Etymology of 'iyer' and may be even that of 'iyenkAr'

Palaniappa at Palaniappa at
Tue Jun 17 03:55:24 UTC 1997

In a message dated 97-06-15 22:36:16 EDT, mahadevasiva at (S
Krishna) writes:

<< As far as this Iyer from Arya business is concerned, has this theory 
 been proved? I heard that the word Iyer is related to"Aiya"(Lord or
 Superior), but does the word Aiya derive from Arya?  >>

Many otherwise excellent scholars have badly missed the mark when it came to
the etymology of Tamil words 'iyer'. The correct transliteration of the word
is 'aiyar'. It can be explained as
ai + y+ ar, where

ai  is the root
y is a glide
ar is a suffix marking plural or honorific singular.

The root 'ai' referred to persons held in respect or family elders. This root
'ai' by itself and in combination with different suffixes occurs in Classical
and post-classical Tamil literature.

Examples are:

by itself                                            'ai'        (paripATal
with singular masculine suffix 'an'       'aiyan'   (kalittokai 43.5)
with singular feminine suffix    'aL'      'aiyaL'   (ainkuRunURu 255.3)
with singular feminine suffix    'ai'       'aiyai'    (akanAnURu 6.3)
with honorific/plural suffix       'ar'       'aiyar'   (akanAnURu 126.7)
with honorific/plural suffix       'mAr'    'aimAr'  (nAcciyAr tirumozi

Some Tamil scholars in the past with their love for Indo-Aryan, derived it
from Sanskrit 'Arya' through  Pali 'ayya' without systematically looking at
all available evidence. Following them, western scholars who depend on
secondary sources have accepted their conclusion. Given the examples cited
above, it is clear 'aiyar' is a perfectly Tamil word. In Tamil, the British
scholar G. U. Pope is known as 'pOppaiyar'. I hope at least now the scholars
will give up the IA etymology.

As for, 'aiyankAr', my feeling is it is a hybrid word which has undergone
some changes. I remember long ago seeing an original form cited in a book as
'aiyanankakArar'. (I have forgotten the title of the book.) This can be split
into two components as:

aiyan + ankakArar

The first part is Tamil. The second part seems to be from Sanskrit 'anga'
'kAra' with the usual Tamil ending of 'r' occurring in words of Sanskrit
origin where the word-final 'a' serves as the 'a' in Tamil suffixes 'an' or
'ar'. The Sanskrit component may denote the ZrivaiSNavite practice of
applying symbols of ViSNu ('aiyan') on their limbs/body, i.e., those who have
applied (the symbols of) Lord ViSNu or 'aiyan' on different limbs/body. In
Tamil usage, 'ankam' (Sanskrit 'anga') may refer to the whole body also. The
loss of 'an', ka' and ar' may be due to haplology.


S. Palaniappan

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