word *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’, and that etymology is not without problems either, as will become clear in the discussion below. Therefore, the very existence of Proto-Slavic loans in Proto-Saami is doubtful, and this serves as a very strong argument for the Norse loan etymology of *multtē. Although the alternative Slavic etymology cannot be totally disproved, it looks far less probable than the Norse one, and therefore the word *multtē does not provide any real evidence of contacts between Proto-Saami and Proto-Slavic.

Saami *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’

All Saami languages share a common word for ‘mushroom’: SaaS goebpere, SaaU guabbar, SaaP SaaL SaaN guoppar, SaaI kuobâr, SaaSk kuõbbâr, SaaK kuumbâr, SaaT kïïmbâr (< PSaa *kuompe̮r). Two etymologies have been proposed for the word. On the one hand, it has been considered cognate with Komi gob and Udm gubi̮ ‘mushroom’; on the other, it has been regarded as a borrowing from PSlav *gǫba ‘mushroom, fungus’ (> OCSlav gǫba ‘sponge’, Serbo-Croatian guba, Bulgarian гъ́ба, Czech houba ‘mushroom’, Russian губа ‘lip; (dialectal) bracket fungus’, etc.), or from its Balto-Slavic predecessor.

The comparison to the Permic forms has been supported by Sammallahti. In an earlier paper (1988: 552) he reconstructed a common proto-form *ko/ampV, but he had marked the etymology with a question mark and also mentioned the possibility that the Permic forms have been borrowed from Chuvash; later (1998: 121), however, he included SaaN guoppar in a list of words inherited from “Proto-Finno-Permic”, expressing no uncertainty.

The suggested etymological connection of the Saami and Permic forms appears untenable because the vowel correspondence is quite irregular. According to Zhivlov’s (2023: 135–138) model of Permic historical phonology, the vowel correspondence between Komi gob : gobj-, (Upper Sysola dialect) go̭b and Udm gubi̮ points to PPerm *göbi̮. The vowel *ö has two regular sources: 1) PU *e before second-syllable *-i or *-äj; 2) PU *a before palatal or alveolo-palatal consonants. In the case of the word for ‘mushroom’ only the first alternative would be possible. Therefore, had the word been inherited, it would regularly go back to PU *kempi or *kempäj; cf., e.g., PU *keri ‘crust, bark’ > PPerm *kör(j-) > Komi kor : korj-, (Upper Sysola) ko̭r, Udm kur; PU *penä-j ‘dog’ > PPerm *pöni̮ > Komi pon : ponj-, (Upper Sysola) po̭n, Udm puni̮. This excludes cognation with PSaa *kuompe̮r, as PSaa *uo cannot reflect PU *e. Yet another problem is that the stem-final *-r in Saami has no correspondent in Permic; I will return to this issue further below.

In addition to these problems, the Permic word for ‘mushroom’ has also alternative comparanda: the resemblance to the aforementioned PSlav *gǫba ‘mushroom, fungus’ is especially striking, and also Tatar gömbä and Chuvash kămpa ‘mushroom’ come formally close. The mutual etymological relations of these words are unclear, but at any rate the Permic word cannot be expained as a Chuvash loan as was passingly suggested by Sammallahti (1988: 552). The Chuvash word itself has been regarded a borrowing from Tatar gömbä (< *gümbä), but the origin of the latter is not quite clear. As regards Permic *göbi̮, the assumption of borrowing from a Turkic source is problematic also because the change of nasal+stop clusters into voiced stops (*NT > *ND > *D) had in all likelihood taken place in Permic already before the earliest Permic-Turkic contacts (see the discussion by Metsäranta 2020: 201–202). The possibility of borrowing from Slavic seems a more attractive hypothesis, but a proper evaluation of the etymology would require the features and chronology of the earliest East Slavic loanwords in Permic to be worked out first.

As regards Saami *kuompe̮r, its alleged cognation with Permic *göbi̮ must be false, so there is no competing hypothesis for the Slavic loan etymology of the former. Nevertheless, the word does not offer unambigous evidence of contact between Proto-Slavic and Proto-Saami even if the loan etymology is correct, because Koivulehto presents two chronologically different interpretations of the etymology. According to the first one, PSaa *kuompe̮r was borrowed from PSlav *gǭba (> *gǫba); in this version the nativization of the nasal vowel and the following stop would be analogous to that in Fin kuontalo ‘roll of wool or flax fiber (for spinning yarn from)’ < PSlav *kǭdělь > *kǫdělь (> OCSlav kǫdělь, Rus кудель, Czech koudel, Polish kądziel ‘sliver, tow’). According to the second interpretation the loan would be considerably older: PSaa *kuompe̮r could go back to Pre-PSaa *kampir, which was borrowed from Pre-Proto-Slavic (or Proto-Balto-Slavic) *gambā.

