31: Exploring the Mari languages and spirituality

Written by Linden Alexander Pentecost and published on the 24th of June 2024 in the UK, with edits made of the 26th of June and 28th of June 2024 (all my publications are published in the UK). This page/article includes: “Mari El, mythology and the Mari languages”,My journey of learning about Mari music and learning more of the language”, Mari and my own spirituality, and the duck”, "A poem (in English) inspired by Mari spirituality and romance", "A final note about Mari, for now", and "Notes on some other, connected publications to this topic, by the author". This page/article contains 2465 words.


Mari El, mythology and the Mari languages


This article primarily contains discussion and descriptions about the Meadow Mari language and its relationship to Mari spirituality, and my own experiences. Meadow Mari words are given in bold in the Cyrillic alphabet. Other Mari languages, especially words in Hill Mari are also given, but are not in bold. Latin equivalents are always in Italics and not in bold. Recently I have been listening to a lot of music in the Mari languages, and have been enjoying life. The music makes me happy, and I will mention it a little more later. The Mari languages are a small sub-grouping of the Uralic languages, spoken primarily in Марий Эл/Мары Эл Mari El/Mary El. The Mari languages constitute their own sub-grouping of Uralic. In some ways they share things in common with the Mordvinic branch to the south, and to Permian branch to the north. But from what I understand, the Mari traditional faith and spirituality is quite different from that of the Mordvinic-speaking cultures, although there are of course many similarities. Mari El is a special place, and the Mari people have kept their traditional faith and spirituality. The territory of the Mari is largely flat, consisting of almost steppe-like meadows, forests and rivers. The Mari culture preserves its own unique and beautiful idea of common Uralic mythological themes. In the Mari native faith or indigenous spirituality, Кугу Юмо, Kugu Jumo, Hill Mari: Кого Йымы, Kogo Jymy is the creator deity. Uralic, and Turkic-speaking cultures are fascinating in that, although they are in a sense polytheistic, with many gods, they can also from what I understand have this idea of an original creator, similar to the idea of the ”Great Spirit” or ”Great Mystery” in a certain few, but not that many, Indigenous North American cultures. The Mari language family includes the Eastern Mari language, the Meadow Mari Language, олыкмарла, Olykmarla/олык марий, olyk Mariy; the Hill Mari language, Мары йӹлмӹ, Mary jÿlmÿ/кырык мары, kyryk mary and the Northwestern Mari language, Маре йӹлмӹ, Mare jÿlmÿ. Both the Meadow Mari and Hill Mari languages are co-official with Russian in Марий Эл. Марий Эл, Mariy El, is the Meadow Mari name for the region, whilst Мары Эл, Mary El is the Hill Mari name. Whilst the Meadow Mari name for “language” is йылме, jylme, the Hill Mari and Northwestern forms is йӹлмӹ, jÿlmÿ. This ӹ letter, which represents a special kind of schwa, is common in the Hill and Northwestern Mari languages, but is not found in Meadow Mari or in Eastern Mari. Note that in the Latin orthography used in this article, the schwa is written y. Other examples of this difference  between the Mari languages and their schwa form, can be seen in other words, for example Meadow Mari тылзе, tylze – moon, but Northwestern Mari тӹлзӹ, tÿlzÿ. In these examples the ӹ, is equivalent to the schwa: ы in Meadow Mari. Sometimes however Meadow Mari ӱ [y] is equivalent to ӹ in Northwestern Mari, e.g. Meadow Mari вӱд, vüd water, Northwestern and Hill Mari вӹд, vÿd. Other words that contain [y] in Meadow Mari are the same in Northwestern Mari, e.g. шӱм, šüm heart.


