26 October, 2006

Franz Bopp

A while ago, in response to a blather on some books I'd bought, Monsieur Une P'tite Pensée, valued longwhiles reader and occasional commentator, requested a post on Franz Bopp of all people. So I appease him, thus. Bopp is a difficult subject for a blog—dry and technical, the hero of a recondite and dusty subject (the history of comparative philology) and mostly irrelevant to modern concerns. Nonetheless, I attempt to make him interesting. Apologies to the 99% of my small readership for whom this attempt has inevitably failed. As if to shoot myself in the foot, not to mention put said foot into mouth, I refuse to write a biographical article. If you want that, Wikipedia does a serviceable job; or if you have access to a university library, decent accounts (both English and German) can be found in Thomas Sebeok, ed. Portraits of Linguists, volume 1, pp. 200-221. Rest assured, though, he didn't have a terribly interesting life, and his line of work was hardly the sort to be much influenced by it.

So who was Franz Bopp? In short, he was inevitable. Since the 1780s Germany had been vomiting intellectual titans in every discipline of the humanities: Goethe, Kant and Hegel, Schleiermacher and Strauss, Theodor Mommsen, Karl Lachmann, Jakob Grimm, Alexander von Humboldt, and so on. They lacked a great literary critic, having to wait for Auerbach, Curtius and Spitzer in the 20th century. But looking back on it, it would have been unthinkable for the Germans to have lacked the great linguist of the 19th century. Fortunately, they had four: Grimm, Wilhelm von Humboldt (Al's brother), Bopp, and later August Schleicher. Grimm did the folklore and lexicography (as well as discovering the most famous law in linguistics), Humboldt did the mystical philosophy, and Bopp and Schleicher did the grunt-work of comparative philology—piecing together the grammars of dozens of Indo-European languages in an attempt to discover their precise affinities. Bopp wanted to discover the Ursprache, the language which stood behind German, Latin, Sanskrit, Russian and so on; as Robins mentions (A Short History of Linguistics, 1967):
In a striking metaphor [Antoine] Meillet declared that in his quest for the original state of the Indo-european language Bopp was led to discover the principles of comparative grammar as Christopher Columbus discovered America in his search for a new route to India.
It was, in fact, left to Schleicher (1861) to produce a systematic account of the prehistoric language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), whose grammatical forms he laboriously reconstructed from extant languages. He even wrote a little story in the language—you can read it here. But Bopp's part was even greater: his 1833 Comparative Grammar was a milestone, a close-argued three-volume analysis and comparison of eight languages.

Sanskrit was the key, being the eldest sister of the family, its grammar better preserved in its antique complexity than Greek or Latin. Histories of linguistics commonly cite an address by William Jones (1786) as the first Western appreciation of the affinity between Greek and Sanskrit—but in fact Europeans had noticed the connection since the 16th century Jesuit missions to India (see here for a debunking of Jones' importance). What Bopp saw was the sheer elaborateness of the affinities. Previous accounts had compared single words (eg. Skt. piter, L. pater, Gk. pater, G. Vater; or Skt. panca, L. quinque, Gk. pente, G. funf), but Bopp was the first to examine the structure of the verb, noticing the correspondence of Skt. as-mi, as-i, as-ti (I am, you are, he is) to L. su-m, es, es-t, Gk. ei-mi (originally es-mi), e-i, es-ti. He went on to deconstruct the entire corpus of noun and verb inflexions in the three (then eight) languages. One of Bopp's principal ideas was that verbal inflexions are corrupted forms of the two verbal roots of 'to be'—es- and fu-—thus Latin ama-v-i, 'I loved', was originally ama-fu-i, and Greek lu-s-o, 'I will loose', was originally lu-es-o.

