Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Iran and Aryan

The history of the word Iran begins with *aryo-, which was a self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. It's found in Sanskrit ārya-, the most common translation for which is "noble", and Avestan airya "venerable". Old Persian āriya- "compatriot" became Middle Persian Ēr "Iranian", and the genitive plural Ērān (AHD), and Modern Persian ایران Īrān "Persia" (OED).

The Sanskrit ārya- is the source of the word Aryan. Fortson explains how this word came to have racist connotations:

During the nineteenth century, it was proposed that this [*arya-] had been not only the Indo-Iranian tribal self-designation but also the self-designation of the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves. (This theory has since been abandoned.) "Aryan" then came to be used in scholarship to refer to Indo-European. Some decades later it was further proposed that the PIE homeland had been located in northern Europe (also a theory no longer accepted), leading to speculations that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had been of a Nordic racial type. In this way "Aryan" developed yet another, purely racialist meaning, probably the most familiar one today. In Indo-European studies, "Aryan" (and Arisch in German) and "Indo-Aryan" are still frequently used in their older sense - "Aryan" to refer to Indo-Iranian (less commonly, Indo-European) and "Indo-Aryan" to refer to Indic.

The OED still has many etymologies containing the terms "Aryan" and "Indo-Aryan".

It was undoubtedly the work of the nineteenth century philologist Max Müller that helped popularize "Aryan" as a linguistic term. Müller is quoted as saying "an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar".

I was asked recently if Ireland and Iran were related. Unfortunately they aren't; the origin of Ireland and Irish is uncertain.

3 comments :

Cailliomachas said...

And yet the Middle Persian words you give, Ēr and Ērān, are tantalisingly similar to Éire (Ireland) and its genetive plural Éireann. However, the Irish word usually said to be derived from IE *aryo- is aire, meaning 'freeman' or 'noble', nowadays used to refer to government ministers. As to the origin of Éire / Ireland, the Greek name, Ἰέρνη, may or may not be relevant.

Adam Roberts said...

And "air-guitar"? Etymologically noble?

Michal Boleslav said...

Éireann is the genitive *singular* of Éire, not the genitive *plural*. Why would you need a plural for Ireland, anyway? It's not like there are several Irelands there.