An (English) acquaintance of mine pronounces the word Aryan as /ˈɛːrɪən/ (~Aerian). I have only ever heard it pronounced /ˈɑːrjən/ (~Aaryun). I have it on good authority that the word comes from Sanskrit's ārya which is pronounced /ˈɑːrjə/ just as I expected.

The ODO cites 'Aerian' as the correct (as these things go) British pronunciation while accepting both to be acceptable in American English. Webster is another dictionary that accepts either variant. MacMillan, just to be difficult, only accepts 'Aerian' as the correct pronunciation for American English, and either for BE.

Now, in all my years of watching Nazi flicks, I don't believe that I've ever heard the word pronounced "Aerian"; I'm pretty certain that I would have noted the difference if I had. Is it a recent change? Or is it a regional peculiarity? How do the Germans pronounce it?

Also, how would the word indo-aryan be pronounced?

  • Please correct my IPA if necessary. I bumbled my way through most of them. – coleopterist Sep 17 '12 at 16:08
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    I have only ever heard the trisyllabic /ˈɛːr.ɪ.ən/, never the bisyllabic /ˈɑːr.jən/. Although I think your point is on the leading vowel -- it starts out like air, not like arm. I have never heard the other way. The OED does attest both /ˈɛərɪən/ and /ˈɑːrɪən/ though. – tchrist Sep 17 '12 at 16:36
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    I agree with tchrist. (The German word for 'Aryan' is 'arisch', which is pronounced with [ɑː]. But German - and, for that matter, Sanskrit - have little effect on how words are pronounced in English, surely?) – Billy Sep 17 '12 at 16:39
  • @tchrist: Yes, I'm primarily questioning the pronunciation of the leading vowel. It's interesting that you are only familiar with /ˈɛərɪən/. Let me see if I can dig up some media which pronounces it as in Sanskrit. – coleopterist Sep 17 '12 at 19:16
  • @Billy Thanks for the German pronunciation. Re: effect, don't most of us pronounce 'en suite' as 'on sweet'? – coleopterist Sep 17 '12 at 19:20

The /ˈɛryən/ pronunciation is just a result of English phonology processing a foreign borrowing that starts with the letters AR.

Aryan is a borrowed word in all languages outside the Indo-Iranian subfamily of Indo-European. The rest of the world pronounces it as some variant of [arjan], which comes, as noted, from Sanskrit ārya /a:ryə/ 'compatriot'. Therefore, /'aryən/ is a perfectly acceptable English pronunciation, and the only acceptable one when using the term in its modern Indian sense.

Any use of Aryan (outside scare quotes) that refers to Germany or white racism is a result of romantic interpretations of 19th century German linguistic scholarship (e.g, Grimm's Law), which unearthed the prehistory of the "Indo-Germanic" (as I-E was then called, from names of its Eastern- and Westernmost families) languages. It was all very exciting, apparently. See also Wagner, Mad King Ludwig, Neuschwanstein, German Empire.

The AHD of IER says that Skt ārya comes from the PIE root *aryo- 'Self-designation of the Indo-Iranians'; other descendants of the same root are Iran and, surprisingly, Eire -- Celtic languages sometimes retain PIE roots that are otherwise lost in the Centum group.

None of these are English words, and so English treats them the same way it treats all borrowed words -- it changes the pronunciation until it tastes right. That's all.


I almost forgot, another reason to pronounce Aryan /'aryən/ is because Arian /'ɛriən/ usually refers to Arianism, a very important variety of Christianity that was the religion of the Ostrogoths in Italy, and the Visigoths in Spain. The only Gothic texts known to exist are translations of various parts of the (Arian Christian) New Testament.