Bopp is generally painted as a technicalist with little interest in speculative philosophy. Pieter Verburg, author of the inhumanely-erudite Language and its Functions, offers a critical glance at Bopp's work in a 1950 essay:
In Bopp there was a lack of and an aversion to any kind of enthusiasm about feeling (Gefühl), instinct or imagination, a lack, also, of the propensity for the belief in the mystical rising of language from and living in the depths of the soul. He opposed the physical and the mechanical to the organic.
By 'feeling', 'mystical rising', and so on, Verburg is referring to the theories propounded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the introduction to a projected work on the Kawi language of Java, an introduction now available in a useful paperback simply titled On Language. Here Humboldt, the hero of Romantic linguistics, discusses language as a primal force, an organism with its own natural laws, an energy greater than words and grammar, an infinite capacity with finite materials (see Chomsky), an 'innere Sprachform' moulded outwardly by the Genius of every individual race (see Sapir-Whorf). It's a fun book, check it out. Bopp isn't much fun. But the two were great friends, and behind Bopp's dry scholarship is the same notion of language as an organism: it's there in his first paragraph—
Ich beabsichtige in diesem Buche eine vergleichende, alles Verwandte zusammenfassende Beschreibung des Organismus der auf dem Titel genannten Sprachen, eine Erforschung ihrer physischen und mechanischen Gesetze. . .
Eastwick, Bopp's translator, misses the point:
I contemplate in this work a description of the comparative organization of the languages enumerated in the title page, comprehending all the features of their relationship, and an inquiry into their physical and mechanical laws. . .
Better is 'a comparative description comprehending all the relations of the organism of the languages named in the title'. The physical and mechanical are not opposed to the organism, as Verburg had argued, but rather supplement it. Later Bopp writes:
Da in diesem Buche die Sprachen, worüber es sich verbreitet, ihrer selbst willen, d. h. als Gegenstand und nicht als Mittel der Erkenntniss behandelt werden, und mehr eine Physik oder Physiologie derselben zu geben versucht wird, als eine Anleitung sie praktisch zu handhaben. . .
Again, Eastwick elides:
As in this work the languages it embraces are treated for their own sakes, ie. as objects and not means of knowledge, and as I aim rather at giving a [physics or] physiology of them than an introduction to their practical use. . .
The metaphor of the mechanical or physical is compounded with that of the organic or physiological. It is a metaphor which would be compounded with Darwinist evolutionism in the work of Schleicher. It is a mistake, therefore, to contrast Humboldt and Bopp, although the two did produce radically different works. Cassirer realised as much (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. I): 'The new philosophical view of language demanded and made possible a new approach to linguistic science. Throughout his general survey of language, Bopp reverts to Humboldt.'

It was for his brutal rigour that Bopp was admired ever since: the science he brought to perfection still survives, though many of his conclusions have been revised. The sceptical Verburg admits the high regard of others:
Bopp is always cited as the model of objective, sober-minded matter-of-fact scholars. He was an industrious closet-scholar, a non-speculative investigator, who recognized only positive facts as valid, keeping aloof from any metaphysical prejudice. If ever there was a man who had attained very near to the ideal of an unbiased mind (Voraussetzungslosigkeit), Bopp seems to have been that man.
(Digression: Great word, no? It takes Twain's Aristophanean joke to beat it: 'Personaleinkommensteuerschatzungskommissionsmitgliedsreisekosten-rechnungserganzungsrevisionsfund'.)

