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It is well known that in Iranian languages airiia- / airya- had a clear ethnic meaning which is reflected in the modern name of the country Iran.
However, in Sanskrit, this word had a more general meaning: ‘a good worthy family man who respects the traditions of his country, who is a good housekeeper and duly performs the rites of yajña’:
This is how ārya is translated in the MW dictionary:
(H1) ā́rya [p= 152,2] [L=26533] m. (fr. aryá , √ṛ) , a respectable or honourable or faithful man , an inhabitant of āryāvarta
[L=26534] one who is faithful to the religion of his country
[L=26535] N. of the race which immigrated from Central Asia into āryāvarta (opposed to an-ārya , dasyu , dāsa)
[L=26536] in later times N. of the first three castes (opposed to śūdra) RV. AV. VS. MBh. Ya1jn5. Pan5cat. &c
[L=26537] a man highly esteemed , a respectable , honourable man Pan5cat. S3ak. &c
[L=26538] a master , an owner L.
[L=26539] a friend L.
[L=26540] a vaiśya L.
[L=26542] (with Buddhists [pāli ayyo , or ariyo]) a man who has thought on the four chief truths of Buddhism (» next col.) and lives accordingly , a Buddhist priest
[L=26543] a son of manu sāvarṇa Hariv.
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26544] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. Aryan , favourable to the Aryan people RV. &c
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26545] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. behaving like an Aryan , worthy of one , honourable , respectable , noble R. Mn. S3ak. &c
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26546] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. of a good family
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26547] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. excellent
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26548] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. wise
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26549] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. suitable
(H1B) ā́ryā [L=26550] f. a name of pārvatī Hariv.
(H1B) ā́ryā [L=26551] f. a kind of metre of two lines (each line consisting of seven and a half feet ; each foot containing four instants , except the sixth of the second line , which contains only one , and is therefore a single short syllable ; hence there are thirty instants in the first line and twenty-seven in the second) ; ([cf. Old Germ. êra ; Mod. Germ. Ehre ; Irish Erin.])
One conclusion which can be drawn from the above is that the widespread translation of ārya only as ‘noble’ or ‘distinguished’ (e.g. in Encyclopædia Britannica) is clearly a simplification. Also the meaning ‘of the race which immigrated from Central Asia into āryāvarta (opposed to an-ārya , dasyu , dāsa)’ my originate in the specific interpretation of Rig Veda by the 19th century European (mostly German) scholars. The key to understanding the primordial meaning of ārya could be in the cardinal meaning of the root but there is a problem with its identification.
The ār may be considered as a separate root but it may also be a vṛddhi of the verb ṛ having lots of meanings : ‘to go, move, rise, tend upwards; to advance towards a foe, attack, invade; to put in or upon, place, insert, fix into or upon, fasten; to deliver up, surrender, offer, reach over, present, give’ etc. Such conflicting meanings is an indication that there could be several separate verbs merged in this root.
Such a wide range of meanings is a source of conflicting explanations of arya / ārya. Somehow it is often overlooked that there is an obscure verb ār – *āryati ‘to praise’ which may be connected to ṛ. This verb has been poorly attested only tree times in RV as 3 P, pl. āryanti (RV 8.016.06 & RV 10.048.03 (twice)) but there is also a prominent noun arka ‘praise, hymn, song; one who praises, a singer’ which may be related here. The final -ka is a diminutive/comparative suffix (much used in forming adjectives; it may also be added to nouns to express diminution, deterioration, or similarity e.g. putraka, a little son; aśvaka, a bad horse or like a horse) having clear parallels in Slavonic ( e.g. Rus. znat‘ ‘to know’ > znajka ‘one who knows’ etc.). Interestingly, in Rus. dialects there is a verb arkat’ ‘to cry, speak loudly’. From this perspective ārya could have originally meant simply ‘the praised one = good respectable person’ being synonymous to śravya ‘worth hearing, praiseworthy’ (cp. also śravaḥ ‘glory, fame, loud praise’ and its Rus cognate slava ‘fame, glory’).
