2023, Volume 20, Issue 3

Back to the Table of Contents

Vladimir V. Napolskikh
1 Ural Federal University
Ekaterinburg, Russia
2 Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration
under the President of the Russian Federation
Moscow, Russia

Alexander V. Savelyev
1 Ural Federal University
Ekaterinburg, Russia
2 Institute of Linguistics of the RAS
3 National Research University Higher School of Economics
Moscow, Russia

Mari, Merya, Muroma — History of the Ethnonyms and Reconstruction of the Substrate Toponymy Languages

Voprosy onomastiki, 2023, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp. 9–30 (in Russian)
DOI: 10.15826/vopr_onom.2023.20.3.029

Received on 3 September 2023
Accepted on 15 September 2023

Abstract: The old hypothesis on the relatedness of Merya languages (today we can speak about a group of languages or dialects reconstructed on the basis of substrate toponymy of Central Russia: Merya of Rostov, Merya of Kostroma, and Merya of Murom also known as “Lower Klyazma” Merya) with the Mari (Cheremis) language has been reliably proven in the works of A. K. Matveyev, O. V. Smirnov and others. The authors contribute to the ongoing discussion in this area and argue that the new reconstruction of Proto-Mari vocalism based on the history of Mari-Turkic contacts undoubtedly supports this hypothesis. The article suggests a version of the Stammbaum of Finno-Permian languages, including the Mari-Merya group and some other extinct Finno-Permian languages, reconstructed on the basis of substrate toponymic data. However, since the results of the analysis of substrate toponymy are naturally debatable to a certain extent, the authors propose to turn to the analysis of ethnonymy. The long-noted (by M. A. Castrén) similarity of the ethnonyms Mari, Merya, and Muroma is considered, suggesting them to be self-names of the respective ethnic groups. The reconstruction of the Mari historical vocalism (as well as features of the vocalism of the Merya and Muromian languages that can be extracted from toponymic materials) delivers the proto-forms Mari *märə, Merya *märə, Muromian *mürə, going back to the proto-form *märə. The latter is proposed to regard (as it is now common in the Finno-Ugric studies) as some reflex of Aryan *marya- ‘young man, warrior, member of youth war community’ (the authors are going to devote a special article to the problem of the Aryan source of this ethnonym). The reconstruction of the common Mari–Meryan–Muromian auto-ethnonym *märə is not only a strong argument for the relatedness of these languages, but also indicates to close relations between the respective ethnic groups and their common origin.

Keywords: substrate toponymy; ethnonymy; Merya language; Mari (Cheremis) language; Merya; Mari; Muroma; Finno-Permian languages


The grant of Russian Science Foundation No. 23-18-00439 Onomasticon and Linguocultural History of the European Russia (https://rscf.ru/project/23-18-00439/) is gratefully acknowledged.


Ahlqvist, A. (1997). Merianskaia problema na fone mnogosloinosti toponimii [The Merya Problem Against the Background of Multi-layered Toponymy]. Voprosy jazykoznanija, 6, 22–36.

Ahlqvist, A. (2000). Meriane, ne meriane... (I) [Merya, non-Merya. 1]. Voprosy jazykoznanija, 2, 15–34.

Bereczki, G. (2013). Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Tscheremissischen (Mari). Der einheimische Wortschatz. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag.

Castrén, M. A. (1856). Nordische Reisen und Forschungen (Vol. 2). St Petersburg: Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Culver, C. (2022). Iranian Evidence for the Reintroduction of *ä to the Pre-Proto-Mari Vowel System (Presentation given at Congressus XIII Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum, 23 August 2022). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/85515362/Iranian_evidence_for_the_reintroductio... (accessed on 21 August 2023).

Fedotov, M. R. (1990). Chuvashsko-mariiskie iazykovye vzaimosviazi [Chuvash-Mari Language Relations]. Saransk: Saratov University Press.

Holopainen, S. (2019). Indo-Iranian Borrowings in Uralic: Critical Overview of Sound Substitutions and Distribution Criterion (Doctoral dissertation). Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

Joki, A. J. (1973). Uralier und Indogermanen. Helsinki: Suomalais-ugrilainen Seura.