My journey of learning about Mari music and learning more of the language


I have had more exposure to the Mari language through listening to music in Mari. Mari instruments and singing can follow rhythmic patterns quite unlike those of other languages I have heard, although to a degree, similar patterns can be found in other Uralic and Turkic and other central Asian cultures. Mari music can give me a feeling of, just when I am beginning to think that I might be following the tune, the music suddenly takes a different direction in sound and pitch that leaves me dumbfounded but smiling and happy. Needless to say, my attempts to sing any Mari folk songs thus far have been unsuccessful, perhaps for this reason. The first word I came to properly recognise in Mari, that was not a landscape or celestial word, like water, earth, sun, moon, star, etc was йолташ, joltašfriend” I then re-remembered a few words I had learned years ago, like йылме, jylme – “language” and пӧрт, pört - house. I then learned the names of some of the spiritual beings or forces recognised by the Mari and also common within the Mari language, such as мардеж, mardež wind, кӱ, kü stone and ошма, ošma sand. One of my favourite words in the Meadow Mari language is кече, keče – sun. There has been a lot of ”sun” where I live recently, and I have been saying this word кече as I have laid down in the woods looking at the trees and the summer sky. Other words relevant to this image and nature I will include and connected to in that moment, are юзо, juzo - a kind of magic, пӱнчӧ, pünčö – pine tree, тумо, tumo – oak tree, чодыра, čodyra forest, кава, kava – sky, пыл, pyl – cloud, памашpamaš - water spring, чон, čon - soul or spirit. рок, rok - land or earth (perhaps cognate to English "rock" and Breton roc'h?), and пасу, pasu - field (perhaps related to the *pit/*pet element in "Pictish" place-names). (Other nature words in addition to these in the previous paragraph are in this article) .

The only know a few phrases and senteces in Meadow Mari thus far, for example поро кече, poro keče - good day, and мый тыйым йӧратем, myj tyjym jöratem, which means "I love you" in Meadow Mari. Notice that Mari is generally a SOV language, subject-object-verb, like Quechua for example, but Finnic languages are generally SVO, more commonly at least. So in the example мый тыйым йӧратем, the word йӧратем means "I love". I can create some more examples with the verb "to be", for example мый пӧръеҥ улам, myj pörjeŋ ulam - I am a man. To say "I am" would be мый улам, myj ulam, compare Finnish minä olen. The SOV order can be seen where the noun пӧръеҥ, pörjeŋ. The word мый, myj is the first person singular pronoun, the verb form улам ulam means "I am", but the pronoun is often kept, as in Finnish. Also, for an example of a romantic phrase that someone like me might say to the right person: тый шӱмыштем улат, tyj šümyštem ulat  - "you are in my heart". тый улат, tyj ulat means you (singular) are, with тый meaning "you" (singular) and улат means "you (singular) are". The word шӱмыштем, šümyštem means "in my heart", with the form without the possessive suffix being: шӱмыштӧ, šümyštö meaning "in a heart" (with inessive suffix), and шӱмыштем meaning "in my heart", with the inessive suffix, and the first person singular possessive suffix -ем. An example of this suffix with a nominative form of the noun, not the inessive form, is лӱмем, lümem - my name, from лӱм, lüm - name.  Note that Mari languages have vowel-harmony that works similarly to that in Finnish, in many respects at least. This is visible in how the vowels in suffixes match with the vowels in the root word.

For the third person singular, the form of the verb "to be" is often dropped, for example тидe курыкtide kuryk - "this is a mountain", курык, kuryk means "mountain". Sometimes the form of the verb "to be" could be present, e.g. чон йӱкыштем улеш, čon jükyštem uleš - "soul is in my voice", where йӱкыштем means "in my voice", formed in the same way as the form шӱмыштем, whilst улеш, uleš means "she or he is".

The words мардеж, mardež and ошма, ošma I have come to like in particular. Note how different many of these words are from their Finnish equivalents, e.g. мардеж, mardež - "wind" is tuuli in Finnish, whilst чодыра, čodyra – forest is metsä in Finnish. For me, one of the most distinctive qualities about the Mari languages is the schwa sound. Whilst this is found in some other Uralic languages, it is not found in those others I have extensively studied. The frequent use of the schwa helps to give Mari a different sense of central prosodic rhythm. Whilst Mari does have palatalised pronunciations of the consonants л, l and н, n, palatal consonants are not common in Mari compared to in many Uralic languages to the east of Finland and Karelian. An example of a palatal "l" can be seen in the word пeлeдыш, peĺedyš - flower, an example of a palatal "n" is in the word дене, deńe - "with".