In Rig Veda ārya is met about 30 times. I looked at two RV verses which are often cited in the literature on this topic and tried to translate them as close as possible to the text.
(RV text from Rigveda )
Agni (is) the head of the Sky, the navel of the Earth. He became the messenger of the two worlds |
Such you were born by Gods. О, Vaishvanara! Indeed you are the (celestial) light for the Arya ||
Into you the Vasus have put the power of an Asura for they appreciate the strength of your spirit, O, (you) great as Mithra |
You chased away the Dasyu from (his) abode creating the broad light for the Arya ||
Some general observations. Both verses are addressed to Agni and in both of them is mentioned the celestial light jyotiḥ (cp. also Rus. žёlt ‘yellow’ which could be transcribed using Skr. translit. as jyolt ).
This word, which could be the key to understanding the verses, has the following meanings (in Vedic)
1) light (of the sun , dawn , fire , lightning , &c. ; also pl.), brightness (of the sky)
2) light appearing in the 3 worlds , viz. on earth , in the intermediate region , and in the sky or heaven
4) the light of heaven , celestial world
5) light as the type of freedom or bliss or victory
In post-Vedic times it acquired an even more philosophical meaning: ‘human intelligence’ and ‘highest light or truth’.
The two verses, although they appear in different books of Rig Veda, are coined by the same template and could be variations of the same invocation:
Agni is addressed with all fitting praises and epithets and thanked for giving the ‘light’:
in 1.059.02 : vaiśvānara [relating or belonging to all men, omnipresent, known or worshipped, everywhere, universal, general, common] jyotir [light] id [indeed] āryāya [for the Arya (Gen. case)].
in 7.005.06: uru [wide, broad, spacious, extended, great, large, much, excessive, excellent] jyotir [light see above.] janayann [creating] āryāya [for the Arya (Gen. case)].
As it is usually the case with ancient texts, these verses are subject to interpretations depending on what sense you put into jyotiḥ and ārya . Note that in the second verse there are mentioned dasyu [enemy of the gods, impious man, any outcast or Hindu who has become so by neglect of the essential rites]. However, it is important that both Dasyu and Arya are mentioned in singular. Therefore, one can interpret them as ethnonyms but, in my view, keeping in mind that the cardinal meaning of ārya in Vedic was ‘a good, faithful person’, this could be also interpreted as ‘an impious man’ vs. ‘a faithful man’. In modern terms it may be defined as ‘fidel’ vs. ‘infidel’. I am particularly inclined to understand it in this way because Agni is not thanked for giving the land or cities of ‘Dasyu’ but for the ‘light’ in the broadest philosophical sense and agree with Kuiper (Aryans in the Rigveda. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi, 1991, pp. 90–93) that the creators of Rig-Veda considered as `aryas’ anybody who followed the Vedic traditions and performed the sacred yajña rites. I would also like to quote Hans Hock
“Close examination of the textual evidence regarding the “white” vs. “black” distinction turns out strongly to suggest that it refers, not to a distinction in skin, but to an “ideological” one between “bad” and “good”
(Hock, H. H., Bauer, B. & Pinault, G.-J. (Eds.), Did Indo-European linguistics prepare the ground for Nazism? Lessons from the past for the present and future. Language in time and space: A festschrift for Werner Winter on the occasion of his 80th birthday, de Gruyter, 2003, 167-187).
Dr. Weer Rajendra Rishi (1917 – 2002) was a well known Indian linguist. He was fluent in Russian and worked in the Indian Embassy in Moscow between 1950—1952. Dr. Rishi was the author of (1) Russian-Hindi Dictionary (foreword by the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru), (2) Russian Grammar in Hindi, (3) Russian Folklore in Hindi (4) Hindi translation of Pushkin’s poem ‘Gypsy‘, (5) Marriages of the Orient, (6) Roma—The Punjabi Emigrants in Europe, the USSR, the Americas etc. (7) Romani-Punjabi-English Conversation Book, (8) Romani-Punjabi-English Dictionary and (9) Multi-Lingual Romani Dictionary (Romani Hindi English French Russian).
