The Proto-Indo-European Word for "Sea/Ocean"
Shrikant G. Talageri
It has been a matter of compulsion and faith in the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language, and in Rigvedic Studies, to hold that there is no common word for "sea/ocean" in Proto-Indo-European, and no word for "sea/ocean" in the Rigveda.
The reason is obvious: in order to maintain that the Proto-Indo-Europeans originated in the landlocked Steppes, and the branch that "migrated into India", the Indo-Aryans, also passed through the equally landlocked eastern Steppes and Central Asia before landing into the landlocked northern Saptasindhu area, where they composed the Rigveda, it is necessary for them to show that the Rigveda does not know the sea or ocean.
However, the Rigveda does know the ocean: it refers more than a hundred times (133 times as per certain counts) to samudra, which, both in its etymology and the sense, and the definite contexts, in which it is used in the Rigveda, can mean nothing but the ocean. And from the very earliest understanding of the term in traditional Indian texts and commentaries, and in etymological texts, grammars and dictionaries, it has meant nothing but the ocean. It is a measure of the desperation of the supporters of the AIT that this has been considered a matter of doubt or dispute at all. The question has been well settled by way of detailed articles by many scholars and writers, so we will not deal with that issue here.
In any case, if there is a word for the sea/ocean in the Rigveda, it could always be a word which developed individually later after the Indo-Aryans "migrated" into India―after all, even if the precise geographical horizon of the Rigveda appeared to be within a landlocked area, it was well stocked with navigable rivers which led to the ocean, and well connected with other traversable neighboring areas which bordered on the ocean. It does not answer the main question of whether or not the original Proto-Indo-Europeans lived in a land-locked area (like the Steppes) with no likelihood of having a common word for the ocean.
So the single question we will deal with here is: is there, or is there not, a common Proto-Indo-European word for the sea/ocean? It must be noted that what is required is basically a common word for a body of non-flowing water, be it technically a sea, swamp or a lake (but not a river), but which can be shown, by comparison of the word in different branches, to mean specifically "sea".
According to the scholars, there is no such common word. Mallory and Adams deal with this in some length: "The word for 'sea', *móri, is firmly attested in Celtic (e.g. OIr muir 'sea'), Italic (e.g. Lat. mare), Germanic (e.g. NE mere), Baltic (e.g. Lith. mãre 'sea') and Slavic (e.g. OCS morje 'sea'), which will leave it a northwestern word were it not for a possible cognate in Ossetic (mal 'deep-standing water') an East Iranian language of the Caucasus, which would provide an Asian cognate. Hit. marmar(r)a - 'swamp' may be a reduplicated version [….] most Indo-European languages have innovated or borrowed terms to indicate the sea, e.g. Germanic, Greek, Indic, and so the balance of opinion suggests that the word originally referred to an 'inland sea' or 'lake' and was later extended to mean 'salt water sea' [….] excepting for a moment Germanic it is noteworthy that those Indo-European groups with maritime locations (Italic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic) have the meaning 'sea', while those with an inland location (Ossetic and Hittite) have the meaning 'lake'. Either meaning could have developed from the other to reflect the local environment. It is languages like English whose speakers live in a maritime environment but use the inherited word *móri for inland waters that tip the balance in favour of an original non-maritime meaning" (MALLORY-ADAMS 2006:127).
Later, he picks up the theme again, more directly: "consensus is probably still in support of projecting an original meaning of 'inland body of water' that was changed to 'salt water sea' in some language groups. e.g Celtic, Italic and Slavic. In our earliest attested languages we either find as a potential cognate in Hit. marmar(r)a which refers to a body of shallow water, or in the case of the Greeks and Indo-Aryans, they borrowed words for 'sea' from non-Indo-European sources which has suggested that the Proto-Indo-Europeans did not have a word for 'sea'" (MALLORY-ADAMS 2006:130).
The first argument given by Mallory-Adams is that while maritime branches (i.e. the Indo-European branches historically in direct contact with the sea) generally have the meaning "sea" and inland branches (with no direct coastlines) have the meaning "inland body of water=lake/marsh", thereby leaving it open as to what was the original meaning, it is English which tips the balance: it is definitely a maritime language, but the word in English (moor, marsh) refers to an inland body of water.
However, this is not strictly correct. The fact is that the Germanic languages have another very distinct word for "sea": Proto-Germanic *saiwa- (English sea). If the Proto-Indo-European *móri (English moor) also originally meant "sea", it is perfectly feasible that any one of the two words would be retained for "sea", and the other would be transferred to "inland body of water=lake/marsh". English just happened to retain the meaning of "sea" and transfer the meaning of "moor".