The latter alternative, in fact, appears a priori more likely than the first one. It would make the loan roughly equal in age to the earliest layers of Proto-Baltic and Proto-Germanic loans in Saami, which in turn would imply that the borrowing had taken place in a quite different geographic setting. It is well-established that Pre-Proto-Saami was originally spoken at a more southerly latitude, somewhere in Southern Finland and Karelia (see the discussion by Aikio 2012 and references therein), and it would not be difficult to assume that also a stray Pre-Proto-Slavic borrowing had entered the language at that time. What is more, in this scenario it would not even be necessary to assume that the borrowing was adopted from Slavic in the first-place: in terms of phonological reconstruction Proto-Balto-Slavic is nearly synonymous with Proto-Baltic, and one could alternatively assume that the word was borrowed from Baltic *gambā-, i.e., from a cognate form of the Slavic word which just happened to be later lost in the Baltic branch. The same expanation could apply also to a couple of other alleged Pre-Proto-Slavic or Proto-Balto-Slavic loanwords, at least to the aforementioned SaaN vallji ‘abundance’ ~ Fin vilja ‘grain; abundance’ (< *wilja < Proto-Balto-Slavic or Proto-Baltic *wīl(i)ja-; cf. Koivulehto 2006: 187–188). In fact, the existence of some such Baltic borrowings is entirely predictable: it would be quite contrary to expectations if the source form of every single prehistoric Baltic borrowing had been preserved in the Baltic branch itself. In a similar way, the much more numerous Proto-Norse borrowings in Saami also include ones whose sources have not been preserved in the attested Nordic languages; 18 such cases are discussed in a recent paper of mine (2020).

However, one problem still remains that provides an argument against both the Saami-Permic comparison and the Slavic (or Baltic) loan etymology: the assumption that PSaa *kuompe̮r contains a suffix *-(e̮)r. Koivulehto (2006: 184–185) comments the issue as follows: “From a morphological point of view it should be noted that the Saami word must be a suffixed stem in *-er(e) [= *-ir according to the present reconstruction]. Suffixations are not uncommon in loanwords.” (Quote translated from German.) This is a purely ad hoc hypothesis, however: there is no derivational suffix *-(e̮)r in Saami, so nothing in PSaa *kuompe̮r itself suggests that the word could be a derivative, let alone that it “must” be one. The assumed suffixation is circularly based on the loan etymology itself, which can only explain the part *kuomp(e̮)- but not the stem-final consonant *-r.

To substantiate this counterargument, let us look at the origins of Lule, North and Skolt Saami noun-stems ending in *-r. Such nouns can be etymologically grouped in four broad categories. Many of the words are borrowings from Nordic languages; most are recent loanwords, but there are also some earlier borrowings from Old Norse and even from Proto-Norse:

  • SaaN áittar (gen./acc. áitara) ‘caretaker, owner’ < PSaa *ājtte̮r < PNo *aixter- (> OSw -attari in iorþ-attari ‘landowner’)
  • SaaL áldar (acc. álldarav) ‘age’ < Nw alder
  • SaaN bolsttar (gen./acc. bolstara) ‘matress; pillow’ < Nw / Sw bolster
  • SaaN dimbbar (gen./acc. dimbara) ‘timber’ < ONo timbr
  • SaaN eappir (gen./acc. eabbára) ‘wooden pail, bucket’ (< *eampēr) < OSw æmbar
  • SaaN fáttar (gen./acc. fáddara) ‘godparent’ < Nw / Sw fadder
  • SaaN fuođar (gen./acc. fuođđara) ‘fodder’ < ONo fóðr
  • SaaN gufihtar (gen./acc. gufihttara) ‘gnome (a kind of anthropomorphic underearth being in Saami mythology)’ < ONo *góð-vættr (góð ‘good’ + vættr ‘a supernatural being’) > Nw godvette ‘a kind of benevolent gnome-like being’.
  • SaaN keallir ~ geallir (gen./acc. keallára ~ geallára) ‘cellar’ < Nw kjeller / Sw källare
  • SaaN meašttir (gen./acc. meaštára) ‘master, expert, champion’ < Nw mester / Sw mästare
  • SaaN minsttar (gen./acc. minstara) ‘pattern, model’ < Nw mønster / Sw mönster
  • SaaN sohkar (gen./acc. sohkkara) ‘sugar’ < Nw sukker / Sw socker
  • SaaN šláttar (gen./acc. šláddara) ‘gossip’ < Nw / Sw sladder
  • SaaN uŋggar (gen./acc. uŋgara) ‘craving (for a particular food, etc.)’ < Nw / Sw hunger
  • SaaN viesttar (gen./acc. viestara) ‘west wind; west’ < ONo vestr

There are also some borrowings from Finnic, although they are much fewer in number:

  • SaaN gágir (gen./acc. gáhkira ~ gáhkára) ‘lump of reindeer feces’ < PSaa *kākēr < PFi *kakara (> Fin kakara ‘turd, lump of animal feces; brat’). — As a side note, the Finnic word has an obvious but previously unnoticed cognate in Mordvin: MdE kavoŕks, MdM kavǝŕks, kavǝrks ‘lump, clod (of earth, etc.)’ (< PMd *kavǝŕ-ks < Pre-PMd *kakarV-).
  • SaaN ságir (gen./acc. sáhkára) ‘tang of a scythe blade’ < Fin sakara ‘jag, spike, tang’
  • SaaN máttar (gen./acc. máddara) ‘ancestor’, SaaL máttar ‘ancestor; base, lower and wider part of something’ < PSaa *mānte̮r < PFi *mande̮r (> Fin manner ‘mainland, continent’). — PFi *mande̮r, in turn, is cognate with Komi (obsolete) mude̮r ‘floor, bottom of a house’, Udm mudor ‘icon; altar or sacred shelf in a prayer hut; deity or sacred center of a tribal territory’. One can reconstruct the common proto-form *me̮ntVr, although the second-syllable vowels in Finnic and Permic do not quite seem to match. In this case there is actually a reason to view the part *-(V)r as a derivational suffix: there are also related forms pointing to a simplex stem *mantV-, e.g. Fin (dialectal) mantu ‘land, area; farm’ (< Pre-PFi ?*mantV-w), which has also been borrowed into Saami (cf. SaaS maadtoe ‘birthplace; ancestry; kindred’, SaaL máddo ‘ancestry; kindred’, SaaN máddu ‘oldest known ancestor; a mythological ancestral form of an animal species’ < *māntō). In addition, there are two related Saami nouns which look like borrowings from (Proto-)Finnic forms that were not preserved in Finnic itself: SaaN máddi ‘south’, máttá-s ‘southwards’, SaaT maanda-s ‘landwards, towards the mainland’ (< *māntē, from unattested PFi *manta?) and SaaS maadtege ‘foot of a tree or a mountain; older generation’, SaaN mátta ‘foot of a tree’ (< *mānte̮k, from unattested PFi *mand-e̮k?). Moreover, one can add that the stem *me̮ntV has a previously overlooked regular reflex in MariE möδǝ-wuj, müδǝ-wuj ‘hummock, tussock’ (< PMari *müdǝ-wuj); the head of the compound is wuj ‘head’ (< PU *ojwa), so the word can be traced back to a metaphoric expression “head of land”, or the like. In light of this data it seems possible that Fin manner is a denominal derivative with a suffix *-(V)r. The analysis remains uncertain, however, as one can also reconstruct a related verb stem *me̮nta- on the basis of MariE MariW müδem ‘cover; bury, cover with earth’ and Udm mudi̮- ‘shovel earth around the foundation of the house (for insulation)’.