One of his last works was a book India & Russia – Linguistic & Cultural Affinity. This book is now very rare and it is undeservingly forgotten so I would like to bring it back as a tribute to Dr. Weer Rajendra Rishi.
The book has XIII chapters but it is Chapter II Affinity in Language which is, in my view, the most interesting part of the book. These are some excerpts from this chapter:
“As mentioned in the preceding chapter both Russian and Sanskrit belong to the satem group of the Indo-European family of languages. This, however, creates one mis-understanding in one’s mind that the relation between Sanskrit and Russian is as distant one as that between Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages. As will be explained in this chapter, the relation between these two languages is very close and correspondence between these two languages is so minute that, to use Dr. Sidheshwar Varma’s words, it cannot be a mere chance*. The facts unfolded in this chapter are compulsory enough to lead us to conclude that during some period of history, the speakers of Sanskrit and Russian have lived close together. This will be elucidated in Chapters V onwards. Read the rest of this entry »
Most people take it for granted that all ‘Scythians’ were Iranian-speakers but few are aware of the quality of the evidence on which this theory is based. There are no direct records or inscriptions in ‘Scythian’ and only a few words and names reached us in the accounts of early Greek historians (Herodotus, Strabo and others). The first extensive attempt to ‘reconstruct’ the ‘Scythian language’ was done in Vasmer (1923) but the largest vocabulary, numbering 247 ‘bases’ or radicals (approx. 200 considering duplicates), was given in Abaev (1949).
Both works are difficult to access since not everybody is proficient enough in German and Russian so I would like to bring up the Abaev’s dictionary for your attention. I have translated some of the entries so that you could decide whether you find his etymologies credible or not. Before proceeding with this I would like to present here a part of the introduction to the ‘Scythian’ dictionary by Abaev (1949:150-151) in the English translation (Rus. original is available here) with my comments (which are, of course, optional):
SCYTHIAN vocabulary elements are scattered in proper names, toponymic and tribal names, preserved for us in many historical, geographical and epigraphic sources. In the following we try to extract them and arrange in the alphabetical order. We shall thus obtain some rudiments of the SCYTHIAN vocabulary. (See the list of Greek words which Abaev used)
It should be noted that etymologies built on proper names, toponymic and tribal names and appellations are most unreliable and controversial. Almost every such etymology is contested. Etymologies of the names ‘rus’, ‘slav’, ‘wend’ are good examples.
Although the preconditions for our endeavour have been done in works of our predecessors, yet we meet with difficulties. The transfer of the Scythian names with the Greek (or Latin) letters was, by force, very imperfect: too great was the difference in the phonetic systems. It is easy to imagine that there were frequent cases of distortion, misprints and errors. To restore, in these circumstances, the true face of the sounding of Scythian is not easy.
A very fair admission, indeed!
But if it is difficult to reproduce the real shape of Scythian words, the situation is even more difficult with their meaning. Our sources usually do not give us a hint about the meanings of Scythian words or names. These meanings must be established by the comparative way, based on the data of the Iranian and Indo-European linguistics.
Another frank admission, especially if we consider that at the time this text was written the “Yaphetic theory” of Nicholas Marr, which rejected the traditional methods of “historical reconstruction”, was still very much alive. In fact, one will not find any reference to reconstructed IE *forms in Abaev’s vocabulary. Instead, there are numerous references to Marr in the book.
The main instances to which we can appeal, are, on the one hand, the ancient Iranian languages (Avestan and ancient Persian), on the other the Ossetic language, as the direct successor of SCYTHIAN.
Note that there is not a shred of doubt in Abaev’s mind that the Ossetian language is “the direct successor of SCYTHIAN”. Before Abaev even approached to the dictionary, he took it for granted that ‘Scythian’ was an Iranian language, therefore, the “SCYTHIAN vocabulary elements” which are “scattered in proper names, toponymic and tribal names” should only be viewed exclusively through Avestan, ancient Persian and, of course, Ossetic. This attitude is not surprising because Abaev was Ossetian and the Scythian origin of Ossetian was his idée fixe.
