• Date of Birth: January 24, 1791
  • Born City: Mainz
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: Andreas, a bookkeeper, & Regina Linck B.
  • Date of Death: April 09, 1867
  • Death City: Berlin
  • Death State/Country: Germany
  • Married: Luise Matthies, 1825
  • Education:

    Study at Aschaffenburg, 1812; study in Paris, 1812-15, 1817-18; London, 1818-20; Göttingen, 1820-1.

  • Dissertation:


  • Professional Experience:

    Extraord. prof. oriental languages & gen. linguistics, Berlin, 1821-25; prof. 1825-67; honorary doctorate, Göttingen, 1821.

  • Publications:

    Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen, persischen und germanischen Sprache (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1816); Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Sanskrita-Sprache (Berlin, 1827; 2d ed. in Latin, 1833; concise version, 1834; 2d German ed., 1845; 3d ed., 1863); Grammatica critica linguae sanscricae (Berlin, 1829; 2d ed., 1832); Glossarium Sanscritum(Berlin, 1830; 2d ed., 1847); Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Litthauischen, Gothischen und Deutschen, 6 vols. (Berlin, 1833-1857; 2d ed., 1856-1861; 3d ed., 1868. English translation, A Comparative Grammar of the Sanscrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic, German, and Slavonic Languages. Translated by E. B. Eastwick. London, 1845-54; French translation by Michel Break Paris, 1866-74); Kritische Grammatik der Sanskrita-Sprache in kiirzer Fassung(Berlin, 1834; 2d ed., 1845; 3d ed., 1863; 4th ed., 1868); Die celtischen Sprachen in ihren Verhälmisse zum Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Germanischen, Litthauischen und Slawischen (Berlin, 1839); Über die Sprache der alten Preussen in ihren verwandtschaftlichen Beziehungen (Berlin, 1853); Über das Albanesische in seinen verwandtschaftlichen Beziehungen (Berlin, 1855).

  • Notes:

    Rarely in the history of science can the beginning of a discipline be ascribed to one single personage and the appearance of only one book signal the birth of that discipline, but such is the case with Comparative Indo-European Linguistics. In 1816 Franz Bopp’s book compared the conjugational system of Sanskrit with that of Greek, Latin, Persian, and Germanic. The preface was dated 16 May 1816; every year thereafter Bopp celebrated the anniversary of that day, and on the fiftieth “birthday” of Indo-European studies, the Royal Prussian Academy created the Bopp Foundation.

    There was, however, nothing in that monograph that was not known before. The importance of the book lies not in any single discovery but rather in the persistent and systematic grammatical comparison of the five languages in question without any consideration of philosophical problems or historical implications. The book’s success derives from its thematic limitation and the systematic enlargement of its material. Using this method, Bopp advanced his field of study for the remainder of his lifetime and thus became the first comparative philologist and historical linguist. Because that domain is inexhaustible, he created not only a discipline but also a profession, which has not changed much in the course of history.

    Bopp’s character and personality corresponded exactly with his work. He was not a linguistic genius or a man of high-flown brilliance; he was famous for his rectitude, modesty, and his steady diligence. His special gifts were a sober instinct for tracing out grammatical correspondences and his remarkable powers of deduction.