  • Thanks John. Any idea which form is dominant in AE and BE? The dictionaries, as noted in my question, contradict each other. Also, by your reasoning, would/should indo-aryan be pronounced as per the Sanskrit pronunciation? – coleopterist Sep 17 '12 at 18:34
  • Indo-Aryan is a technical term in historical linguistics, and therefore should/would be pronounced /ɪndo.aryən/, when speaking English. – John Lawler Sep 17 '12 at 19:16
  • Thanks. I ran into this: "The shifting of meaning that eventually led to the present-day sense started in the 1830s, when Friedrich Schlegel, a German scholar who was an important early Indo-Europeanist, came up with a theory that linked the Indo-Iranian words with the German word Ehre, "honor," and older Germanic names containing the element ario-, such as the Swiss warrior Ariovistus who was written about by Julius Caesar." Is this what you were alluding to in your mention of "19th century German linguistic scholarship"? – coleopterist Sep 20 '12 at 7:34
  • Yes, except it went on for another century. It had been developing in scholarly circles for a few decades, but the news about Indo-European (and especially the Germanic parts of it), when it finally arrived in public discourse about then, fed right into the romantic vision of the noble Teuton conquering and revitalizing effete and decadent empires. – John Lawler Sep 20 '12 at 16:32

/ˈɛːrɪən/ is just an Anglicized pronunciation of “Aryan”. I’m not sure how old it is, but it is fairly easy to explain based on English phonological and orthographical tendencies.

In a number of varieties of English, the sequence /rj/ does not exist; and even in the ones where it is possible, there seems to be a tendency to avoid it whenever possible via a “conspiracy” of sound changes that turn it to something else.

More specifically,

  • When the /r/ is not preceded by a vowel, the sequence /rj/ has been eliminated in the great majority of English accents, including standard British and American English, by deleting the /j/. Words like “rue” and “true” are standardly pronounced like “roo” and “troo” rather than “ryoo” and “tryoo”. This is one example of a broader phenomenon called “yod-dropping”.

  • When the /r/ is preceded by a vowel, some accents do tolerate the sequence /rj/, but many accents avoid it in various ways. For example, /j/ is often simply dropped in words spelled with a vowel followed by “ru” such as ferrule, erudite, querulous. In words spelled with a vowel followed by “ri”, the “i” is often pronounced as an independent syllable rather than as a glide, such as carrion, material, inferior. (There are also a few words spelled with "ri" where the “i” is simply silent: carriage, marriage.) In general, the letter “y” acts exactly the same as the letter “i” in the middle of a word: see embryo and eukaryote.

  • There are some words with /j/ that cannot be dropped or syllabified, such as compounds like lumberyard. In standard British English, words like this don’t have /rj/ because the sound /r/ has been dropped: /lʌmbəjɑːd/. In standard American English, this is a case where /rj/ seems to be necessary, but it’s not a common situation at all. If there is any real difference between British and American use of /rj/ in the word Aryan, I would guess this is part of the reason for it: Americans can conceptualize it as being pronounced like a hypothetical compound word “ar-yan”, while this doesn’t really work for a non-rhotic British English speaker.

In terms of etymology, the OED says

[the spelling] Arian has long been in English use: Aryan is of recent introduction in Comparative Philology, and is also by many written Arian, on the ground that āria was the original word, as shown by the Vedic language, ārya being only the later Sanskrit form

but I imagine only a tiny fraction of people base their pronounciation of this word on this consideration.

The pronunciation of the vowel as /ɛː~eə~e/ is just based on the usual English value for “long a” before r. As far as I know, there is no significant phonological reason in English for /ɛː/ to be preferred over /ɑː/ here, but spelling often has a strong influence on the pronunciation of loanwords (all literate English speakers are exposed to the English spelling system regularly, while few of them are ever exposed to Sanskrit pronunciation), and /ɛː/ is more regular than /ɑː/ within the system of English spelling.

German pronunciation is somewhat irrelevant because “Aryan” is not a word in German: the German word is “arisch”, and it's pronounced with /aː/, which is simply the usual “long” pronunciation associated with the letter “a” in German.

I have never heard of people using different pronunciations in "Aryan" and "Indo-Aryan".

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