We had to contemplate more than once: what forms to show in our ‘dictionary’ as the cardinal ones? The sources from which we draw our material cover a vast period of about 1000 years. Of course, during this time the language was changing.
A very reasonable question. It is difficult to imagine that the Scythians, which was for the Greek a generic name applied to any ‘barbaric’ (in their opinion) people living north of their confines, had remained a single ethnos speaking a uniform ‘Scythian’ language over the vast territory for a thousand of years.
We often meet the same base-form at different stages of phonetic evolution. What form shall we put as the base-form in our dictionary?
This is another reasonable question. To answer it one has to establish first what were the ‘different stages of phonetic evolution’, what phonetic changes happened at different ‘stages’ and why.
We have found it most appropriate to propose as the original forms normalised ancient Iranian ones taking into consideration also the peculiarities of the SCYTHIAN group.
There are several questions I would like to ask at this point. What were the criteria to decide what was the ‘most appropriate’? What are the ‘normalised ancient Iranian forms’? How do we know about ‘peculiarities’ of the ‘SCYTHIAN group’ even before approaching to the analysis? Finally, what exactly is the ‘SCYTHIAN group’?
In other words, we are putting forms that we believe, would coincide with the ancient Scythian ones if the latter existed.
What a bold admission! In my view, this phrase should be placed as a sort of a disclaimer: ‘Please be warned that this dictionary is wholly based on our subjective opinion’.
In cases where there was not enough data for reconstructing ancient Iranian forms, we put the most archaic of the known attested forms.
It becomes clear by now that by ‘ancient Iranian forms’ Abaev, probably, meant a precursor of Gathic Avestan, otherwise, why reconstruct them? Therefore, he de-facto presupposed that ‘Scythian’ derived from an ‘Iranian’ language older than Avestan which, would be the ‘pra-Indo-Iranian’. This admission needs to be analysed in the context of the current theory.
There are conflicting views on this. I, for one, have my own opinion, but let us stick to what is called ‘the mainstream theory’ according to which the eastward migration of pra-Indo-Aryans most probably originated in the Pit-grave culture on the northern shore of the Black Sea, supposedly, at the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd millennia BC (Mallory 1989, Kuz’mina 2007).
It is generally accepted that the Pit-Grave culture was an organic Eastern continuation of the earlier Tripolye (Cucuteni) culture (4th millennium BC) and that it did not cease after the hypothetical departure of the proto-Indo-Iranians first to southern Siberia (Andronovo culture?) and then to today’s Iran and Hindustan. Therefore, we can reasonably presuppose that in the Circum-Pontic area there always remained an ethnos directly continuing the ‘proto-Sanskrit’ (non-Iranian) dialects (Трубачев 2003, 51). (See my post “Iranian loans in Slavonic“)
In his analysis Abaev completely ignored any possibility that on the vast territory of what the Greeks referred to as ‘Scythia’ could also live numerous IE tribes who never migrated to Iran and, therefore, never returned from there bringing with them the already changed ‘Iranian’ dialects. According to Trubačev (idem), they were represented by the so-called ‘old Scythians’ while the newer returning wave of Iranians constituted the ‘young Scythians’. The biased ‘pro-Iranian’ approach is clearly seen in the next Abaev’s assertion:
We include in our lexicon also the Scythian names which were witnessed outside the Scythia – Thrace, Iberia, etc., as long as they have luminous (lit. “яркие” [bright]) signs of their Scythian origin.
We do not know anything about the Scythian language so how can we see its “luminous (lit. “яркие” [bright])” signs? Following this logic any appellation or name found in ancient texts relating to a vast territory spanning from the Altai to Iberia should be included here as long as it appeared ‘Scythian’ enough to Abaev.
In our interpretations of Scythian names and appellations, we are partly contiguous with our predecessors, partly give new ones. In the first case, we refer to the comprehensive paper by M. Vasmer Die Iranier in Südrussland (1923), in which whoever is interested can find further bibliographical details. We avoided strained and dubious affiliations and interpretations, and ventured to do the analysis only when we felt solid ground under the feet.