Seven words appear to be inherited items with cognates in other Uralic languages:

  • SaaSk čuõmâr (gen./acc. čuõmmâr) ‘grain, crumb’ < PSaa *ćuome̮r < post-PU *ćomir (> Fin somero, somer ‘coarse gravel’)
  • SaaL dabár (acc. dahparav) ‘prattle, nonsense’ < PSaa *te̮pe̮r < post-PU *tüpir (~ *tüpirä > Fin typerä ‘stupid, foolish’). — The etymological connection between the Saami and Finnish words does not appear to have been previously noticed. In addition, one could tentatively suggest a further connection to Proto-Khanty *tepǟr ‘dust, waste, garbage’ (> V Vj tewǝr, Sur tȧ̆pǝr, Irt tĕpǝr, tȧ̆pǝr, Ni Kaz tăpǝr, O tȧ̆pȧr). In this case the PU form would have been *tipVr(V), and the change *i > *ü in Finnic would be paralleled by Fin tyven ‘calm, windless weather’ < Pre-PFi *tüwin < PU *tiwin (> Kh V Vj teɣǝn, Sur tȧ̆ɣʷǝn ‘calm, windless’).
  • SaaN duottar (gen./acc. duoddara) ‘tundra’ < PSaa *tuonte̮r < (post-)PU *tanti/ar (> Fin tanner ‘hard trampled ground; yard, field, open space’, Veps tandar ‘hard trampled ground’). — Kaheinen (2022) has recently suggested that the word has a further cognate in Samoyed: Ngan ćintǝ ‘crest (of hill or moutain), ridge’ and ćintǝrǝǝ ‘mountain’ (? < PSam *ti̮ntǝ̑, *ti̮ntǝ̑rǝ̑jǝ̑). If this is correct, then Saami-Finnic *tanti/ar could indeed originally be interpreted as a derivative of a shorter PU noun stem *te̮nti. However, there is no evidence for such a segmentation outside Nganasan, and also another quite attractive etymology for Saami-Finnic *te̮ntir has been proposed by Rédei (1998). In his view, it was derived from a PU verb stem *tanta- ‘tread, trample’ which has a reflex in Samoyed: NenT tanǝ-, EnF tadu- ‘tread on, step on’ (< PSam *tåntǝ̑-), NenT tanǝʔ-, EnF taduʔ- ‘trample’, Kam tōnuʔ- ‘walk, tread’ (< PSam *tånt-ut-). The meaning shows a quite precise match with a derived verb in Finnic: Fin tannertaa, Veps tandarta ‘trample’ (< PFi *tande̮/arta-). Moreover, this etymology can be corroborated with further cognates in Permic and Mordvin: Komi dud- ‘be obstinate, balk, move backwards (e.g., of horses)’, MdE tandadoms ‘get frightened’, MdM tandadǝms ‘get frightened; buck, bolt (of horses)’. According to Zhivlov (2014: 143) the Komi and Mordvin verbs can reflect a proto-form *tanta-; thus, the phonological match with PU *tanta- ‘tread, trample’ is precise, and even the semantic correspondence is fairly straightforward.
  • SaaL guoŋar (acc. guogŋarav) ‘boat rib’ < PSaa *kuoŋe̮r < PU *ke̮ŋir (> Fin kaari ‘curve; boat rib’, KhNi xuŋxarǝ ‘palm of the hand’, MsK kē̮ŋǝr ‘hollow of the knee’)
  • SaaSk kõõddâr (gen./acc. kõddâr) ‘hock’ < PSaa *ke̮nte̮r < post-PU *kintir (> Fin kinner ‘hock’)
  • SaaSk kõõnjâr (gen./acc. kõnnjâr) ‘elbow’ < PSaa *ke̮ńe̮r < PU *küńir ~ *küńär(ä) (> Fin kyynärä, kyynär-, MdE keńeŕ, MariE kǝ̑ńer, Udm gi̮r-). — Although this is undoubtedly a Proto-Uralic word, the etymology involves some morphological and phonological unclarities. First, only the Skolt Saami form is regularly comparable to the cognates cited above, whereas all other languages show a quite aberrant form: cf. SaaS gernjere, SaaL garŋŋel, SaaN gardnjil, gargŋil, SaaK ʹrrŋel ‘elbow’ (< PSaa *ke̮rń/ŋēl/rē, as if from pre-PSaa *kürń/ŋäl/rä). Second, there are apparently related words in the Ugric languages which lack the consonant -r- and instead show other obscure the stem-final elements: cf. KhSur kö̆nʾŋi ~ kö̆nŋi, MsK kʷänɣǝľ, Hung könyök ‘elbow’. These words share a common Ugric stem *küṇV- < *künV-; note that the change *kVn- > *kVṇ- is regular in Ugric (Zhivlov 2016). This stem is no doubt of the same origin as the part *küńV- in the word for ‘elbow’ in the more western Uralic branches, despite the irregular correspondence *n ~ *ń. However, since the shared part *künV- / *küńV- is not attested as an independent word-stem anywhere in Uralic, it is not clear whether the part *-r(ä) can really be analyzed as a derivational suffix.
  • SaaN muogir (gen./acc. muohkára ~ muohkira) ‘blackfly’ < PSaa *muokēr < post-PU *makar ? ~ *mäkärä (> Fin mäkärä ‘blackfly’). The irregular vowel correspondence makes it is uncertain whether the Saami and Finnic words are direct cognates; they might also be parallel borrowings from some unknown source, for example.