This is proved by the comparison of two other prominent Germanic languages:
German: see = "lake", meer = "sea".
Dutch: zee = "sea", meer = "lake".
So the English word does not necessarily "tip the balance in favour of an original non-maritime meaning".
The second argument is more important and should be understood. Mallory-Adams tells us that of the three "earliest attested languages we either find an a potential cognate in Hit. marmar(r)a which refers to a body of shallow water, or in the case of the Greeks and Indo-Aryans, they borrowed words for 'sea' from non-Indo-European sources which has suggested that the Proto-Indo-Europeans did not have a word for 'sea'".
The whole argument rests on the belief that the Indo-Aryans and Greeks did not retain the original word *móri, and therefore had to borrow words for "sea" from "non-Indo-European sources". Technically this is incorrect because, in the case of Indo-Aryan at least, the word samudra―though not an inherited word―is an Indo-Aryan word and is not borrowed from any "non-Indo-European source".
The point is whether it is indeed correct that Indo-Aryan did not retain the original word *móri.
The surprising thing is that the Indologists in their discussions ignore the fact that there is indeed an Indo-Aryan word for "sea" derived from the original word *móri: it is the word mīra (pronounced, incidentally, much like the German word meer).
It is given in Pāṇini's Uṇādi-Sūtras, which are a supplement to the Aṣṭādhyāyī and contains words that the Paninian rules cannot derive. Elsewhere I have pointed out, in my article "The Elephant and the Proto-Indo-European Homeland", that ibha, which is an old word not found in post-Rigvedic texts until it was revived later, and so old a word that it has already undergone Prakritization in pre-Rigvedic times itself from the original form ṛbha to ibha (like Kṛṣṇa becomes Kisna), is given in the Uṇādi-Sūtra (iii, 147) as hastī "elephant".
In the case of mīra:
1. Pāṇini gives the meaning of mīra as samudra (Uṇādi-Sutra ii, 28).
2. This word, mīra, is not borrowed from any "non-Indo-European source". Indeed it is an old word which has been replaced in the Rigveda by the much more popular new word samudra.
3. The word cannot have been borrowed from any other Indo-European language: the word is, as Mallory-Adams note, lost in Greek (which is the only other ancient Indo-European language from which the later Classical Sanskrit borrowed some words like kendra, suraṅga, etc.).
We do find the rare case where the Rigvedic language has replaced an original and ubiquitous PIE word with a unique new formation which became so popular, and so completely replaced the original Indo-European word in a pre-Rigvedic period itself, that there is no trace left of the original word. This has happened even in the case of so important a term as the name of a part of the body: the ear. We find cognate forms of the reconstructed word for "ear" in all the five European branches (Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic) and in the four Last branches (Albanian, Greek, Armenian, Iranian): the two earliest branches Hittite and Tocharian do not seem to have the word. The Rigvedic language uses a different word karṇa. [Of course, there we can have the alternate scenario that the reconstructed PIE word may not be the original word, and that the common "PIE" word was developed in Afghanistan and beyond among the proto-forms of the 5 European and 4 Last branches, from which process the eastern Indo-Aryan and the already departed Hittite and Tocharian were excepted. This would be strengthened by the fact that the word karṇa is found once in the Avesta, (Srosh Yasht 2) as karәna, a word already old and otherwise outdated, having been replaced by the new "common" word ushi].
The evidence of Hittite does not have any value because the Hittites are on record as having entered their historical habitats from the north, and through landlocked areas, so the fact that they use the word for "inland body of water=lake/marsh" does not prove anything about the original meaning of the word.
In this case, we are lucky, in view of the AIT-OIT debate, that the Uṇādi-Sūtras have left us clear evidence of the older word mīra. As the pre-Rigvedic word mīra means "sea", it is clear that the Rigvedic people, whose geographical horizon lies in a landlocked area, cannot have come from the north through various other landlocked areas, but were in fact, from pre-Rigvedic times, part of a larger and local geographical culture which stretched to the sea through the course of the local rivers as well as through other well-connected traversable neighboring areas which bordered on the ocean.
This proves both, the original meaning of the reconstructed word as "sea", as well as the location of the original Homeland where the word had this meaning.
CHINTAMANI 1992: The Uṇādi-Sūtras with the vṛtti of Svetavanavāsin. ed. Chintamani, T.R. Navrang, New Delhi, 1992.
MALLORY-ADAMS 2006: The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Mallory J.P. and Adams D.Q. Oxford University Press, 2006.