Hans Aarsleff, another modern sceptic, is even more contemptuous ('Bréal vs. Schleicher'):
Both before and after the dominance of the Bopp tradition, the study of language has covered a much wider territory, a fact that cannot be ignored except by making a number of ad-hoc decisions, e.g. that only with Bopp did the study of language become 'scientific'—
Aarsleff, here as always, is banging the drum for his revisionist history, which puts Condillac in the Bopp role, rather ridiculously, and cites Michel Bréal as his great successor—
Among the sources of this distortion, the most prominent is respect for a historiographical tradition that was ideologically designed to celebrate the Bopp tradition and its institutional status; this respect is sustained by a positivist view of natural science that was cogently criticized even in the nineteenth century.
Indeed it was. George Marsh, the great American populariser, thought that the dry analytism of Bopp's linguistics had led to 'a melancholy heap of bleached ashes, marrowless bones, and empty oyster-shells.' (And one-night cheap hotels? Why don't they write like that any more?) Marsh's negative reaction is an aesthetic one, like that of Verburg. But there were more substantive criticisms as well. John Donaldson, the most brilliant British philologist of the 19th century after Skeat, and a great friend of Tennyson's at Trinity, now almost completely forgotten, would sneer at Bopp in his stunning New Cratylus (1839) and Varronianus (1844), two monumental works which did the most to bring the new science to England. Discussing the analysis of the Latin infinitive, which I mentioned earlier:
Bopp is of course ready with his agglutination theory, and explains ama-vi-sse as a compound of amavi and esse. But, as he must see, this presumes a derivation of fuisse from fui and esse, and of fuerum from fui and eram, so that amaveram = ama-fui-eram and amavisse = ama-fui-esse. It is only by remembering the great services, which Bopp has rendered to comparative philology, that we can reconcile such suggestions with any claim to a character for critical tact and acumen.
Donaldson thinks it ridiculous that amavisse could contain two forms of the 'to be' stem (fui and esse) compounded together. Indeed, he's right, and modern linguists have discountenanced this hypothesis as untenable. But many of Bopp's ideas and derivations are still used today; even Bréal, who went on to reform German linguistics with the invention of semantics, began his career with a French translation of Bopp, including a preface that extolled the scientific excellence of the scholar's achievement—
The philological movement which has continued apace ever since was making its first brilliant appearance: amidst this variety of work Professor Bopp's book was the central point to which most of the other writings referred or which they implicitly presupposed.
Bréal's fine preface, which can be found in a collected edition of his shorter writings (George Wolf, ed. and tr. The Beginnings of Semantics, 1991), also notes Bopp's great improvement on the vague speculations of Schlegel (still beholden to a symbolic, Hegelian understanding of language), and his dependence on the classical Indian grammarians, who had already dealt with verbal roots, ablauts and vowel-lengths.

The mingent maculation of Bopp's parade by Verburg and Aarsleff, unlike the comprehensive demolition awarded to Lachmann in Kenney's The Classical Text, seems a little churlish. Bopp, like Darwin, with whose work he had much in common, produced many specific results needing revision, and often he revised them himself. His method and his rigour, however, remain. It is telling that Verburg's paper was written in 1950, just before Chomsky's revolution, and the same year as Joseph Stalin's essay on linguistics. Stalin wrote:
It is said that thoughts arise in the mind of man prior to their being expressed in speech, that they arise without linguistic material, without linguistic integument, in, so to say, a naked form. But that is absolutely wrong.
Verburg, meanwhile, complained that Bopp 'subject[ed] language to the laws of mathematical-theoretical thought. Bopp's heteronomism is not yet dead to-day. It is fully alive wherever logistics pronounces its views on language.' The Whorfian tastes of Stalin and Verburg would be insignificant by the end of the decade, and the analytical tradition of Bopp vindicated, albeit in more speculative form.


A Little Thought said...

Boy, ask a well-written, fully considered question...

As you note, Bopp's importance lies not in his conclusions, but in the way he thought about the nature of language, and how he undertook to desribe it.

Thanks for this.

John said...

Indeed, thanks.

And thanks also for the pointer to the Stalin article, which has got to be the most sane and sensible article on linguistics ever written by any national leader, comparable only with Teddy Roosevelt's much longer article on the evolution of concealment, written during a presidential campaign, no less.