Quite a few Saami noun stems in -r lack an etymology; many of them probably belong to the substrate lexicon Saami has acquired from unknown “Palaeo-Laplandic” languages (see Aikio 2012: 80–88):

  • SaaSk aautâr (gen./acc. ahttâr) ‘storm’ < PSaa *ākte̮r / *āvtte̮r. — To venture a speculation, one could think of borrowing from PNo *austrã ‘east’ (> ONo austr) in the meaning ‘east wind’; cf. the aforementioned SaaN viesttar ‘west wind; west’ (< ONo vestr < PNo *westrã). There is no evidence of the proposed semantic shift, however, so this is a mere conjecture.
  • SaaN čagar (gen./acc. čahkara) ‘cartilage, gristle; penis (of an animal)’ < PSaa *će̮ke̮r
  • SaaN čiegar (gen./acc. čiehkara) ‘winter pasture (where reindeer have dug up lichen under the snow) < PSaa *ćieke̮r
  • SaaN čuokkar (gen./acc. čuoggara) ‘lump’ < PSaa *ćuoŋke̮r
  • SaaN dieskkar (gen./acc. dieskara), SaaL diesŋar (acc. diessŋarav) ‘fur lining on the inside of mittens’ < PSaa *tiesŋe̮r
  • SaaN duogur (gen./acc. duhkora) ‘children’s game’ < PSaa *tuokōr
  • SaaN feaskkir (gen./acc. feaskára) ‘porch, entry (of a house)’ < PSaa *feaskēr
  • SaaN giegir (gen./acc. giehkira ~ giehkára) ‘windpipe’ < PSaa *kiekēr
  • SaaN miegar (gen./acc. miehkara) ‘sleeping tent, shelter from mosquitoes (under which one sleeps outside)’ < PSaa *mieke̮r
  • SaaN muttar (gen./acc. muddara) ‘sod, peat (used in the construction of sod huts and houses)’ < PSaa *munte̮r
  • SaaN nagir (gen./acc. nahkára) ‘sleep, sleepiness’ < PSaa *ne̮kēr
  • SaaL sájger (acc. sájggárav), SaaS saajkere ‘sharp stick (made of wood or antler)’ < PSaa *sājkēr ~ *sājke̮r. — A similar Finnish dialect word saikkara ~ saikara ‘(a kind of) pole or rod; dry branch’ occurs in Ostrobothnian and Far Northern dialects; due to its northern distribution it looks like a borrowing from Saami, although the possibility of borrowing in the opposite direction cannot be completely ruled out. In the Northern Ostrobothnian subdialect the word also has a variant form saikka; this looks like a contamination of saikkara and the etymologically unrelated saitta ‘(a kind of) pole or rod’. The latter is related to SaaN sáiti ‘spear’ (< PSaa *sājttē) via borrowing in one direction or the other.
  • SaaN skážir (gen./acc. skáhčira) ‘blade of grass’ < PSaa *skāćēr
  • SaaN spáiddar (gen./acc. spáidara), SaaS svaajhtere ‘torch’ < PSaa *svājte̮r ~ *svājtte̮r
  • SaaN suonjar (gen./acc. suotnjara) ‘ray, beam (of light)’ < PSaa *suońe̮r. — The word may be somehow etymologically connected to SaaSk šuõnjsted ‘loom, shimmer (of a distant object)’, SaaK šuunjse ‘shine between clouds (of the sun)’ (< PSaa *śuońe̮stē-); the word-initial *ś- could be have developed via assimilation to the following alveolo-palatal nasal *ń. Nevertheless, it would be circular to analyze SaaN suonjar as an example of a derivational suffix -r, as the morphological relationship between this noun and the verb *śuońe̮stē- is not regular and the ultimate origin of both words remains unknown. For all we know, they could also be parallel borrowings from related forms in an unknown source language, or simply coincidentally similar words.
  • SaaN šimir (gen./acc. šipmára), SaaI šomer, SaaSk šâʹmmer ‘back of a knife or ax blade’ < PSaa *śimēr ~ *śe̮mēr ~ *śomēr. — The relationship to the similar Fin hamara ‘back of a knife or ax blade’ (< Pre-PFi *šamara) is unclear. The sound correspondence does not support either cognation or direct borrowing between Finnic and Saami, so some kind of indirect etymological connection seems more likely. Moreover, the irregular vowel variation within Saami seems to suggest post-Proto-Saami origin.
  • SaaL viettar (acc. vieddarav) ‘high or steep sandy bank’ < PSaa *viente̮r

To come to the point, the lexical material analyzed above offers very little evidence for the existence of a derivational suffix *-r in Saami, or even in Proto-Uralic. Only in the case of SaaN duottar ‘tundra’ and máttar ‘ancestor’ there are any reasons to assume that the consonant -r at the end of the noun stem could be a derivational suffix. At least it must originate in a separate morpheme of some type, but the details remain unclear, as the word-formation has taken place at a very early date and the morphological makeup of the words has become obscured since. Moreover, the two words are more likely to be deverbal than denominal formations, and the hypothesied suffix *-(V)r remains unidentified in any case. What is more, the word máttar was not even directly inherited in Saami, but instead borrowed from Finnic *mand(-)e̮r (< PU *me̮nt(-)Vr).