In plain words: ‘we selected only what corresponded to our views’.
Yet in some cases, marked with a question mark, we assume the possibility of other interpretation than ours.
Effectively means: ‘we allow for other interpretations only in a few cases, otherwise our interpretations are rock-solid’. Let us analyse one of such ‘doubtless’ etymologies. On page 154 Abaev proposes a ‘Scythian’ word ar– :
ar – ‘to find’, ‘to procure’, ‘to give birth’; Ossetic. aryn | jerun (from bar-→war-?)
– Γώαρ ‘Alanian leader in the 5th century BC.’ (Olympiodorus and others) = go-ar ‘procuring cattle’; see. gau ‘cattle’;
– Ξησσάγαρος (0) = Osset. xsæz-sag-ar ‘one who procures six deer’ i.e. ‘lucky hunter’; see xšas ‘six’ sāka ‘deer’;
– Sagaris (Ovidius), Saggarius (Plinius) ‘river Berezan’ lit. ‘where they find (аg) deer (sag)’.
Perhaps there are people who would accept this but for me this sort of reasoning amounts to sheer speculation.
We usually take Ossetic parallels from the Digor dialects as the Digor mountain forms are generally more archaic, and, therefore, closer to Scythian.
Ossetic is a generally accepted as an Iranian language although it can hardly be considered a true genetic continuator of ‘Iranian’ having become an agglutinative language with a phonetic system closely resembling Caucasian languages and only a limited inherited IE lexicon.
Genetically, Ossetians are also similar to their Caucasian neighbours with only traces of the male M17 (R1a1) haplo-group which is typical for the Scythians: “Y-haplogroup data indicate that North Ossetians are more similar to other North Caucasian groups, and South Ossetians are more similar to other South Caucasian groups, than to each other” (Nasidze et. al. 2004). The only link connecting Ossetians with Iranians can be found in their maternal mtDNA: “with respect to mtDNA, Ossetians are significantly more similar to Iranian groups than to Caucasian groups” (idem). Therefore, by their genetic profile Ossetians are a typical mixed people and their Iranian affiliation can only be established from the maternal side. This is confirmed by the clearly mixed character of the Ossetic language.
The extreme ‘Osseticocentrism’ lead to some truly preposterous assertions. Such was Abaev’s theory that the Hungarian aladar and the Mongolian (!) aldar were Alanian (read Ossetic) loans:
ardar ‘master, ruler, knjaz’; Oss. ældar, ærdar id. From ærm–dar(←armadāra) ‘hand-keeper’, ‘Handhaber’; from Alanian adopted into Hungarian (aladar) and Mongolian (aldar): […].
Let us now move to the dictionary which Abaev entitled as ‘Dictionary of Scythian bases’. The full text of the dictionary can be found here. Since the dictionary is in Russian I translated some parts taken randomly. In my opinion they may give an understanding of the kind of argumentation used by Abaev.
(Capital letters in parentheses mean location: G – Gorgippia, O – Olvia, P – Panticapeai, T – Tanaida).
bala ‘military force’, ‘team’, Old. Ind. bala-, Oss. bal:
– Πάλοι ‘Scythian tribe’ (Diodorus. Sid.);
– Ούαστόβαλος (Т) varzta-bala ‘loved by the team [meaning military team or troop]’;
– Ουαρζβάλακος (О) = Old. Osset. warz-bal ‘one who loves the team’ or ‘loved by the team’; see vārz ‘to love’ (ср. Miller “Эпиграфические следы…”, ЖМНП, 1886, окт., стр. 254).
bānu ‘light’, ‘day’; Avest. baxta, Osset. bon ‘day’, ‘force’, ‘power’, ‘wealth’, Alanian ban (παν) in the Alan. salutation ταπαγχας (tä ban xwarz) ‘good day’ in Byzantine writer Tzetzes (see. below, page. 256):
– Βάνας (P);
– Sangibamis ‘Alanian tzar of the V century in Gallia (Jordan) = čаn-gi-ban, Osset. congi-bon “possessing power” (bon) in hand (соngi)”; see. čang ‘hand’.
axšaina ‘blue, dark grey’, O.Persian, axšaina-, Ossetic. œxsin id., œxsinœ‘pigeon’:
– ΄Αξεινος in the name of the Black Sea Πόντος ΄Αξεινος (Pindar,. Ευριπιδ, Strabon) ‘blue Pont’, has later been rethought as Πόντος Ευξεινος ‘hospitable Pont’, this witty explanation belongs to Vasmer.