I detect no Whorfianism in the article, however; indeed, the first half appears to be a rather thorough debunking of Whorf, proclaiming that the New Soviet Man did not require New Soviet Russian -- the Russian of Pushkin was plenty good enough for him. Stalin's Marr, indeed, is the real Whorfian, proclaiming language as a superstructure on the economic base, and Stalin goes to great lengths to denounce this as destructive of scientific reasoning, the nature of which he also fully understands.

It may be, of course, that Stalin had the thing ghost-written, but if so, he was sagacious enough to choose an intelligent and sensible ghost.

John said...

I should add that your actual quotation from Stalin is not Whorfianism but common sense (although there are objections, of the form "In what words did Beethoven conceive his Fifth Symphony?"), and that if Stalin did not know that sign language was a language, neither did anyone else in 1950. As for the future merging of all languages into one -- well! if politicians were to be held responsible for everything said in speeches such as that, where would it end?

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, you're right. My final thoughts were a bit too compressed. Whether or not Stalin's quoted thought was common sense, it would be heartily denied by Chomsky; for Chomsky, thought comes before language, whereas for Stalin, there can be no thought before language.

Marr was pressing for a lunatic form of Bopp, ie. the hunt for the 4 words as an Ursprache. Stalin calls him an 'idealist' for believing in 'Bare thoughts, free of the linguistic material'. Chomsky would press for a speculative form of the Ursprache, ie. the Universal Grammar, where differences of language would not reflect differences in the underlying thought.

What Stalin objects to in Marr is the notion that the language can be swept aside as easily as a form of economics/government; he argues that it has a long term and national character, talking about the 'specific national individuality of the Russian language'. He is still in the historicist (Marxist, Hegelian) way of thinking about language, where it is bound up with and expresses the Genius of a nation (in this case 'the people'). He puts it more sensibly than his forebears, but this is where he's coming from. The Russian of Pushkin may be good enough for Stalin, but you can't imagine French or English being so.

Your criticism stands, though.

language said...

Hey, a nice meaty article on one of my linguistic heroes -- thanks!

Bopp isn't much fun.

Oh yeah? For some of us, rigorous reconstruction is a hell of a lot more fun than blather about the Ever-Rising Spirit of whatever.

And please tell me we're not taking the Great Helmsman's linguistic blatherings seriously.

Conrad H. Roth said...

My pleasure.

"And please tell me we're not taking the Great Helmsman's linguistic blatherings seriously."

Chomsky did. Oh wait, you hate Chomsky. I don't think people take Humboldt Humboldt at face value any more, but he did anticipate notions like generativism, as well as emphasizing (at an unpopular time) the priority of spoken language over written. Plus, I rather like his idea that words are merely grammatical inventions. It's been a while since I read him carefully, though; he might have had other interesting things to say too.

Gawain said...

I am pleased to hear Humboldt Humboldt studied kawi. Nagarakartarama perchance?

Conrad H. Roth said...

"And please tell me we're not taking the Great Helmsman's linguistic blatherings seriously."

Hang on, you meant Stalin. (I think the combination of your previous remark and the Helm-Humb phonemic gave me a brain fart.) Well, hard as it may be to believe, Stalin had his linguistic head screwed on right--well, more right than his Russian contemporaries, at least.

Gawain: sorry, I don't know, It's all Kawi to me.

Aidan Kehoe said...

Either you or Twain missed a couple of Umlauts; the word would be


if it existed :-) .

David Marjanović said...

1. Prerequisitelessness. With a little good will, you folks can do that, too.

2. -fonds, directly from French.

3. Stalin... I mean, he spoke Georgian!!! With split ergativity and all! He couldn't help being a better linguist than the other Sovietmen!

Researcher said...

hello sir
can you please explain what Romantic Linguistics means exactly?
specially in this text:
All this reflects an understanding of language which is normative in its written form and is supposed to be unchanging in its character; such dictionaries are, in sum, the result of Romantic linguistics with its historical emphasis. The Oxford masterpiece, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, is, of course, a prime example of the type.
i would really appreciate it thx