Aryan is an English word derived from the Sanskrit "Ārya" meaning "noble" or "honorable". The Avestan cognate is "Airya" and the Old Persian equivalent is "Ariya". It is widely held to have been used as an ethnic self-designation of the Proto-Indo-Iranians Since in the 19th century, the Indo-Iranians were the most ancient known speakers of Indo-European languages, the word Aryan was adopted to refer not only to the Indo-Iranian people, but also to Indo-European speakers as a whole.
In Europe, the concept of an Aryan race became influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as linguists and ethnologists argued that speakers of these Indo-European languages constitute a distinctive race, descended from an ancient people, who were referred to as the "primitive Aryans", but are now known as Proto-Indo-Europeans.
The adjective *aryo- was suggested as ascending to Proto-Indo-European times as the self-designation of the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language itself. It was suggested that other words such as Éire, the Irish name of Ireland, and Ehre (German for "honour") were related to it, but these are now widely regarded as untenable, and while is certainly a well-formed PIE adjective, there is no evidence that it was used as an ethnic self-designation outside the Indo-Iranian branch. In the 1850s Max Müller theorized that the word originated as a denotation of farming populations, since he thought it likely that it was related to the root , meaning "to plow"; thus Aryans would be those who plow. Other 19th century writers, such as Charles Morris, repeated this idea, linking the expansion of PIE speakers to the spread of agriculturalists. Most linguists now consider to be unrelated.
The Proto-Iranian form *Aryāna- appears as Æryānam Väejāh "expanse of the Aryans" in Avestan, in Middle Persian as Ērān, and in Modern Persian as Īrān. Similarly, Northern India was referred to by the tatpurusha Aryavarta "Arya-abode" in ancient times.
The Sanskrit lexicon Amarakosha (c. AD 450) defines Arya as "being of a noble family", "having gentle or refined behavior and demeanor", "being well-born and respectable", and "being virtuous, honourable, or righteous". In Hinduism, the religiously initiated Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishyas were arya, a title of honor and respect given to certain people for noble behaviour. This word is used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians to mean noble or spiritual., for example, Four Noble Truths (Pali: Cattāri ariyasaccāni, Sanskrit: Catvāri āryasatyāni), and Noble Eightfold Path (Pāli: ; Sanskrit: ).
Use of "Aryan" for "Indo-European" in academia was obsolete by the 1910s: B. W. Leist in 1888 still titles Alt-Arisches Jus Gentium ("Old Aryan [meaning Indo-European, not Indo-Iranian] Ius Gentium"). P. v. Bradke in 1890 titles Methode und Ergebnisse der arischen (indogermanischen) Altterthumswissenschaft, still using "Aryan", but inserting an explanatory bracket. Otto Schrader in 1918 in his Reallexikon der indogermanischen Altertumskunde under the entry Arier matter-of-factly discusses the Indo-Iranians, without any reference to a possible wider meaning of the term.
According to Michael Witzel in his paper Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts, "the use of the word Arya or Aryan to designate the speakers of all Indo-European (IE) languages or as the designation of a particular race is an aberration of many writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and should be avoided.
The most probable date for Proto-Indo-Iranian unity is roughly around 2500 BC. In this sense of the word Aryan, the Aryans were an ancient culture preceding both the Vedic and Avestan cultures. Candidates for an archeological identification of this Indo-Iranian culture are the Andronovo and/or Srubnaya Archeological Complexes. India, Anatolia and Central Asia have also been suggested as possible homelands for this culture.
In linguistics, the term Aryan currently may be used to refer to the Indo-Iranian language family. To prevent confusion because of its several meanings, the linguistic term is often avoided today. It has been replaced by the unambiguous terms Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Indo-Iranian, Iranian and Indo-Aryan.
The Proto-Indo-Iranian language evolved into the family of Indo-Iranian languages, of which the oldest-known members are Vedic Sanskrit, Avestan and another Indo-Iranian language, known only from loan-words found in the Mitanni language.
There is evidence of an Indo-Aryan language in Mesopotamia around 1500 BC in the form of loanwords in the Mitanni dialect of Hurrian, the speakers of which, it is speculated, may have once had an Indo-Aryan ruling class. At around the same time, the Indo-Aryans associated with the Vedic civilization, which dates back to the same period. They are sometimes called Vedic Aryans because it is believed that they brought the Vedas to the Indian subcontinent after the Aryans migrated into that region (this theory is contrary to the Out of India Theory). In ancient India, the term Aryavarta, meaning "abode of the Aryans", was used to refer to the northern Indian subcontinent.
Indo-Aryans are spread over most of the northern, eastern, western and central parts of the Indian subcontinent and in the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Indo-Aryan languages that exist outside the Indian subcontinent include Romani, the language of the Roma people, often known as "Gypsies", Parya, used in Tajikistan, Jataki, used in Ukraine, and Domari which is used in the Middle East.
