Last week I wrote about the mistreatment of some words which taints them with negative connotations, and made a passing reference to the “Aryans”. Since some ST readers, corageously waiving the anonimity of the nickname, seem more prone to face-to-face comments than personal ones, I have been asked to expand on that. And writing the post I realise that the subject is interesting not only for the comprehension of the past, but also for our time. I’ll post it in two parts.
“Aryan” is a Sanskrit and Old Persian word meaning “noble”. It seems to have been used as a self-designation of the sepakers of these languages (hence the modern “Iran”), which belonged to the Indo-Iranian branch of a wider family, the so-called Indo-European languages. I attach a map where you can see which languages, ancient and modern, belong to this family (among others, Greek, Latin and its derivates, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic). Note that Bask, Finnish, Turkish or Hungarian belong to different families. And you could include the whole of America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. Whatever conclusions can be drawn from this map, they have little to do with race.
Actually, the conclusions to be drawn from the map are to be related only to historical linguistics. But in the 19th century “Aryan” was given a wider sense, and it was taken as a designation for Indo-Europeans as a whole: this is not impossible, but there is no definite proof outside the Indo-Iranian branch. The Celtic “Eire” or the Germanic “Ehre” have been related, but phonetics are less mathematic than some think, and there is no way to prove it beyond reasonable doubt: which in scholarly terms means that it cannot be held.
The problem came when from aseptic linguistics it was given a much more dangerous and arbitrary sense, and in the 19th century people began to talk about “the Aryan race”. It is of course a typical mistreatment of the past, to adapt it to modern political or cultural agendas. It invariably entails the retrospective vision of History with anachronical contemporary categories: the identification of language and race is typical of 19th century European nationalism, and it was projected upon the remote past. The “Aryan people” would have invaded and civilized the world two millenia ago, which preluded further versions of the same invasion. We all know the horrors that were perpetrated not so long ago in the name of this non-existant race. So after the Second World War the word “Aryan” was definitely banned at all levels, and it was replaced by the more aseptic “Indo-European” (well, in Germany some still say “Indogermanisch”, but that’s fine, it’s just scholarly tradition).
In fact our own 21st century shows that identity and ethnicity are cultural processes that come out from a variety of elements: race or language are just two among many others. And so could it also be in that remote past which we know so little about. In fact, not so little, if we look for the right things, instead of pursuing racial phantoms. There are no traces of that pretended race, but we can reconstruct much of Indo-European mythology and poetry: perhaps they were (or are?) much more important to (re-)construct ethnicities than language or race. We’ll see that next Tuesday.