    Franz Bopp was born the sixth child of the bookkeeper in the division of horse fodder and carriages of the electoral administration (kurftirstlicher Futter- und Wagenschreiber). When Bopp’s native Mainz became French in 1801, following the peace treaty of Luneville, the Bopp family followed the elector to Aschaffenburg in Bavaria. There Bopp attended the gymnasium from 1801 to 1812 and later the university (which existed only from 1808 to 1814). His principal teacher was Karl Jospeh Hieronymous Windischmann (1775-1838), physician-in-ordinary of the then elector in Mainz, historian and philosopher, freemason and later devout Catholic. The decisive event in Bopp’s life was the appearance in 1808 of Friedrich Schlegel’s book on the language and wisdom of the Indians, Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier. Schlegel had learned Sanskrit in Paris from Alexander Hamilton (1762-1824), a British naval officer who had acquired his knowledge of Sanskrit in India, and who stayed in Paris from 1802 to 1807 because political and military circumstances prevented his return to England. In his book Schlegel gave some information on specimens of Sanskrit literature along with a sketch of the most noticeable grammatical correspondences between Sanskrit and other languages, principally Greek and Latin. It was a communis opinio in the late eighteenth century that there was a genealogical relationship between these languages, but Schlegel was the first to compare not simply words but also grammatical structures. That was the decisive step forward. In his words, “The similarity lies not only in a great number of common roots, but includes also the innermost structure and the grammar. The correspondence is therefore not accidental but proves a common descent.” And: “The decisive point that will make everything clear is the inner structure of the language; that is, the comparative grammar, which will bring us new information about the genealogy of the languages in much the same way as comparative anatomy threw light upon higher natural history.”

    Immediately after Schlegel’s book came out in 1808 Bopp and Windischmann studied it thoroughly again and again. While Windischmann was more interested in the wisdom of the East, his student was fascinated by the language. One can suppose that even by that time in Aschaffenburg Bopp opposed Schlegel on one special point: Schlegel thought that Sanskrit had a pure inflection, namely reduplication and ablaut, the suffixes and endings showing the natural strength and ability of the root to create grammar without the help of other words or extraneous elements.

    In this point, according to Schlegel, Sanskrit differs from the other languages. Bopp, on the other hand, was brought up in the doctrine of the general linguistic notions of the eighteenth century, which taught that on grounds of general considerations, all languages of the world can have only one verb and that this verb is the one that means “to be,” so that, e.g., English loves must by analyzed as love- “loving” plus ellipsis of the copula plus -s, “he.” In the same way, old hunter has lost the copula, while the hunter is old has preserved it. That means that according to eighteenth century linguistics (following scholastic traditions), only the copula is able to connect the parts of speech in a sentence. It was Bopp’s idea to apply that doctrine (which was based only on logical considerations) to the practical and historical analysis of languages. For him the analysis of loves given above is perfectly analogous to Latin pot-es-t, “mighty-is-he” (he can) and Latin dic-s-it (dixit) “saying-was-(-s- from Sanskrit as- “to be”)-he” (he said) and ama-b-at, “loving-was (-b- from Sanskrit bbu- “to be”)-he” (he loved). Bopp could therefore not follow Schlegel’s opinion that morphemes, which he saw as formations sprouting out of the root, were a proof of the vitality and strength of the rootstock of the Sanskrit language. It must be added that Bopp had already developed his analysis of the Indo-European verb forms and his explanation of them as compounds with verbs meaning “to be” and/or pronouns, while he and his teacher Windischmann were reading Schlegel’s book. In any case, the opposition against Schlegel gave Bopp the impetus to investigate the Indo-European verbal systems systematically, while Schlegel soon after lost interest in these problems.

    But first Bopp had to learn Sanskrit, and as Napoleon’s Continental System prevented his going to London, he assumed that he would study in Paris. Bopp moved to Paris in 1812, and with money provided by his father rented a small garret in Faubourg St. Germain and started immediately to work, only to discover, contrary to his expectations, that Sanskrit was not taught in Paris. With only the help of the imperfect grammars of Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1805) and William Carey (1806), and without a dictionary or an edition of a text, he taught himself so well that he deciphered a manuscript of the great Indian epic Mahabharata. He was encouraged only by Louis Langlois, the curator of oriental manuscripts of the National Library. Bopp started with some passages that were accessible through printed translations and gradually, in the course of time, progressed to the stage where he translated the entire huge work. Even today, with our good grammars, dictionaries, commentaries and translations, this would be a great performance. At this time Bopp studied Arabic and New Persian with the great Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) and taught himself Spanish, much as he had Sanskrit, finally reading Calderón and Lope de Vega.