– Χαράξηνος (O) = xar-axšen ‘dark-grey donkey’ (Old. Iranian хаra, Oss.хœrœg ‘donkey’); this name might not contain anything humiliating; cp. Pers., gūr‘wild donkey’ as an epithet adorning a king (Bahrām-Gūr); such names were also given for magic purposes so as to render a child unattractive for bad spirits; for example the Ossetic name Kuʒœg from kuʒ ‘dog’ is of such origin.
az ‘to chase’, ‘to rule’, Avestan az-:
– Νάβαζος (Т) = Old. Iran. nav-āza– ‘steersman’, ‘one who steers a ship’; see.nav ‘ship’ (Vasmer, 45).
bad– ‘to sit’, Probably from Old Persian upa-had– (Miller), Oss. badun ‘to sit’:
– Βάδαγος (О) = Oss. ‘one who sits’ (used as a proper name to this day); here also belongs Βαδάκης (О) (Vasmer, 35).
baga ‘god’, Old. Pers, baga-, Avest. baγa-; not preserved in Ossetic:
– Βάγης (G), reduced form of some name, containing baga, for example Bagadata ‘god-given’ etc., (Vasmer, 35); here also probably belongs Βάγιος (G).
Even if we accept these dubious etymologies, ‘Scythian’ emerges here not as much as an ‘Iranian’ but, primarily, as an Indo-European dialect. It is significant that out of the 200 radicals given by Abaev at least 70 (more than a third!) have clear Sanskrit and Slavonic cognates. Here are only the most obvious ones:
It is well known that “Historical linguistics often resorts to generalizations based on limited evidence, making statements that are far from obvious and often subject to discussion and various interpretations.” (Wencel 2011). The study by Abaev, in my opinion, is a typical case of such ‘generalization based on limited evidence’.
The very Term “Scythian” has been correctly defined by Adrienne Mayor et al. as: ““Scythian,” a ﬂuid term even in antiquity, does not describe a single ethnic group but is a conventional collective term for the extensive network of loosely connected, culturally similar peoples of the vast territory of “Scythia,” which stretched from the Black Sea and Caucasus region to Central Asia.
There is no doubt that some Iranian tribes and elements were present in the Circum-Pontic area in the last centuries B.C. and first centuries A.D. but it would be very short-sighted to call the whole multitude of peoples populating the vast area from the Altai mountains to the Baltic Sea, whom the Greeks routinely named ‘Scythians’, as ‘Iranians’ and even more so to view them exclusively through the Ossetic language.
Абаев, В. И. (1949), Осетинский язык и фольклор, Ленинград: из-во Акад. Наук СССР.
Трубачев, О. Н. (2003), Этногенез и культура древнейших славян: Лингвистические исследования, Москва: Наука.
Kuz’mina, E. E. (2007), The origin of the Indo-Iranians, Leiden, The Netherlands; Boston: Brill.
Mallory, J. P. (1989), In Search of the Indo-Europeans, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
A. Mayor. J. Colarusso, and D. Saunders (2014), “Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases”, Hesperia 83.3.
Nasidze, I., Quinque, D. Dupanloup, I. Rychkov, S. Naumova, O. Zhukova, & O. Stoneking, M. (2004), “Genetic evidence concerning the origins of south and north Ossetians”, Annals of Human Genetics 68.588–599.
Vasmer, M. (1923), Untersuchungen über die ältesten Wohnsitze der Slaven, Leipzig, chapter “Die Iraner in Südrussland”.
Wencel, Maciej (2011) “Making archaeology speak – archaeology and linguistics“.ANTHROJOURNAL – The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology, 1, October 2011.