The estimated reading time for this post is 10 minutes.
In the Summer of 1829, Franz Bopp and August Wilhelm von Schlegel quarreled about Sanskrit sound shifts. They quarreled so badly it ended their correspondence, and they never met again.
They were, at that point, the first two professors of Sanskrit, in Germany and elsewhere. Their friendship dated back from 1814, when Bopp, though twenty years younger, had helped Schlegel with his Sanskrit studies. Bopp had gone to Paris in his early twenties to learn the language, just like August Wilhelm’s younger (and wilder) brother Friedrich had done before. August, at that point already a literary figure of renown and the consort of Madame de Staël, had followed after Napoleon’s exile, and rushed off again when Napoleon returned. Now that both had landed a professorship, the break was probably inexorable: Schlegel was older and famous, but Bopp was evidently the better linguist. Schlegel was no longer in a position to be condescendingly nice and benign.
In his final letter to Bopp, Schlegel writes:
Was Übrigens den Inhalt Ihres Schreibens betrifft, so werden Sie mir verzeihen, wenn ich künftig briefliche Erörterungen über diese Gegenstände vermeide; weil, wie ich sehe, vertrauliche Mittheilungen Ihnen unwillkommen sind, sobald eine Divergenz der Meynungen hervortritt. Was man durch den Druck dem Publikum übergeben hat, fällt ohnehin mit unsrer eignen Zustimmung der öffentlichen wissenschaftlichen Prüfung anheim.
In the same letter, the appellation shifts from “Hochgeehrter Herr und Freund” to a frosty “Ew. Wohlgeboren”. Apparently Schlegel did not realize how arrogant his previous letter had been, in which he had criticized Bopp’s Sanskrit grammar. (Heinrich Heine describes him as almost ridiculously vain.) Now it is very sad that they quarreled and stopped being friends, but the reasons why are interesting.
What had happened was this. In his Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Sanskritsprache (1827), Bopp had corrected the ancient Sanskrit grammarians, particularly Panini. It helps to know that Panini’s grammar is an incredibly elaborate and abstract system, more complicated than any other grammar whatsoever written before the twentieth century. That, for Bopp, was precisely what was wrong with it: it was a dead, mechanical set of rules, meant to stamp the classical Vedic canon into the heads of young Brahmins. The British scholars of the Asiatick Society, who had pioneered in Sanskrit studies at the end of the 18th century, had not exactly reproduced that example, but they had not disputed its authority. According to Bopp, such unscientific deference completely neglected the inner, ‘organic’ workings of the language.
Schlegel, in a long list of detailed comments on Bopp’s grammar, averred that one should not so easily neglect such a near-exhaustive source on such an ancient language, and urged Bopp to consult his Panini. He even suggested some of Bopp’s corrections were printing mistakes. That was more pedantry than Bopp was willing to swallow. So he got even more pedantic in return. Surely, he argued, the Vedic texts themselves were better evidence than their fragmented presentation in grammars compiled a few centuries later? And surely, his own expert opinion, supported by empirical evidence, rated higher than that of some eminent British amateurs?
That was the epistemological side of the debate. But there was also a moral, or even metaphysical side to it, and it had to do with the rather vague notion of language as an ‘organism’.
Both Bopp and Schlegel believed that language was organic. All 19th-century German linguists did, at least until the Junggrammatiker in the 1880s. But they meant different things by it. Friedrich Schlegel, August Wilhelm’s maverick younger brother, had kick-started comparative grammar with his 1808 Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, in which he distinguished between ‘organic’ languages with conjugated verbs and ‘mechanical’ languages, which only had suffixes or isolated syllables.
A decade later, August Wilhelm refined this distinction by dividing the mechanical languages into isolating and agglutinative, and the inflecting languages into analytic and synthetic – that is, languages that use personal pronouns and articles, and languages that merge person, number, gender, and grammatical role into the verb and noun. In doing so, August Wilhelm retained the basic distinction between organic and mechanical. The refined taxonomy is still in use today, although the underlying distinction, of course, is not.
Unnecessary to say, it was a hierarchical distinction: although there was a certain continuity between different kinds of organic languages (i.e. those that used more or less prepositions), inflection remained unique, and the older languages were ‘purer’. In contrast, for Wilhelm von Humboldt all languages were organic (although some were more ‘fertile’ than others); which implied, with regard to grammar, that one should describe rather than prescribe its rules. Bopp’s idea of ‘organic’ was somewhere in between. In his masterwork Vergleichende Grammatik, he identifies it with “Fähigkeit der Zusammensetzung” – a gradual instead of a binary distinction, but still a hierarchical one, which excludes Chinese as ‘inorganic’. For Bopp, mechanic and organic were not opposites; precisely as an organism, language lent itself to rigid analysis of its “physische Gesetze” and “naturhistorische Classificirung”.
