Franz Bopp

Franz Bopp bigraphy, stories - German philologist

Franz Bopp : biography

14 September 1791 – 23 October 1867

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


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 Charles 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.

Encyclopædia Britannica (11th edition of 1911) assesses Bopp and his work as follows:

Bopp’s researches, carried with wonderful penetration into the most minute and almost microscopical details of linguistic phenomena, have led to the opening up of a wide and distant view into the original seats, the closer or more distant affinity, and the tenets, practices and domestic usages of the ancient Indo-European nations, and the science of comparative grammar may truly be said to date from his earliest publication. In grateful recognition of that fact, on the fiftieth anniversary (May 16, 1866) of the date of Windischmann’s preface to that work, a fund called Die Bopp-Stiftung, for the promotion of the study of Sanskrit and comparative grammar, was established at Berlin, to which liberal contributions were made by his numerous pupils and admirers in all parts of the globe. Bopp lived to see the results of his labours everywhere accepted, and his name justly celebrated. But he died, on the 23rd of October 1867, in poverty, though his genuine kindliness and unselfishness, his devotion to his family and friends, and his rare modesty, endeared him to all who knew him.

English scholar Russell Martineau, who had studied under Bopp, gave the following tribute: “Bopp must, more or less, directly or indirectly, be the teacher of all who at the present day study, not this language or that language, but language itself — study it either as a universal function of man, subjected, like his other mental or physical functions, to law and order, or else as an historical development, worked out by a never ceasing course of education from one form into another.”

Martineau also wrote: “Bopp’s Sanskrit studies and Sanskrit publications are the solid foundations upon which his system of comparative grammar was erected, and without which that could not have been perfect. For that purpose, far more than a mere dictionary knowledge of Sanskrit was required. The resemblances which he detected between Sanskrit and the Western cognate tongues existed in the syntax, the combination of words in the sentence and the various devices which only actual reading of the literature could disclose, far more than in the mere vocabulary. As a comparative grammarian he was much more than as a Sanskrit scholar,” and yet “it is surely much that he made the grammar, formerly a maze of Indian subtilty, as simple and attractive as that of Greek or Latin, introduced the study of the easier works of Sanskrit literature and trained (personally or by his books) pupils who could advance far higher, invade even the most intricate parts of the literature and make the Vedas intelligible. The great truth which his Comparative Grammar established was that of the mutual relations of the connected languages. Affinities had before him been observed between Latin and German, between German and Slavonic, etc., yet all attempts to prove one the parent of the other had been found preposterous.”


He was born in Mainz, but owing to the political disarray of the time, his parents moved to Aschaffenburg the second seat of the Archbishop of Mainz. 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, did not fail to stimulate Bopp’s interest in the sacred language of the Hindus.