As Jones pored over Sanskrit texts his mind made comparisons not just with Persian and English but also with Latin and Greek, the mainstays of an eighteenth-century university education; with Gothic, the oldest literary form of German, which he had also learned; and with Welsh, a Celtic tongue and his boyhood language which he had not forgotten. In 1786, three years after his arrival in Calcutta, Jones came to a startling conclusion… that the Sanskrit language originated from the same source as Greek and Latin, the classical languages of European civilization. He added that Persian, Celtic, and German probably belonged to the same family. European scholars were astounded. The occupants of India, long regarded as the epitome of Asian exotics, turned out to be long-lost cousins…
In the 1780s J. G. Herder proposed a theory later developed by von Humboldt and elaborated in the twentieth century by Wittgenstein, that… each particular language, generates and is enmeshed in a closed social community, or “folk,” that is at its core meaningless to an outsider. Language was seen by Herder and von Humboldt as a vessel that molded community and national identities. The brothers Grimm went out to collect “authentic” German folk tales while at the same time studying the German language, pursuing the Romantic conviction that language and folk culture were deeply related. In this setting the mysterious mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European, was regarded not just as a language but as a crucible in which Western civilization had its earliest beginnings.
After the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’, the Romantic conviction that language was a defining factor in national identity was combined with new ideas about evolution and biology. Natural selection provided a scientific theory that was hijacked by nationalists and used to rationalize why some races or “folks” rules others – some were more “fit” than others… Language, culture, and a Darwinian interpretation of race were bundled together to explain the superior biological-spiritual-linguistic essence of the northern Europeans who conducted these self-congratulatory studies. Their writings and lectures encouraged people to think of themselves as members of long-established, biological-linguistic nations, and thus were promoted widely in the new national school systems and national newspapers of the emerging nation-states of Europe. The policies that forced the Welsh (including Sir William Jones) to speak English, and the Bretons to speak French, were rooted in politicians’ need for an ancient and “pure” national heritage for each new state. The ancient speakers of Proto-Indo-European soon were molded into the distant progenitors of such racial-linguistic-national stereotypes.
The name ‘Aryan’ began to be applied to them, because the authors of the oldest religious texts in Sanskrit and Persian, the ‘Rig Veda’ and ‘Avesta’, called themselves Aryans. These Aryans lived in Iran and eastward into Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. The term ‘Aryan’ should be confined only to this Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. But the ‘Vedas’ were a newly discovered source of mystical fastination in the nineteenth century and in Victorian parlors the name Aryan soon spread beyond its proper confines. Madison Grant’s ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ (1916), was a virulent warning against the thinning of superior American “Aryan” blood (by which he meant the British-Scots-Irish-German settlers of the original thirteen colonies) through interbreeding with immigrant “inferior races”, which for him included Poles, Czechs, and Italians as well as Jews – all of whom spoke Indo-European languages.
The problem of Indo-European origins… became enmeshed in nationalist and chauvinist causes, nurtured the murderous fantasy of Aryan racial superiority, and was actually pursued in archaeological excavations funded by the Nazi SS… In Russia some modern nationalist political groups and neo-Pagan movements claim a direct linkage between themselves, as Slavs, and the ancient “Aryans”. In the United States white supremacist groups refer to themselves as Aryans. There actually were Aryans in history – the composers of the ‘Rig Veda’ and the ‘Avesta’ – but they were Bronze Age tribal people who lived in Iran, Afghanistan, and the northern Indian subcontinent. It is highly doubtful that they were blonde or blue-eyed, and they had no connection with the competing racial fantasies of modern bigots.
And how did the Aryans themselves define “Aryan”? According to their own texts, they conceived of “Aryan-ness” as a religious-linguistic category… If you sacrificed in the right way to the right gods, which required performing the great traditional prayers in the traditional language, you were an Aryan; otherwise you were not. The ‘Rig Veda’ made the ritual and linguistic barrier clear, but it did not require or even contemplate racial purity.
– From ‘The Horse, The Wheel, and Language; how Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world’ by David W. Anthony, p 7-11.