Early in 1827, Bopp reviewed the second edition of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik. That work has gone into history as the source of ‘Grimm’s Law’ – although it is nowhere called a law – describing the sound shift that set apart the Germanic languages. But it also described something else: the history of the German Umlaut and Ablaut. Umlaut is the annoying switch in German past tense and plural from a, o, u to ä, ö, ü – which Grimm could mechanically explain from the influence of a nearby ‘i’ or ‘j’ in the suffix. Ablaut was a more resilient phenomenon. Ablaut is the e, a, o in werden, ward, geworden – that is, the vowel shift in the root of a verb which occurs in nearly all Indo-European languages. That was precisely what Friedrich Schlegel had meant by ‘the inner life of the grammatical root’. If there was something which would set apart Indo-European languages as ‘uniquely organic’, this was it.
Grimm suggested a certain analogy with Sanskrit – but Grimm knew no Sanskrit. Bopp was happy enough to supply it. The very first two rules of Panini’s grammar define the essential elements of Ablaut: single vowels – guna – and diphthongs – vriddhi. The first one was the more interesting case, as these single sounds in fact resulted from a blend of two vowels: for instance, a + i = e (compare French ai). From this, Bopp inferred that also Ablaut could be explained away. The implication was obvious: the basic distinction that the Schlegels made was wrong. In the perspective of the Schlegels, after all, organic languages only became less pure over time; here now was a claim that they could have impure origins. Bopp had expressed doubts about the degree to which conjugation could be explained from the ‘inner life of the grammatical root’ before, but here was a law-like counter-explanation, phrased in the language of the Sanskrit grammarians, while overruling their authority through expert opinion. There is no direct link to the quarrel that occurred two years later, but the style of reasoning is the same, and it explains why irritations must have been building up between Schlegel and Bopp.
That quarrel was not the end of the affair. Even if it was flexible, the taxonomy still made sense; Bopp retains it in the Vergleichende Grammatik. August Schleicher, half a century later, and Edward Sapir, a full century later, rejuvenated August Schlegel’s taxonomy, with the caveat that such differences also occurred within languages and could evolve from one type to the other. As for Ablaut and Umlaut, August Pott followed Bopp’s lead. It became the cornerstone of his Etymologische Forschungen (1833-6), in which he used guna, and even gunieren, as technical terms. A skeptical reviewer pointed out that outside Sanskrit, traces of pure guna were quite rare and that not every sound shift was ‘guniert’.
With Pott we enter a next stage of professionalization. The Etymologische Forschungen, firstpublished within weeks of Bopp’s Vergleichende Grammatik, cite as their main sources the grammars that had been compiled in the past few decades; that is, they were drawn from abstracted data rather than directly from the oldest extant language samples. This is a different procedure than that of Wilkins et al. purportedly following Panini’s authority, or for that matter, Adelung and Vater gathering all the world’s known languages in samples of the Lord’s Prayer, since it requires a previous reconstruction and technical analysis. Accordingly, the greater part of Pott’s work is so dense and abstract as to be completely incomprehensible to the lay reader, often containing samples of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Persian in one sentence. Bopp’s Vergleichende Grammatik, with its tabular presentation, is an easy read in comparison.
Pott also did something else. Seven years younger than Bopp, he made an important step towards canon-formation when he called Bopp’s 1816 Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache ‘the beginning of a new epoch in linguistics’. Although he also named A.W. Schlegel, Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm von Humboldt as fellow founding fathers, his judgement of the Schlegels was mixed: more explicitly than Bopp, he concluded that the distinction between inflecting and agglutinative languages is fluid. Doing so, he reduced Friedrich Schlegel to a mere precursor who anticipated Bopp’s and Grimm’s ideas through “ahnungsvolle Blicke”.
And of course, Pott, too, believed that language was organic. But again, he meant something different by that. For Pott, etymology is the clue to the spiritual life of the nation, the seed in which the historical development of culture and knowledge is contained. And that, again, is the precondition to the philosophical, historical, and physiological study of language, which must be pursued with utmost scientific rigour. It is a strange blend of romantic nationalism, positivism, and an essentially 18th-century programme for reconstructing the history of civilization.
What, in the end, does this tell us about the quibble between Bopp and Schlegel over some grammatical details? It remains, of course, a piece of academic gossip rather than a confrontation of world-historical impact. To the extent that it was, in retrospect, a fight about one’s place in the canon, Bopp won. Epistemologically, Bopp’s asserted ‘expert opinion’ indeed gained the upper hand. The historical origins of Ablaut, to my best knowledge, are still a contested issue. And the distinction between isolating, agglutinative and inflecting languages works fine if you see it as a continuum.
