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In the yoga context, it is common for gurus to give multiple origins of a specific word in order to 'dig' a deep meaning.

For example, let us take the word मन्त्र.

Here is a first explanation from Wikipedia: The Sanskrit word mantra- (m.; also n. mantram) consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra, designating tools or instruments, hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought".

I found an alternate explanation at this page:

Traditional Etymology.

One folk etymology of mantra is it is that which saves (trā- "to save, rescue") the one "who, in thought, formulates it and meditates upon it" (man-). [Gonda : 248]

My question is NOT about this specific word but rather whether it's possible, in linguistics, for a word to have multiple origins each being valid?

I tend to think only one must be right or, at least, one has to be better and more accurate than the others.

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    I haven't learnt Sanskrit myself, but the impression I have is that Vedic Sanskrit is not well-understood. Many words have entirely different meanings in Vedic and Classical Sanskrit. I'd say that hypotheses in etymology can't be a 100% right. There could be multiple hypotheses for any given word, but at most, only one of them could be correct. If you want to explore this aspect of language further, I think you'd be more productive with newer, better-documented languages. – prash Oct 30 '14 at 20:49
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    There are also likely to have been homophones... – curiousdannii Oct 30 '14 at 21:44
  • ...or almost homophones, written by a mistake and then widely adopted. – bytebuster Oct 31 '14 at 0:07
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Sanskrit is a language with a great morphological variety, and one of the (declared or undeclared) aims of the linguists of "ancient times" from Pāṇini onwards was to safeguard or even further enrichen this variety. Although a postulate of the native Sanskrit grammarians was to derive in an unambiguous way each and every word from a verbal root, there are a great many instances where simply from a morphological point of view (disregarding for a second the semantic part) two or more different etymologies of one word are possible.

Now as to the specific content of your question, first of all, the word you most likely refer to is mantra (only short vowels), the standard etymology if which is as you stated the verbal root man + the suffix -tra which in general designates the tool of the action of the verbal root (like netra - "tool of leading" or "eye") but also the place, where it happens (like in kṣetra - "field" or "place of reign") and other minor connotations.

Now, for the word in question the first of the possibilities seems more justified, by virtue of numerous other examples of the same kind of derivation. As Gonda in your quote points out, the other one is more of a folk etymology, probably leaning on the word gotra - "shelter for cows", where -trā is a verbal root with the meaning the OP indicated. But while gotra is a noun compound, man is not a noun.

Interestingly, AFAIK the verbal root + -tra type of nouns is generally neuter, while mantra is generally masculine. This may indicate, that even the more probable of the two etymologies is not wholesale correct.

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  • Thank you zwiebel. I have corrected the spelling of the Sanskrit example word. – allesklar Nov 1 '14 at 14:57
  • A better example would have been the word: गुरु. Some break it down as 'gu' meaning darkness and 'ru' meaning remover. But 'guru' also means heavy and some say it's because the guru is heavy in knowledge. Again, I think, only one explanation can be true. – allesklar Nov 1 '14 at 15:00
  • @allesklar I'm truly puzzled why you have accepted this answer when you specify this in your question: "My question is NOT about this specific word but rather whether it's possible, in linguistics, for a word to have multiple origins each being valid?" What this answer does is to address the origin of this specific word, without addressing what you claim to be your real question. – Sverre Nov 2 '14 at 15:08
  • @Sverre, none of the answers give a clear 'no', 'yes', or 'yes but' reply. This one implied that it's yes in theory but in practice, things can be fuzzy or approximate. That was good enough. The 'yes in theory' answers the core of my question. He did add the bit about mantra. – allesklar Nov 3 '14 at 7:14
  • @allesklar Ok, but the answer is wrong. The answer is "no". How would it even be logically possible for a single word to have two origins? – Sverre Nov 3 '14 at 10:26
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It is correct that English “admiral” – and the cognate words in other European languages – is a “contamination” (as we say in historical linguistics) of Latin admiratus “admired”, and amiralis (=Arabic ʼamīr + Latin suffix -alis). In this sense it does in fact have two etymologies merging in the same word. However, ʼamīr al-baḥr “prince of the sea” is modern Arabic, not classical Arabic. Thus the derivation of “admiral” from ʼamīr al-baḥr is a (modern) folk etymology.

PS. There is a very detailed entry on "admiral" in the OED, if you have access to it.