The scarcity and ambiguity of this evidence implies that denominal nouns with a suffix *-(V)r are extremely rare at best, and more probably do not exist at all. Even if they do, the pattern of word-formation is obviously archaic: the possible examples predate the existence of Saami as a separate branch, and within the Saami branch there is no evidence at all suggesting the reconstruction of such a derivational pattern. In any case it would not have been productive in Proto-Saami anymore, and therefore it could not have been applied to a Slavic loanword thought to have been adopted at that stage.

For the sake of completeness, there is also a slightly different morphological explanation that ought to be discussed: one could think of modifying Koivulehto’s explanation by reconsructing PSaa *kuompe̮rē instead of *kuompe̮r, and assuming that the word then became analogically restructured as a consonant-stem in *-r in Saami. In this way one could hypothesize that the word originally contained a derivational suffix *-rē (< PU *-rA). In fact, it is not always easy to tell the difference between Saami noun stems in *-rē and *-r, and in individual languages one does find some examples of the latter having originated by analogy from the former. One such word, in fact, has been suggested by Nikkilä (1993: 96) to be a Germanic loanword with a suffix *-rē added in Saami:

  • SaaU guöhpiere, SaaP guohper, SaaL guober (acc. guohperav), SaaN guobir (gen./acc. guohpira ~ guohpára) , SaaI kyeppir, SaaSk kueʹpper ‘hoof’ < PSaa *kuopērē (~ *kuopēr) < Pre-PSaa *kapa(-)ra ? < Pre-PGerm *kāpa- (> PGerm *xōfa- > OEngl hōf, OHGerm huof, ONo hófr ‘hoof’). — Note that SaaS guehpere ‘hoof’ looks like a borrowing from Ume Saami due to its unexpected -hp-; the expected inherited reflex would be *guepere.

This word does not offer an exact parallel for the word *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’, however. It is quite obvious that the word for ‘hoof’ must be reconstruced as PSaa *kuopērē: only SaaL guober and SaaN guobir are gradating r-stems, and they must have secondarily developed via analogy, as non-gradating cognates occur in the Saami languages both to the southwest and to the east of Lule and North Saami. In the case of *kuompe̮r, however, there is no evidence of an earlier stem in *-rē; the word behaves everywhere as a gradating r-stem.

Besides this, the loan etymology suggested for *kuopērē is also problematic in itself. One certainly can question whether there even was a productive derivational suffix *-rA in Pre-Proto-Saami at the time when this Germanic word is assumed to have been borrowed; and even if there was, it is not clear at all what kind of semantic function it served and what types of bases it attached to. In fact, the entire material suggesting the reconstruction of the derivational suffix *-rA in Proto-Uralic is scarce and opaque. The only thing that looks clear is that such a suffix did once exist, as it is attested in two derivatives reconstructible into Proto-Uralic; one of them is denominal, the other deverbal:

  • Fin koira ‘dog’, koira-s ‘male’, Võro koir ‘male dog’, KomiJ kȯr ‘male dog’, KhVVj kar, MsK xār, kē̮r ‘male; reindeer bull’, Hung here ‘testicle’, NenT xora, SlkTa qori̮ ‘male; reindeer bull’ < PU *koj-ra*koji ‘man, male’ (> SaaSk kuõjj ‘(young) husband’, KhVVj ku ‘man, husband; male animal’, MsK xŏj, kŏj ‘male animal’).
  • Fin kumara ‘stooped, bent over’, MariNw kŏmŏr ‘brushwood, windfall, driftwood’, Komi ki̮mi̮r ‘slouching’, Hung homor-ú ‘concave’ < PU *kuma-ra ← *kuma- ‘fall or bend over’ (> MdE koma-, Komi ki̮m-, MsK xåm-, kåm-, NenF kămă-, EnT koo-, Ngan kǝmǝ-). — The appurtenance of MariNw kŏmŏr has not been previously noticed; as regards semantics, a parallel is provided by another noun derived from the Samoyed reflex of this verb: NenF kăm°xa, EnT kooxa, Ngan kǝmǝgu ‘fallen tree’, Mat kamaga ‘block of wood, driftwood’.