    Bopp stayed in Paris from 1812 to 1816, supported by his father for the first two years, then by a small scholarship granted by the king of Bavaria. On weekdays he would read from morning to evening in the National Library and then study at home for many hours at night and on weekends. He was interested in nothing else in the world except the study of languages. In his letters from Paris we do not find one word about Paris or its inhabitants, about manners and customs, about the food, about art treasures or edifices. Even the world-shaking political events, the repeated capture of Paris, and the fall of the Napoleonic empire are mentioned only briefly, emphasizing at the same time that these events cost him no time away from his studies. From 1814 to 1816 Bopp introduced August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), the elder brother of Friedrich (1772-1829), to Sanskrit. In 1819 Schlegel became the first professor of Sanskrit in Bonn.

    The fruit of Bopp’s studies in Paris was Uber das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache, mentioned above. Bopp’s first aim in this book was the analysis of the verb forms and the etymological explanation of the elements he derived from his analysis. He tried to describe the formation of the verb forms in Sanskrit and the related languages. As he was interested in revealing the leading principles of Indo- European grammar, there was a strong typological element in his research. But he was not an historian in the proper sense; the historical element in his work was only an automatic consequence of the inclusion of a huge mass of linguistic material. Bopp’s peculiar position as what Reinhard Sternemann calls a “non-historical historian” (“Bopp betreibt also gewissermassen einen ‘unhistorischen Historismus’ ”) who achieved results of the greatest importance for the history of the Indo-European languages (while he himself was rather a typologist and “etymologist of morphemes”) becomes especially clear from his later books. In this respect Bopp’s position is directly opposite to that of Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), who some time later worked in the field of Germanic languages as a mere and true historian. Historical phonology, in particular laws of sound—later the firm base of all research in language history—is not found in Bopp’s work, nor is any systematic reconstruction.

    When Bopp’s royal scholarship ended in August 1816, he had to leave Paris and return to his parents in Aschaffenburg. In October he stayed in Munich applying for further financial support, but he first had to sit for an examination to prove that the king of Bavaria had not granted his aid in vain. Bopp was required to present a paper explaining the results and the methods of his research and he had to demonstrate in oral examination, with the help of a passage of a Gothic text of his own choosing, the relation between Gothic and Sanskrit. Before a wider public audience he had to translate the first two chapters of Herodotus into Latin. The procedure was finished in January 1817, but not until September of that year did the king decide to grant Bopp the extraordinary support of 1,000 guilders per annum for two years. Meanwhile, Bopp left Bavaria and stayed in Paris at his own expense, working in the library and reading Sanskrit texts twice a week with August Wilhelm Schlegel. It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Hamilton, who was then visiting Paris.

    In October 1818 he went to London and there studied Sanskrit manuscripts in close contact with Colebrooke (1765-1837), G. C. Haughton (1788-1849), and Charles Wilkins (1749-1836). In the summer of 1820 he went from London, via Paris, to Mommenheim, a village near Mainz, where his father had bought a small estate for Bopp’s elder brother. In the same year the competent ministry in Munich tried to force the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Wurzburg to inaugurate a chair for Bopp. But the faculty declared strictly that a chair for Sanskrit would be useless and furthermore that Bopp would not even be qualified for such a chair. Only one year later, the same faculty appointed Othmar Frank (1770-1840), a Sanskritist of limited knowledge, Professor of Oriental Languages.

    In November 1820 Bopp went to Göttingen, where he enrolled in courses in Hebrew. In April 1821 the University of Göttingen bestowed upon him the honor of doctor honoris causa in appreciation of his work and discoveries in the Sanskrit language. In the same month Bopp visited Berlin for the first time and studied Sanskrit texts with Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) nearly every day. Through Humboldt he came into contact with important personalities in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs: Minister Altenstein and the Privy Councillors (Staatsräte) Süvern and Nicolovius. On 9 September 1821 Bopp was appointed Extraordinary Professor of Oriental Literature and General Linguistics at the Friedrich-Wilhelms University (the document was granted on 14 September, his thirtieth birthday) and a short time later, full Professor. In 1822 he became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. By 1820 a revised edition of his first book had appeared in English translation under the title Analytic Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Teutonic Languages Showing the Original Grammatical Structure.

