More on "mother" (focus on India)

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A little over a year ago, I wrote about "The concept of 'mother' in linguistics " (6/25/14).  In that post, we looked at the use of the notion of "mother" for language studies in Ugaritic, Moabite, South Arabian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Chinese.

Although I had a nagging recollection to the contrary, I stated:  "So far as I am aware, the notion of 'mother' does not have a similar function in Sanskrit phonology."  Although I wrote that, it bothered me ever since, inasmuch as I did remember from my Sanskrit studies of nearly half a century ago that "mother" did figure in Indian theories of language, but I just couldn't remember exactly what it was.

Consequently, I was very happy when Ben Buckner wrote to tell me that there is something in Indian traditional language studies that relates to the metaphorical use of "mother".

First, the Sanskrit term for a vowel marking diacritic is actually mātrā, suspiciously similar to the word for mother mātṛ. This could of course be coincidental, but the diminutive mātka is also used to denote the sound of a syllable, and in Tantrism particularly, this is associated with a set of "mother goddesses" ("matrikas" in modern Hindi I think), each of whom is matched with a letter. I've been pondering whether the presumptive Aramaic reflex of mater lectionis might have been calqued into a Prakrit when the diacritic system originated (either in Brahmi or Kharosthi), and then reanalyzed as the similar mātrā, which essentially means a measure or metrical beat. It's possible the Chinese use comes out of this tradition, since Chinese Buddhists spent quite a lot of effort studying Sanskrit and the associated Indian scripts.


Tantrism — esoteric Indian religious tradition

Prakrit — vernacular parallel to classical Sanskrit

Brahmi and Kharosthi — the two oldest Indian scripts

I believe that these connections merit further research, especially in light of the work of Marija Gimbutas and her student, Miriam Robbins Dexter, on feminine aspects of the earliest writing in Europe.


  1. beslayed said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    Sanskrit mātrā is from the (well-attested) root mā- "to measure", so I think that's just coincidence.

    Mātṛka as connected to written characters and sounds ( see ) is interesting though.

  2. Piyush said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

    I am inclined to agree with beslayed that this is just a co-incidence. "mātrā" is a common word even in Hindi and means "quantity". It is easy to see why vowel markings would be thought of as "quantities" of the vowels.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

    From Seishi Karashima:

    I am sure that "字母" is a translation of mātṛkā, meaning both "mother" and "character".

  4. Malcolm Keating said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 2:45 am

    Well, the concept of vāk or vāc ("speech") in Sanskrit is, from as early as the Ṛg Veda connected with divine femininity and motherhood, as the divine Vāk is Prajāpati's consort. Prajāpati is the masculine energy generating reality. Identified with Sarasvatī, the ultimate mother, Vāk is the origin of all mantra-s.

    Of course, this isn't an example of a word for mother being used in a linguistic capacity, but it does suggest a close alliance between the concepts. For more, see Larson, Gerald. (1974). "The Sources for Śakti in Abhinavagupta's Kāśmīr Śaivism: a Linguistic and Aesthetic Category." Philosophy East and West 24/1: 41–56.

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