In addition, there are some examples of derivatives in *-rA in Finnic:

  • Fin avara ‘wide and open, spacious’ ← PU *aŋa- ‘open / take off’ (> KhIrt eŋx-, MsN āŋkʷ- ‘take off’); cf. also Fin avata : avaa- ‘open’ (verb) < PFi *avaida-, a parallel derivative of the same base.
  • Fin kamara ‘hard crust (esp. crust of the earth); pork rind’ ← PU *kama (> MariE kom ‘crust (of bread), peel (of fruit)’, NenT śaw°, SlkTa qāmi̮ ‘fish scale’).
  • Fin katkera ‘bitter’ ← PU *kačka- ‘bite (?)’ (> SaaN gáskit ‘bite’, MariE kočka- ‘eat’, KhVVj ki̮č- ‘hurt, ache; sting (of nettles)’, MsN xūs- ‘sting (of nettles)’) (Aikio 2014: 5–8).
  • Fin pisara ‘drop’ ← (post-)PU *pi(ń)ća- (> MdE piźe- ‘rain (verb)’).
  • Fin tappura ‘rough hemp or cotton fibers, waste fibers’ ← PU *tappa (> MdE tapo ‘shaggy, tangled linden bast or tow’, MariW top ‘ball, bundle, sheaf (e.g., of wool or bast)’). Note also the derived verb MdE taparda- ‘wrap, swaddle, wind’ ~ Komi tupir̮t- ‘wind, reel, coil’ (< *tapparta-), and Komi tupi̮ľ ‘ball (of yarn), coil; lump’ (with an opaque stem-final element –ľ). This is a new etymology; the background of the second-syllable u in Finnic is obscure, but otherwise the comparison is quite straightforward.
  • Fin (obsolete) viherä ‘green’ ← PU *wiša ‘green / yellow’ (> MdE ožo ‘yellow’, Komi vež ‘green, yellow’, Udm vož ‘green’); cf. also Fin vihanta ‘lush, green (of vegetation)’, a parallel derivative of the same base.

In Saami, however, I have found only a single example of this kind of derivative:

  • SaaSk tooppâr, SaaT toʹbbear ‘weather with sticky snow’ < PSaa *tope̮rē ~ *topērē ← *tope̮- (> SaaL dåhpåt, SaaN dohpat, SaaI tuuppâđ ‘stick on (skis, etc.; of sticky snow)’). There is also a derived verb with -r-: SaaSk toppred, SaaK tobbre (< PSaa *tope̮rV-), SaaI toperuđ ‘stick on (skis, etc.; of sticky snow)’ (< *topēr-uove̮-).

As far as I am aware, this example is completely unique in Saami: there appear to be no other noun stems in *-rē (or verb stems in *-rV-) where that stem-final element could be segmented as a suffix. Furthermore, the derivative has an archaic look to it, as it appears to have developed an irregularly syncopated variant already in Proto-Saami, which then served as the base for further derivatives. SaaT tobbrnânndâd ‘stick on (of sticky snow)’ (< PSaa *topre̮-n-e̮nte̮-) is a frequentative verb formed from an otherwise unattested PSaa *topre̮-ne̮- (an intrasitive transformative verb formed from a syncopated stem *topre̮-). This verb comes phonologically and semantically extremely close to another verb stem which has lacked an etymology: SaaS dabraanidh, SaaU SaaL dabrránit, SaaN darvánit, SaaI tarvaniđ ‘stick on, get stuck’ < PSaa *te̮prā-ne̮-. The irregular vowel change *o > *e̮ has occasionally taken place adjacent to labial consonants in Saami: cf. such cases as SaaN bohčit ~ bahčit ‘squeeze, wring; milk’ (< PSaa *poćē- ~ *pe̮ćē- < PU *puća-), botnit ~ batnit ‘twine, spin’ (< PSaa *ponē- ~ *pe̮nē < PU *puna-), monni ~ manni ‘egg’ (< PSaa *monē ~ *me̮nē < PU *muna), SaaK ʹppse, SaaT koʹppsed ‘go out (of fire)’ (< PSaa *kopsē- ~ *ke̮psē- < PU *kupsa-), SaaN bordit ~ bardit ‘stack up; load (a boat)’ (< PSaa *portē- ~ *pe̮rtē- < PNo *burdja- > ONo inn-byrða, Icel byrða ‘pull onboard’, Far byrða ‘burden’; a new etymology for the Saami verb).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that PSaa *tope̮-rē is an archaic formation inherited from an earlier language stage when the suffix *-rA was still productive. On the basis of Saami we can thus tentatively reconstruct post-PU *tupi- and *tupi-ra, and indeed, for the derived form a plausible cognate is found in PMari *tŭwǝr-. This stem underlies the derivatives MariE tuwǝ̑rɣem, MariW tǝ̑wǝ̑rɣem ‘curdle (of milk); clot, coagulate (of blood)’ (< PMari *tŭwǝr-g-e-) and MariE tuwǝ̑rtem-, MariW tǝ̑wǝ̑rtem ‘make (milk) curdle, make curds’ (< PMari *tŭwǝr-t-e-). Although the meanings in Saami and Mari are different, the connection is transparent.

The conclusion regarding PSaa *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’ is that it is very unlikely to have been derived with a suffix *-r or *-rē from a stem borrowed from PSlav *gǫba ‘mushroom, fungus’. The question, then, is whether we can accept a loan etymology which entails the assumption that an obscure suffix-like element without any recognizable semantic function was added to the word-stem. In fact, such an assumption does not inevitably invalidate an etymology; in inherited Uralic vocabulary one finds a few examples of the phenomenon that are well-established and difficult to dismiss. In Saami, I managed to find the the following nine examples:

