Franz Bopp

Franz Bopp

Franz Bopp (September 14, 1791October 23, 1867) was a German linguist known for extensive comparative work on Indo-European languages.


He was born at Mainz, but owing to the political disarray of the time, his parents moved to Aschaffenburg in Bavaria. There, he received a liberal education at the Lyceum, and Karl J. Windischmann drew his attention to the languages and literature of the East (Windischmann, along with Georg Friedrich Creuzer, Johann Joseph von Görres, and the brothers Schlegel, expressed great enthusiasm for Indian wisdom and philosophy). Moreover, Friedrich Schlegel's book, "Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier" ("On the Speech and Wisdom of the Indians", Heidelberg, 1808), which had just begun to exert a powerful influence on the minds of German philosophers and historians, could not fail to stimulate also Bopp's interest in the sacred language of the Hindus.

In 1812, he went to Paris at the expense of the Bavarian government, with a view to devoting himself vigorously to the study of Sanskrit. There he enjoyed the society of such eminent men as Antoine Leonard de Chézy, Silvestre de Sacy, Louis Mathieu Langlès, and, above all, of Alexander Hamilton (1762–1824), who had acquired, when in India, an acquaintance with Sanskrit, and had brought out, along with Langlès, a descriptive catalogue of the Sanskrit manuscripts of the Imperial library. In the library, Bopp had access not only to the rich collection of Sanskrit manuscripts (mostly brought from India by Jean François Pons in the early 18th century) but also to the Sanskrit books which had up to that time been issued from the Calcutta and Serampore presses.


The first paper from his four years' study in Paris appeared in Frankfurt am Main in 1816, under the title of "Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen, persischen und germanischen Sprachen" ("On the Conjugation System of Sanskrit in comparison with that of Greek, Latin, Persian and Germanic") (Windischmann contributed a preface). In this first book Bopp entered at once the path on which he would focus the philological researches of his whole subsequent life. He did not need to prove the common parentage of Sanskrit with Persian, Greek, Latin and German, for previous scholars had long established that; but he aimed to trace the common origin of those languages' grammatical forms, of their inflections from composition – a task which no predecessor had attempted. By a historical analysis of those forms, as applied to the verb, he furnished the first trustworthy materials for a history of the languages compared.Fact|date=June 2008

After a brief sojourn in Germany, Bopp travelled to London where he made the acquaintance of Sir Charles Wilkins and HT Colebrooke. He also became friends with Wilhelm von Humboldt, then Prussian ambassador at the Court of St. James's, to whom he taught in Sanskrit. He brought out, in the "Annals of Oriental Literature" (London, 1820), an essay entitled, "Analytical Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Teutonic Languages", in which he extended to all parts of the grammar what he had done in his first book for the verb alone. He had previously published a critical edition, with a Latin translation and notes, of the story of Nala and Damayanti (London, 1819), the most beautiful episode of the "Mahabharata". Other episodes of the "Mahabharata" – Indralokâgama, and three others (Berlin, 1824); "Diluvium", and three others (Berlin, 1829); a new edition of Nala (Berlin, 1832) – followed in due course, all of which, with AW Schlegel's edition of the "Bhagavad Gita" (1823), proved excellent aids in initiating the early student into the reading of Sanskrit texts. On the publication, in Calcutta, of the whole "Mahabharata", Bopp discontinued editing Sanskrit texts and confined himself thenceforth exclusively to grammatical investigations.

After a short residence at Göttingen, Bopp gained, on the recommendation of Humboldt, appointment to the chair of Sanskrit and comparative grammar at Berlin in 1821, and became a member of the Royal Prussian Academy the following year. He brought out in 1827 his "Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Sanskritsprache", on which he had worked since 1821. Bopp started work on a new edition in Latin, for the following year, completed in 1832; a shorter grammar appeared in 1834. At the same time he compiled a "Sanskrit and Latin glossary" (1830) in which, more especially in the second and third editions (1847 and 1867), he also took account of the cognate languages. His chief activity, however, centred on the elaboration of his "Comparative Grammar", which appeared in six parts at considerable intervals (Berlin, 1833, 1835, 1842, 1847, 1849, 1852), under the title "Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Litauischen, Gotischen und Deutschen" ("Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic and German").

How carefully Bopp matured this work emerges from the series of monographs printed in the "Transactions of the Berlin Academy" (1824–1831), which preceded it. They bear the general title, "Vergleichende Zergliederung des Sanskrits und der mit ihm verwandten Sprachen" ("Comparative Analysis of Sanskrit and its related Languages"). Two other essays (on the "Numerals", 1835) followed the publication of the first part of the "Comparative Grammar". Old Slavonian began to take its stand among the languages compared from the second part onwards. EB Eastwick translated the work into English in 1845. A second German edition, thoroughly revised (1856–1861), also covered Old Armenian.

In his "Comparative Grammar" Bopp set himself a threefold task:
# to give a description of the original grammatical structure of the languages as deduced from their intercomparison
# to trace their phonetic laws, and
# to investigate the origin of their grammatical forms.

The first and second points remained dependent upon the third. As Bopp based his research on the best available sources and incorporated every new item of information that came to light, his work continued to widen and deepen in the making. Witness his monographs on the vowel system in the Teutonic languages (1836), on the Celtic languages (1839), on the Old Prussian (1853) and Albanian languages ("Über das Albanesische in seinen Verwandtschaftliche Beziehungen", Wien, 1854), on the accent in Sanskrit and Greek (1854), on the relationship of the Malayo-Polynesian with the Indo-European languages (1840), and on the Caucasian languages (1846). In the two latter, the impetus of his genius led him on a wrong track.


Critics have charged Bopp with neglecting the study of the native Sanskrit grammars, but in those early days of Sanskrit studies the great libraries of Europe did not hold the requisite materials; if they had, those materials would have demanded his full attention for years, while such grammars as those of Wilkins and Henry Thomas Colebrooke, from which Bopp derived his grammatical knowledge, had all used native grammars as a basis. The further charge that Bopp, in his "Comparative Grammar", gave undue prominence to Sanskrit stands disproved by his own words; for, as early as the year 1820, he gave it as his opinion that frequently the cognate languages serve to elucidate grammatical forms lost in Sanskrit ("Annals of Or. Lit." i. 3), – an opinion which he further developed in all his subsequent writings.


*Michel Jules Alfred Bréal's translation of Bopp's "Vergleichende Grammatik" (1866) introduction
*Theodor Benfey, "Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft" (1869)
*A. Kuhn in "Unsere Zeit," Neue Folge, iv. I (1868)
*Salomon Lefmann, "Franz Bopp" (Berlin, 1891–1897).

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