Without a tongue, without a nose?

Nowadays, we tend to think of races as groups of people that share certain genes, but if you look at the expanding list of categories on the US Census, you get the sense that some people wonder if race isn’t better defined as people who share a certain culture, especially a culture bounded by language. Hispanics can be black or white, but they are still Hispanics, while whites can speak French or English, but they remain whites. Some students I’ve taught have made a similar point when they insisted that they were people born in Africa but now living in America, not African-Americans. Faulkner might have had similar thoughts. It turns out, that in the scholarly literature on Aryans (not as Hitler defined them, but an ancient group of people), there’s a convenient word to summarize these opposing views: anas. (And no, I don’t mean the title for Thomas Jefferson’s lengthy compilation of his own papers.)

Anas, according to Thomas Trautmann, is Sanskrit that can be parsed as a-nas, “without a nose,” or an-as, “without a mouth,” or without language. (Russian does something similar to the latter when it calls Germans nemetski, mute ones. Certainly, Jefferson wasn’t lacking for words.) So we have a physical criterion versus a cultural one contained in the same word to set apart a group of people. In this case, the word tries to decide who these Indo-Aryan speaking arya were versus the people who weren’t arya, both of which groups seemed to have been hanging around in what is now roughly India about 3500 years ago and happened to get themselves recorded in various seals, treaties, and religious verses. Some apparently could talk about horses and lions, while others could not.

If you’ve doubted that words have power, consider this: the Nazis sent an SS expedition in 1938 to look for those ancient Aryans hiding in the mountains of Tibet. Of course, they found traces of what they sought, not in tongues but in faces, and later in skeletons.

Is any distinction safe? (Dare I ask the post-modernists?)

Further reading:

• Thomas Trautmann, The Aryan Debate, Oxford UP, 2005.

• Christopher Peter and Jürgen Ritter, “Nazis auf dem Dach der Welt,” Der Spiegel, 24 April 2008.