The most famous hero of the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata is Arjuna. His Sanskrit name means “white”/”clear” and “silver”. A direct cognate exists in the Latin Argentum, meaning “silver, money, silver plate, white metal”.
Curious about how some other nations call silver, I made a simple experiment with Google translate. This is what I discovered:
Silver in Welsh
In Welsh (with similar variations in most of the Gaulic languages) the word for silver is Arian. Here is a screenshot from Google translate:
Silver in Turkic languages
In Turkic languages of Kazakhstan (illustrated below), Kyrgistan and Uzbekistan the word is Kumis or Kumush.
This word made me think of a famous ancient nomadic tribe of Cumans, who originated in the steppes of this region, from where they reached Byzantium, Balkans, and Hungary. Could their name mean “silvery” or “arian” in their own language? Wikipedia states that this etymology is unknown.
“However, in Turkic languages qu, qun, qūn, quman or qoman means “pale”, “pale-yellow”, or “yellowish-grey”.”
and then it continues:
…In East Slavic languages and Polish, they are known as the Polovtsy, derived from the Slavic root *polvъ “pale; light yellow; blonde”… In Germanic languages, the Cumans were called Folban, Vallani or Valwe – all derivations of old Germanic words for “pale”
Silver in Mongolian
But moving on, next I discovered that in the Mongolian language the silver is called, well… “mongo”
Could Mongolians be using the same logic? Hard to say, as the etymology I found on Wiktionary states “Native name, usually attributed to монг (mong, “brave”)”
Silver in Germanic languages
In the languages of Scandinavia, and Germanic languages including English, the word for “silver” has the root “silv” or “solv”. Norwegian example below:
Silver in Slavic languages
This made me think of the ethnonym Slav, Sloven, over whom there many debates to this date. But in all Slavic languages, the word for silver is srebro, or a variation thereof. The root sreb, sirb, srib sounds similar to the ethnonym Serb, a generic word for all Slavs in the ancient Slavic chronicles. Here are three examples in Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian:
Even the name of Sarmatians, could perhaps be related to Old Turkic word sirma or srma, meaning “silver” and preserved in the name of the silver embroidery on the traditional costumes of both Balkans and Turkey.
Silver in Telugu
And finally, in Telugu, a Dravidian language of India that has to some extent been influenced by the Indo-Aryan languages of the north, the word for silver is Vendi.
Is it again a coincidence that Wends and Veneti are the Germanic names for west Slavs? Even in Germanic languages, the meaning of this word is “white” and the same IE root lies in the English word “winter”
What I found interesting about this little experiment is that it seems that the words for “white” and “silver” can relate to the ethnonyms of different tribes. These tribes, namely Turks, Mongols, and Slavs, who cover the large territory between Europe and Northern India, could indeed be some of the best candidates for the Scythians and Arians of the ancient texts.
But why white?
The color white was quite a popular toponym in the ancient world – we see it from Iran to Ireland, and from Caucasian Albania to Alba, the ancient name of England and Ireland. (with the variation of Lebanon, also meaning white)
We do know that for Scythians the color white was the color of the western direction. Slavs followed this same rule when naming Belorussia (white-western Russia). But white was also the color of the ruling class, and that is why one of the favorite Slavic toponyms is Belgrade (white city) – also an ancient name of both Kyiv and Moscow, amongst other cities. Even the Latin name of Vienna was Vindobona – the white city, while Vindolanda is a famous Roman castrum of England.
There are many different possibilities why these tribes would bear a name meaning “silver, white”.
- It could be related simply to the skin color which is indeed pale, compared to that of the West and South. Take for example the Kumans (or modern-day Turks and Slavs from the steppes)
- It could relate to the tribes that migrated westwards, as it is the case with Slavs, Turks, and Mongols
- It could somehow relate to the power, the ruling class, as witnessed by the names of the capitals, or the word “noble” which is another Sanskrit translation of the word Arjun
- It could be related to the production of silver, probably discovered in the 4th millennium BC in Asia Minor. Although the silver gained the real value much later, with the Arian migrations.
It is really hard to say what is the truth, but all in all, this was an interesting exercise. Feel free to share your thoughts.