Luobbal Sámmol Sámmol, Ánte (Aikio, A.). (2022). Proto-Uralic. In M. Bakró-Nagy, J. Laakso, & E. Skribnik (Eds.), The Oxford Guide to the Uralic Languages (pp. 3–27). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Matveyev, A. K. (2001a). Merianskaia problema i lingvisticheskoi kartografirovanie [The Merya Problem and Linguistic Mapping]. Voprosy jazykoznanija, 5, 32–59.

Matveyev, A. K. (2001b, 2004, 2007a, 2015a). Substratnaia toponimiia Russkogo Severa [Substrate Toponymy of the Russian North] (Vols. 1–4). Ekaterinburg: Ural University Press.

Matveyev, A. K. (2007b). K probleme klassifikatsii iazykov substratnoi toponimii Russkogo Severa [On the Problem of Classification of Languages of Substrate Toponymy of the Russian North]. Voprosy onomastiki, 3, 14–27.

Matveyev, A. K. (2015b). Meria i merianskii iazyk [Merya and the Meryan Language]. In T. V. Matveyeva (Ed.), Ne prosto prozhitaia zhizn’. Biografiia A. K. Matveeva v dokumentakh i vospominaniiakh [A Life Full of Hardships: A. K. Matveyev’s Biography in Documents and Memoirs] (pp. 157–169). Ekaterinburg: Ural University Press.

Munkácsi, B. (1901). Árja és kaukázusi elemek a finn-magyar nyelvekben (Vol. 1). Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia.

Napolskikh, V. V. (2016). Proryv v issledovanii merianskoi problem [Breakthrough in the Research of the Merya Problem]. Voprosy onomastiki, 2(13), 177–189. https://doi.org/10.15826/vopr_onom.2016.13.2.024

Napolskikh, V. V. (2018). Etnolingvisticheskaia situatsiia v lesnoi zone Vostochnoi Evropy v pervye veka nashei ery i dannye “Getiki” Iordana [Ethno-Linguistic Situation in the Forest Zone of Eastern Europe in the First Centuries AD and the Data of Jordanes’ Getica]. Voprosy onomastiki, 1(15), 7–29. https://doi.org/10.15826/vopr_onom.2018.15.1.001

Ravila, P. (1940). Besprechung von [Vasmer, 1935]. Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen, 26(1), Anzeiger, 19–26.

Saarikivi, J. (2022). The Divergence of Proto-Uralic and its Offspring. A Descendent Reconstruction. In M. Bakró-Nagy et al. (Eds.), The Oxford Guide to the Uralic languages (pp. 28–58). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savelyev, A. (2022). Mari Historical Phonology and the Areal Factor in Linguistic Reconstruction (Presentation given at the Nostratic Seminar, 24 November 2022, Moscow). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/92083940/Mari_historical_phonology_and_the_area... (accessed on 19 August 2023).

Savelyev, A. (2023). On the Fate of Proto-Uralic Medial Consonants in Mari (Presentation given at the 18th Sergei Starostin Memorial Conference on Comparative-Historical Linguistics, 23 March 2023). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/99234367/On_the_fate_of_Proto_Uralic_medial_con... (accessed on 19 August 2023).

Smirnov, O. V. (2015). “Mariiskaia” gipoteza v issledovanii toponimii Oki i Unzhi i zapadnye granitsy drevnemariiskoi toponimii [The “Mari” Hypothesis in the Study of the Toponymy of the Oka and Unzha Rivers and the Western Borders of the Old Mari Toponymic Area]. Voprosy onomastiki, 2(19), 7–61.

Tkachenko, O. B. (2007). Issledovaniia po merianskomu iazyku [Studies in the Meryan Language]. Kostroma: Infopress.

Vasmer, M. (1935). Beiträge zur historische Völkerkunde Osteuropas. III. Merja und Tscheremissen. Sitzungsberichte der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 19, 507–594.

Vasmer, M. (1986). Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo iazyka [Etymological Dictionary of Russian Language] (Vols. 1–4). 2nd ed. Moscow: Progress.

Yakovleva, V. (1999). K probleme meshchery [On the Problem of Meshchera]. Finno-ugrovedenie, 4, 34–44.

Zsirai, M. (1994). Finnugor rokonságunk (2nd ed.). Budapest: Trezor kiadó.