  • PSaa *ćeapēttē ~ *ćeapōttē ‘neck’ (> SaaU tjiäbuote, SaaL tjiebet, SaaN čeabet, SaaSk čeäppat, SaaT čeabbad) ← *ćeapē ‘neck’ (> SaaS tjiepie, SaaL tjiehpie). — No noun suffix *-ttē is known. The stem reflects PU *ćepä ‘neck’ (> Veps seba, MdE śive ‘collar’, MariE šüj, MsN sip ‘neck’).
  • PSaa *earttiŋkV ‘ribs (meat cut)’ (> SaaS eerhtege, SaaL hiertig, SaaN erttet, SaaI eertig) ← *earttē ‘side (body part or meat cut)’ (> SaaI ertti, SaaSk jeäʹrtt, SaaT jieʹrhte). — No suffix *-(i)ŋkV is known. The stem reflects Pre-PSaa *erttä, cf. MdE iŕďes ‘rib’, MariE erδe ‘thigh’, Udm urd ‘side; rib’ (< *ertä). The correspondence between *-rtt- in Saami and *-rt- in the other branches has not been explained. The word is a well-known borrowing from Pre-Proto-Indo-Iranian *(H)érdʰo- (> Proto-Indo-Iranian *(H)árdʰa- > Sanskrit árdha- ‘side, part, half, place’, Avestan arǝδa- ‘side, half’).
  • PSaa *jievje̮mē ~ *jievjōmē ‘lichen on trees’ (> SaaN jievjun, SaaI jievjâm). — The part *jievj(e̮)- regularly reflects PU *jäwji (> KhVVj jej ~ jĕj, NenT juj°, Ngan ďiǝ ‘lichen on trees’). However, no denominal noun suffix *-(ō)mē is known (although *-mē < PU *-mA is a fully productive deverbal noun suffix that forms action nouns). Note also that in southwestern Saami the word shows an irregular first-syllable vowel: SaaS joevjeme ~ jovjeme, SaaU jåvjjamah (pl.).
  • PSaa *kāme̮k ‘shoe’ (> SaaS gaamege, SaaN gáma, SaaI kaamuv, SaaT kaamâg). — The word must have been derived with a suffix *-e̮k from the otherwise unattested stem *kāmē, which is the regular reflex of PU *kämä ‘(a kind of) shoe’ (> MdE keme, MariE kem ‘boot’, Komi ke̮m ‘bast shoe’). However, PSaa *-e̮k is not a known denominal noun suffix (although it is a highly productive deverbal noun suffix). Note that the former existence of the stem *kāmē is also implied by the parallel derivative *kām-e̮s ‘leg skin’ (> SaaS gaamese, SaaN gámas, SaaI kaamâs, SaaT kaams). The suffix *-e̮s forms denominal nouns that denote materials used in the manufacture of the referent of the base noun. The underlying meaning of *kām-e̮s ‘leg skin’ is thus “material for shoes”; traditional Saami fur boots are sewn from reindeer leg skins. As a side note, this morphological analysis contradicts Koivulehto’s (2007: 584–587) proposal that the Uralic word was borrowed from PGerm *xammō- ‘shank’: the original meaning of the former was obviously ‘(a kind of) shoe’ and not ‘leg skin’, and therefore the semantic development ‘shank’ > ‘leg skin’ > ‘shoe’ that was suggested by Koivulehto cannot be assumed. The etymology also involves other difficulties: the Uralic front vowel *ä would be an unexpected substitute for PGerm *a, and moreover, it is a priori unlikely that a word having regular cognates in as far east as Permic could have been borrowed from a language representing the Proto-Germanic level of reconstruction. This combination of semantic, phonological and chronological problems implies that the etymology must be wrong.
  • PSaa *koackēmē ‘eagle’ (> SaaL goasskem, SaaN goaskin, SaaSk kuäʹcǩǩem, SaaT kïõʹcckem). — The part *koackē- is the regular reflex of PU *kočka ‘eagle’ (> Fin kotka, Komi kuč). Regarding the suffix *-mē see *jievje̮mē ~ *jievjōmē ‘lichen on trees’ above.
  • PSaa *luompe̮l ‘small lake (through which a river runs)’ (> SaaS loebpele, SaaN luoppal, SaaSk luubbâl, SaaK luumbâl). — No suffix *-l is known, but the part *luompe̮- regularly reflects PU *le̮mpi (> Fin lampi ‘pond, small lake’, Ngan ľüŋhǝ, SlkK li̮mbi̮ ‘boggy place, quagmire’) (Aikio 2014: 86).
  • PSaa *oalōl ‘lower jaw’ (> SaaL oalol, SaaN oalul ‘lower jaw’, SaaI uálul-tähti ‘jawbone’). — No suffix *-(ō)l is known (cf. the case of *luompe̮l above), but the part *oal(ō)- goes regularly back to (post-)PU *ola- and matches MdE ulo ‘chin’. Probable further cognates include MsK ūlǝś ‘chin, lower jaw’ (< PMs *ūlǝć, with an obscure stem-final element *-ć) and Hung áll ‘chin’ (with -ll < *-lCV, thus also originally containing an obscure stem-final element). Note that SaaSk vuål-täʹhtt, SaaK vual-taaʹhht ‘cheekbone’ probably do not preserve the shorter stem without *-(ō)l: the compound is otherwise identical to the aforementioned SaaI uálul-tähti, so its modifier has probably undergone haplology (PSaa *oalōl-tāktē > *voalal-tākte > *voal-tākte).
  • PSaa *peane̮k ‘dog’ (> SaaN beana, SaaI peenuv, SaaT pienâg). — The word must have been derived with a suffix *-e̮k from the otherwise unattested stem *peanē, which is the regular reflex of PU *penä ‘dog’ (> MdE pińe). Another derivative (with a known suffix) is PU *penä-j ‘dog’ (> Fin peni, MariE pij, Komi pon : ponj-, Udm puni̮). Regarding the suffix *-e̮k see *kāme̮k ‘shoe’ above. Note, moreover, that in southwestern Saami the word appears in an irregular form: SaaS bïenje, SaaU biäŋŋa ~ biägŋa ~ biädnja (< *pieńe̮ ~ ?*pieŋe̮). Although this form seemingly lacks the suffix *-e̮k, it cannot be a direct reflex of the simplex stem *penä either because of its irregular vowels and the irregular place of articulation of the nasal; the predicted regular reflexes of PU *penä would be SaaS *bienie and SaaU *biennie ~ *biednie. The development of this form remains unexplained.
  • PSaa *pe̮ŋkōj ‘hazel grouse’ (> SaaL bakkoj, SaaN bakku, SaaSk pââgg). — The Saami word regularly reflects Pre-PSaa *püŋkäw, so it looks like an archaic consonant-stem derivative of PU *püŋV (? ~ *pi/eŋV) (> Fin pyy, MdE povo, KhVVj pĕŋk ‘hazel grouse’, Hung fogoly ‘partridge’; the last with obscure stem-final element -(o)ly). The denominal noun suffix *-kA can be reconstruced into Proto-Uralic, but its semantic function is obscure (Aikio 2022: 19). There are also some possible traces of an opaque denominal noun suffix *-w, for example SaaL guottoj ‘fallen tree’, SaaN guottu ‘tree stump’, Fin kanto ‘tree stump’, MsN xānta ‘horizontal floor beam of a storehouse’ < PU *ke̮ntaw ← *ke̮nta (> Fin kanta ‘base; heel’; note also MdE kando ‘fallen tree’ and KhVVj kant ‘pillar of a storehouse’, which could reflect either the simplex or the derived stem). Regarding *pe̮ŋkōj ‘hazel grouse’, however, it remains totally unclear why two opaque derivational suffixes would have been added to the base.