    In Berlin Bopp was now free from all worry about his daily existence and could, by hard labor day after day and year after year, and with his imperturbable determination, build up his immense life’s work. In the early twenties he edited and translated some smaller Sanskrit texts: in 1827 his Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Sanskrita-Sprache appeared, then the second edition in Latin (1833), a concise version (1834), a second German edition (1845), followed by a third (1863). A Sanskrit glossary came out in 1830, with a second edition in 1847. While the first edition was followed by a short etymological appendix, the second edition became a sort of etymological dictionary.

    His main work, however, was his Comparative Indo-European Grammar. He started with five preliminary essays dealing with special problems, which appeared as Akademieabhandlungen (1824-1826, 1829, 1831). His Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Litauischen, Gotischen und Deutschen came out in six volumes (1833, 1835, 1837, 1842, 1849, 1852). The second edition appeared from 1856 to 1861 and in 1868, one year after Bopp’s death, the third. Up to the end of the seventies, that work formed the firm and authoritative foundation of all Indo-European studies. Nevertheless, many questions about other languages remained, and Bopp treated them in special dissertations because it would have been too complicated to include them in the great grammar: he dealt with Celtic in a monograph of great importance (1839), and also produced monographs on Old Prussian (1853) and Albanian (1855).

    His comparison of the Greek and Sanskrit accentual system was, even in the eyes of many contemporaries, unsuccessful. Unsuccessful also were his attempts to prove that the Malayan and Polynesian languages belong to the Indo-European language family (1840) and that Georgian was also an Indo-European language (1846). The reason for these failures lay in the lack of a reliable historical phonology. The concept of sound laws was developed only a short time after Bopp’s death.

    Happily and regularly progressing in his scholarly work, in a harmonious family circle and in close contact with Wilhelm von Humboldt, and surrounded by many students who admired him, he was witness to the rise and flourishing of “his” discipline. He was a modest and unpretentious man who knew no doubts or inner conflicts. He especially enjoyed living in Berlin, where he appreciated the free and easy form of social life and the high estimation and respect that the royal court and the administration showed towards the sciences, arts and humanities.

    Bopp continued to lecture up to 1864 and died after an attack of apoplexy.

  • Notes (2):


  • Sources:

    T. Benfey, Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft (Munich, 1869): 370-9, 470-515; Adalbert Kuhn, “Franz Bopp.” Unsere Zeit, IV Jahrg. 10 heft., 1868; Solomon Lefmann, Franz Bopp, sein Leben und seine Wissenschaft, 1. Halfte (Berlin, 1891); August Leskien, “Franz Bopp.” Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie. Bd. 3 (1876): 140-149; Russel Martineau, “Obituary of Franz Bopp.” Transactions of the Philological Society, 1867; Carter Neumann, Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft 1816 und 1966. Bd. 1. Franz Bopp. Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Kulturwissenschaft. Sonderheft 24. (Innsbruck, 19670; B. Schlerath, “Franz Bopp.” Berlinische Lebensbilder Geisteswissenschaftler. Ed. M. Erbe (Berlin, 1989): 55-72; Reinhard Sternemann, “Franz Bopps Beitrag zur Entwicklung der vergleichenden Sprachwissenschaft.” Zeitschrift für Germanistik. Bd. 5. Heft 2 (1984); ------,  Franz Bopp und die vergleichende indoeuropäische Sprachwissenschaft. Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft 33 (Innsbruck, 1984); K.J. Windischmann, K. J. “Vorerinnerungen” in Bopp’s Conjugationssystem.

  • Author: Bernfried Schlerath