But what about ‘language as an organism’? It is, by all means, a muddled concept, giving rise to gruesome reifications and ghastly racist mythologies. But it was also an important guiding insight, perhaps the more so for being functionally vague. Logically speaking, you don’t need it to draw up language family trees, comparative tables, and morphological-etymological reconstructions, or even to prefer description over prescription. Could Bopp, Pott, Grimm, Humboldt, and the Schlegels have done so without that guiding insight? Their French and English colleagues, at any rate, did far worse without. Speaking as someone who doesn’t believe in ‘deep structures’ or ‘conceptual schemes’, I prefer to think of organicism as a useful metaphor which they took a bit too literally. If you do believe in such things, however, then Bopp and Schlegel’s quibble indeed becomes a tragedy, a confusion of tongues between two men held captive by an image.
– Salomon Lefmann, Franz Bopp, sein Leben und seine Wissenschaft, Bd. 1 (Berlin 1891), Anhang p. 113
AW Schlegel to Bopp, 14 June 1829. In: Salomon Lefmann, Franz Bopp, sein Leben und seine Wissenschaft, Bd. 1 (Berlin 1891), Anhang p. 113*
 Heine, Die Romantische Schule (Hamburg 1836), Bk. II pt. I. In his letters to Bopp, AW Schlegel continually asks him to recommend him with Wilhelm von Humboldt and writes nasty things about other colleagues. Heine’s caricature of August Wilhelm as the unimaginative, hard-working older Schlegel brother has been taken over by most later historians. Still, after Schelling ran off with his wife, he was for ten years the consort of Germaine de Staël, one of the most fascinating women of her time. So there must have been something to boring August.
 Bopp to AW Schlegel, 26 May 1829: “Zu meinem Zwecke konnten mir die Indische Grammatiker wenig dienen; sie stellen blos todte Massen zusammen, und vergessen den organischen Zusammenhang hinein zu bringen”. (Lefmann, Franz Bopp Bd. 1, Anhang p. 110*)
Bopp, Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Gothischen und Deutschen (Berlin 1833-7), Bd. 1 p. 112. Cf. Berthold Delbrück, Einleitung in das Studium der Indogermanischen Sprachen (Leipzig 1919 ), pp. 63-73
Ibid and Vorrede, p. iii
 AW Schlegel invited Grimm to come over to Bonn so that he could teach him. Grimm politely declined, as he relates in a letter of gratitude to Bopp for his review. (Lefmann, Franz Bopp Bd. 2 (1894), Anhang pp. 178-9*)
 “Umlaut ist eine bloβe Trübung des Urlauts, wodurch derselbe dem Vocal der Endung mehr homogen wird, während er in Ablaut ohne anerkannte äuβere Veranlassung einem anderen, meistens völlig verschiedenen, Platz macht. Wir sagen: ohne anerkannteäuβere Veranlassung, weil wir glauben beweisen zu können, daβ auch der Ablaut von der Beschaffenheit der Endungen herbeigezogen werde.“ Bopp, review of Deutsche Grammatik, Jahrbücher für Wissenschaftliche Kritik Bd. 1 Vol. 31-38/91-96 (Feb/May 1829), pp. 251-303/725-59: 257
See Bopp’s first work, Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache (Frankfurt 1816),p. 147, and more specifically the (reworked) English translation (London 1819)
Cf. Armin Schwegler, Analyticity and Syntheticity: A diachronic prespective with special reference to Romance languages (Berlin / New York 1990), ch. 1
Bei weitem klarer würde uns das lautliche Verhältniss dieser Sprachen entgegentreten, wenn der Vf. Nicht den Zustand des Sanskrits, wie wir es kennen, zum Regulativ genomnen hätte […] Überhaupt sind es nur sehr wenig Wurzeln, welche in den verwandten Sprachen auch nur Spuren der regelrechten Gunirung, wie wir sie im Sanskrit kennen, erhalten haben.“ Theodor Benfey, review of Pott’s Etymologische Forschungen (1837), in: Kleinere Sprachwissenschaftliche Schriften (ed. A. Bezzenberger, Berlin 1894), pp. 9-10/12
Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde (Berlin 1806-1817) presents the world’s languages through almost 500 samples of the Paternoster. It was a milestone in data collection, enabling Adelung and his continuator Vater to group languages and compare grammatical structures with unprecedented scope and escape from the amateuristic, arbitrary etymologies and latinocentric ‘universal’ grammars of the 18th century. It is, however, generally regarded as the end point of pre-disciplinary study of language rather than as the beginnings of comparative grammar, and indeed there is little method to Adelung’s and Vater’s observation, nothing like a typology or historical reconstruction or sound shift law which lends itself to further elaboration. Max Muller, in his immensely popular Lectures on the Study of Language (London 1861), argues that Schlegel’s Über Sprache und Weisheit, “though published only two years after the first volume of Adelung’s Mithridates, … is separated from that work by the same distance which separates the Copernican from the Ptolemæan system” (p. 168). All the same, Pott calls Mithridates “noch immer nicht durchweg veraltet” as late as 1884. (Einleitung in die allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, repr. Amsterdam 1974, p. 69/269)
Etymologische Forschungen, Bd. 1 (Lemgo 1833), p. xxiii