By Floris Solleveld
How many people could read Arabic script in Germany around 1800? The question struck me in 2006 as I was making my first steps in intellectual history with a paper on Friedrich Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808). Schlegel’s book – now considered a groundbreaking work in comparative linguistics – includes samples of untranscribed Persian, to show that Persian is part of the same language family as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and German and has the same “organic” system of conjugation. You don’t really need to know Arabic script to get that point, and for all we know Schlegel had at best a very limited grasp of Persian. But if you want to test and elaborate Schlegel’s ideas, well yes, then you need to. The use of Arab script in a book for German readers is unmistakably snobbery, but the real question is whether that snobbery was also useful.