sarasvatI (etymology)

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Jun 1 13:53:46 UTC 1998

On Fri, 29 May 1998, Dominique.Thillaud wrote:

>         I would give here some remarks about the name of the Goddess and of
> the river. My opinion is that there was an early confusion between two
> Eurindian roots, *ser- and *sel-, both giving Skr. *sar-.
Mayrhofer has a similar remark in his new etym. Dict.(EWA II p. 708):
he wants to separate ved. sar 'to run, start running, flow (of
rivers)' < IE *sal,  from saras 'stagnant pool' < IE *se'les, thus from a
different root. Two different IE vowesl here (though that would not matter
for SS Misra, The Aryan Problem, for whom IE *a >  Greek e,o,a...)

As you say the two roots become, as far as sounds are concernd, one in

cf. also B.Reusch's quotes form the (older) Pokorny's IE Dict.

NB: some (like P. Thieme) also want to see the sal- "salt" etc, root in
India: in Vedic salila, an epithet of the sea "salty?"  (see Mayerhofer
EWA II 712) and also, with his penchant for (far-fetched) etymologies
<guru-ninda, I'm afraid>, or as Mayrhofer often says of the same
etymologies, 'geistreich', well...).

He adds :Marut as storm gods < *mar-vat "blowing from the ocean" and in
sarit.  Indo-Ir *sal 'salt' is seen in Uralic (Ob-Ugrian) sala 'salt)
(what about maru 'desert'??).

>         The confusion between the two roots gave an unexpected importance
> to this river name and the river became definitively linked to the Goddess.
> I believe that many rivers were named "sarasvatI", early as a common name,
> later to honour the Goddess and perhaps to perform some rituals.

Nice point. If we compare the, not etym. of course, the quite similar
Areduuii Suuraa Anaahitaa of the Avesta (Yast 5), there is, as far as I
remember no reference to speech/poetry.

The connection of Vaac and rivers, samudra (by implication, Sarasvatii)
is as old as RV 10.125.

> Hence, any
> archeological or geographical conclusion about such river is probably
> fruitless.

I am not so sure. After all, we know where Avestan Haraxuuaitii
(Arachosia)  is and always has been: SW Afghanistan.  In The Rgveda we
have only one or two Sarasvatis, barring the mythological ramifications
(BEI 2,1984). The rest is LATER. Application of an existing, in part
mythological river name to other areas ....

Michael Witzel                       witzel at
phone: 1- 617 - 495 3295 (voice & messages), 496 8570, fax 617 - 496 8571
my direct line (also for messages) :  617- 496 2990

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