Darius the Great, King of Persia (521–486 BC), in an inscription in Naqsh-e Rustam (near Shiraz in present-day Iran), proclaims: "I am Darius the great King… A Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage...", although Herodotus claims that it was the Medes who were the Aryans, having changed their name after the arrival of Medea and potentially her son Medus on the Iranian plateau. He also calls his language the "Aryan language," commonly known today as Old Persian. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, "the same ethnic concept was held in the later centuries" and was associated with "nobility and lordship." (p. 681)
The word has become a technical term in the theologies of Zoroastrianism, but has always been used by Iranians in the ethnic sense as well. In 1967, Iran's Pahlavi dynasty (overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution) added the title Āryāmehr "Light of the Aryans" to those of the monarch, known at the time as the Shahanshah (King of Kings).
The term "Airya-shayana" (abode of the Aryans) has also been used in the Avesta referring to all the lands where the Aryans dwell.
"Iranian Glory" (Airyana Khvarenah) occurs in the Avesta 23 times.
The term also remains a frequent element in modern Persian personal names, including Arya and Aryan (boy's and girl's name), Aryana (a common surname), Iran-Dokht (Aryan daughter, a girl's name),Aryanpour (or Aryanpur, a surname), Aryamane, Ary among many others. The terms "Aryan" and "Iranian" are sometimes used interchangeably, as in the Iranian bank chain, Aryan Bank.
Because of ethnolinguistic arguments about connections between peoples and cultural values, "Aryan" peoples were often considered to be distinct from Semitic peoples. By the end of the nineteenth century "Aryan" was used as a synonym for Indo-European, and this popular usage persists even after some academic authors have condemned such usage because of its negative connotations derived from the Nazi era. In linguistics, it is still used in the context of the sub-branch of Indo-Iranians referred to as Indo-Aryans, all though that usage has also been condemned and proposed to be replaced by the term Indic languages.
The "Aryan race" was a term used in the early 20th century by European racial theorists who believed strongly in the division of humanity into biologically distinct races with differing characteristics. Such writers believed that the Proto-Indo-Europeans constituted a specific race that had expanded across parts of Europe, Iran and small parts of northern India. This usage tends to merge the Sanskrit meaning of "noble" or "elevated" with the idea of distinctive behavioral and ancestral ethnicity marked by language distribution.
From the late 19th century, a number of writers had argued that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had originated in Europe. Their opinion was received critically at first, but was widely accepted by the end of the nineteenth century. By 1905 Hermann Hirt in his Die Indogermanen (Hirt consistently used Indogermanen, not Arier, to refer to the Indo-Europeans) claimed that the scales had tilted in favour of the hypothesis, in particular claiming the plains of northern Germany as the Urheimat (p. 197) and connecting the "blond type" (p. 192) with the core population of the early, "pure" Indo-Europeans. This argument developed in tandem with Nordicism, the theory that the "Nordic race" of fair-haired north Europeans were innately superior to other peoples. The identification of the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the north German Corded Ware culture bolstered this position. This was first proposed by Gustaf Kossinna in 1902, and gained in currency over the following two decades, until V. Gordon Childe who in his 1926 The Aryans: a study of Indo-European origins concluded that "the Nordics' superiority in physique fitted them to be the vehicles of a superior language" (a belief which he later regretted having expressed).
The idea became a matter of national pride in learned circles of Germany, and was taken up by the Nazis. According to Alfred Rosenberg's ideology the "Aryan-Nordic" (arisch-nordisch) or "Nordic-Atlantean" (nordisch-atlantisch) race was thus a master race, at the top of a racial hierarchy, pitted against a "Jewish-Semitic" (jüdisch-semitisch) race, deemed to be a racial threat to Germany's homogeneous Aryan civilization, thus rationalizing Nazi anti-Semitism. Nazism portrayed their interpretation of an "Aryan race" as the only race capable of, or with an interest in, creating and maintaining culture and civilizations, while other races are merely capable of conversion, or destruction of culture. These arguments derived from late nineteenth century racial hierarchies. Some Nazis were also influenced by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (1888) where she postulates "Aryans" as the fifth of her "Root Races", dating them to about a million years ago, tracing them to Atlantis, an idea also repeated by Rosenberg, and held as doctrine by the Thule Society. Such theories were used to justify the introduction of the so-called "Aryan laws" by the Nazis, depriving "non-Aryans" of citizenship and employment rights, and prohibiting marriage between Aryans and non-Aryans. Though Mussolini's fascism was not originally characterised by explicit anti-Semitism, he too eventually introduced laws pressed upon him by Hitler, prohibiting mixed-race marriages between "Aryans" and Jews.
Because of historical racist use of Aryan, and especially use of Aryan race in connection with the propaganda of Nazism, the word is sometimes avoided in the West as being tainted, in the same manner as the swastika symbol. Currently, India and Iran are the only countries to use the word Aryan in a demographic denomination. Aryan is also a common male name in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.