In the cases discussed above an inherited noun stem has been augmented by adding an element that looks like an opaque derivational suffix, but the process is not accompanied by any semantic change: the meaning of the derived form in Saami matches that reconstructed for the Proto-Uralic simplex stem. One could therefore ask whether the same kind of process could also have affected some loanwords. The answer is, of course, that it might; but it is quite another issue whether such cases could be reliably identified, and whether invoking such an obscure process could be methodologically justified in loanword research.

The key issue here is probability. According to my calculations there are over 300 inherited noun stems in Saami with cognates in other branches of Uralic, so the nine examples discussed above amount to less than 3% of all inherited nouns. If we had a large stratum of Slavic loans in Saami that contained, say, 100 borrowed nouns, it would then make perfect sense to expect a couple of them to contain an obscure stem-final element. But the situation is completely different when we are dealing with merely two nouns alleged to be stray borrowings from Proto-Slavic. In such a situation we also need to establish the existence of the alleged loanword stratum itself, and for this purpose unambiguous and impeccable etymologies are needed as evidence. If we permit ad-hoc postulation of unknown “suffixes” to account for non-matching stem-final material, the possibility of finding chance correspondences increases, which in turn weakens the hypothesis of the very existence of a Proto-Slavic loanword stratum in Proto-Saami. In this regard the Slavic loan etymology of PSaa *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’ differs crucially from the Uralic etymology of, e.g., PSaa *peane̮k ‘dog’: we already know that Saami has inherited several hundred words form Proto-Uralic, and moreover we can reconstruct the noun *penä(-j) ‘dog’ on the basis of Finnic, Mordvin, Mari and Permic forms, completely regardless of the origin of PSaa *peane̮k ‘dog’. Therefore, there is a quite different set of facts that leads us to conclude that PSaa *peane̮k consists of an inherited stem *pean(ē)- and an opaque suffix *-e̮k.

To conclude this analysis of PSaa *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’, the etymology deriving it from Proto-Slavic *gǫba turns out to be quite weak because it fails to explain the stem-final consonant *r. This does not completely disprove the hypothesis, as there are some well-established parallels for the addition of an obscure stem-final element on Saami nouns, but the rarity of such processes is a significant weakness in the etymology. Moreover, even if the hypothesis of a link between the Saami and Slavic words were correct after all, there would still not be compelling reasons to interpret the word as a borrowing from Proto-Slavic: the word could also have been adopted from Proto-Baltic or Proto-Balto-Slavic into Pre-Proto-Saami. Therefore, the etymology proposed for PSaa *kuompe̮r does not offer support for direct contacts between Proto-Slavic and Proto-Saami.


In this study the two Proto-Slavic etymologies that have been proposed for Saami words were critically reviewed. The word *multtē ‘soap’ turned out to have an alternative and far more plausible Proto-Norse loan etymology, and the Slavic loan etymology of *kuompe̮r ‘mushroom’ turned out to be weak because it does account for the stem-final consonant *r. Therefore, it is very proable that the striking matches of these words with PSlav *mỳdlo ‘soap’ and *gǫba ‘mushroom, fungus’ are examples of the phenomenon of ‘chance correspondence’: even though the phonological and semantic match beween these forms can be described as ‘regular’ by criteria of historical linguistics, it nevertheless in all likelihood stems from pure coincidence.

There is an important methodological lesson in this. Although historical linguists are well aware of how common chance similarities are across languages, the possibility of finding seemingly regular chance correspondences is largely not taken into account. The latter are, of course, much rarer than the former, but apparently not as rare as is generally thought. Every once in a while a professional historical linguist will encounter an etymology which, at face value, looks phonologically and semantically impeccable, although other criteria may strongly suggest or even prove that it is wrong. This means that such etymologies occasionally also occur when there are no criteria to prove them wrong. Because of this, no far-reaching conclusions should be drawn or broad generalizations made on the basis of just a couple of etymologies, no matter how convincing they seem.

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