Mari and my own spirituality, and the duck


Mari spirituality also fascinates me deeply. Many things can be found in common with the oral traditions of the Finns and Sámi-speakers, but Mari traditions are also unique, and have their own take on the “Celestial Waterbird” idea common in many Uralic-speaking cultures. In Mari this is Кугу Юмо, Kugu Jumo, who can take the form of a duck. Recently I have been thinking about the Mari language, and speaking Mari words as I walk in the forests and beaches of my local area, and see geese, swans and ducks on the waters. Recently, a duck decided to fly over a friend’s car as he was driving, and defecate all over it. My friend believed that the duck was only giving him extra work to clean up. But I wondered if perhaps this event was some kind of a sign from Кугу Юмо, Kugu Jumo, or a similar deity. Especially considering that I have been remembering and singing along to Mari folk songs recently, and that I have been in nature, among the spirits of the trees, skies and ancestors, something which in itself makes me feel connected to the great cosmos, with the ducks and swans on the water being the archetypes of those same celestial bird deities in Uralic oral tradition. Note, that the word for "river" in Mari is эҥер, eŋer. The word for "goose" is  комбо, kombo, whilst the word for swan is йӱксӧ, jüksö, and of course the word for "duck" would be very important to mention here, given the connection to my own experiences recently and to Кугу Юмо. The Meadow Mari word for "duck" is лудо, ludo.


A poem (in English) inspired by Mari spirituality and romance

As I have mentioned in this article, I have recently been listening to Mari music. It echoes throughout the oak and pine trees so beautifully, the gentle summer breeze and the movement of leaves. Even though I am writing this article in England (and I wrote the poem below in an English forest), where I live, we share many of the same trees and animals as found in the Mari-speaking world. And the Mari language helps me to feel connected to that nature around me, in a way I have not experienced before. Below is a poem, I wrote when contemplating the longings of my heart to love, and connecting to the natural cosmic energy through the name and idea of Mari кече, keče – sun, who was originally a deity. I conceptualised кече, keče as feminine or female for this poem. A few slight changes were made to the poem as published here, which were not present in the original version written on paper. The slightly changed poem is below:

Keče, she pulls the solar sea back & forth
Eternal rotation of cloud, wind & sky
She glows in the trees, a warm amber flame
In the oceans of space, she sings and sighs
Dancing in the cosmic sea of waves
Soothingly with chaos, cones & flowers open
The crowns of the forest opening to summer wind
Behind the clouds, Keče swims over and through
Wind opens dark canopies; to sudden illuminations
Sparkling green & gold, the magic warmth on my hands and arms
Flying over;
Spirits as bright angels of vapour
Going where the rotation takes them
Flowing with the will of the eternal sea
Full of hope
Just like me

A final note about Mari, for now


I have already written a lot about Finnic languages (particularly Finnish, Kven and Meänkieli), and Sámi languages, but in the near future would like to publish about other Uralic languages more which are outside of these families, as well as more work on Mari at some point. I hope that this article was interesting to read. There are no references needed as all I wrote about in this article came from my own learning. The Latin alphabets used to write Mari after their Cyrillic equivalents in this article are based upon the spelling used on Wiktionary, which I can't find an original reference for.


Notes on some other, connected publications to this topic, by the author

I will also soon have an article published in Silly Linguistics with information about the Värmland Finnish dialect. This will be titled: Language in Southern Sweden continued: Värmländska, Värmland Finnish, Blå Jungfrun and Öländska and has yet to be published in Silly Linguistics.  Please note that after the aforementioed article, another article of mine will be published in Silly Linguistics, this next one will be on Komi-Zyrian and some other topics in relation to language in the Ural Mountains on Silly Linguistics. This article will be titled: The Komi-Zyrian language, The Talking Golden Idol (with art), and other languages in the Ural Mountains. This contains a little about the Komi spirituality too, which in a way connects to this Mari article. The aforementioned article (The Komi-Zyrian language, The Talking Golden Idol (with art), and other languages in the Ural Mountains) may be the first of two articles for Silly Linguistics about language in relation to the Urals, but the second article in relation to the Ural mountains for Silly Linguistics may not be published for a good while, and I have not began working on it yet. Note also my Mordvinic languages article published shortly after I published this article you are currently looking at (the 31: Exploring the Mari languages and spirituality article). The Mordvinic languages article is titled: 32: A short description of the Mordvinic languages, and is available here: https://www.bookofdunbarra.co.uk/website-articles-30-45/32-a-short-description-of-the-mordvinic-languages