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  • I stand corrected! – Colin Fine Nov 2 '14 at 22:04
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Here's a fun example from 'ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese' by Axel Schuessler.

sè 色, Old Chinese *srək English: color / look / appearance / sex

Etymology 1: Sino-Tibetan: Lushai saar 'prismatic colors', 'healthy looking, rosy, ruddy'. The Lushai and Chinese words both refer also specifically to the healthy attractive color of the face. The OC word derives therefore from an earlier *sər-k.

Etymology 2: The twist towards 'good looks / charms of women' > 'sex' may be due to an Austro-Asiatic substrate, note Khmer /sreek/ 'thirst or lust after' < /reek/ 'enjoy oneself'.

If Schuessler is correct, which I am in no position to judge, then an existing word gained additional meanings under the influence of a similar sounding word in a substrate language.

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This arguably happens in cases where what are historically homonyms come to be perceived as a single lexeme. Consider English ear (body part) and ear (part of a plant, e.g. of corn). Many or most speakers think of these as being the same word, and assume that the "plant part" meaning is a metaphorical extension of the "body part" meaning. In fact they are historically two unrelated words with different etymologies. So you could argue that for many English speakers, ear is a word with two origins. Of course, such cases are rare.

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There are instances where a word has been altered by folk-etymology, or by analogy with another word. For example, the English word admiral is ultimately a borrowing from Arabic amir al-bahr, but the 'd' is thought to have appeared by confusion with admirable.

In that particular case one could say that the word has two sources. But such examples are the exception, not the rule.

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maybe the following scenario:

there are two unrelated languages, two words in both languages happen to have a similar pronounciation and similar meaning. now, those two words merge into one, while doing so, the fused new word shares a part of the semantic meanings of the one and other language. Since their meanings overlapped already by accident before it got fused, it is not possible afterwards to reconstruct its two origins.

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    That is certainly conceivable. But unless you can show an example where it has happened, it is just an imagined idea, and not an answer to the question. – Colin Fine Nov 2 '14 at 22:09
  • it is, but it happened, what does this tell you about the universe you live in? – meireikei Nov 2 '14 at 22:11
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    I don't understand your comment in reply to me. – Colin Fine Nov 2 '14 at 22:12
  • and i do not understand quantuum mechanics, that s why we are prisoned in the simple part of stackexchange. – meireikei Nov 2 '14 at 22:14
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Bichlmeyer suggest that this be the case, in context of hydronymy. It's good to have that on record for once, so I should quote it.

Translated freely: The past assumption of a single, unique etymology is not tennable anymore. Much rather, the situation optains for manifold hydronyms, rarer for place-names, that one can show different etymologies and must do so, which may be classifiable based of language-internal and -external factors.[1]

This is from the introduction to an investigation which concludes with three different hypotheses. The expressed sentiment is that hypothesis is sometimes as far as you get, and that the drive to go further out on a limb, because rigour would require a unique solution, is actually toxic in practice.


Discussion: It does not generalize easily for a basic answer to your question because that is actually a wicked problem.

First of all, what is a word? Different interpretations exist, and every definition might beget different etymologies for the word.

The details hardly don't matter here. It should suffice to have an authoritative opinion on record, which contrasts sharply with the neo-grammarian school (end of the 19th century).

For simplicities sake it can be argued that if words may be polysemous and homophone, the comparative method will be eventually unable to identify convergence, divergence and coincident uniquely. Instead of a hierarchical tree-model, one might have to imagine a hyper-linked web. *gasp* welcome to the 21st century.


[1] Harald Bichlmeier, Zur Etymologie der Sippe des Namens der Ruhr, pg. 154:

Die früher – und teils auch noch heute – übliche Präsentation einer ein-zigen, man könnte sagen: allein glückselig machenden Etymologie erweist sich als ein nicht mehr haltbares Konzept: Vielmehr ergibt sich v.a. für zahlreiche Gewässer-, seltener auch für Ortsnamen, die Situation, dass man mehrere Etymologien aufzeigen kann und muss, die sich dann aufgrund teils inner-sprachlicher, teils auch außersprachlicher Faktoren allenfalls als mehr oder weniger wahrscheinlich kategorisieren lassen.

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„We can find a lot of examples for merging of words, of every type and extent; and the deeper we get into the life of languages, the more significant we will see the role of this phenomenon in language development.” (Hugo Schuchardt,1889)

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    Welcome to Linguistics! This post would benefit from adding further details. Being a one-line post, it may attract downvotes and criticism. Please edit it to add further relevant information — preferably with references to credible sources. – bytebuster Mar 15 '20 at 9:46

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