History of Indo-European studies in Leiden

Although already in the late medieval period various writers noticed similarities between one European language or language group and another, a breakthrough was achieved by Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn (1612 – 1653), professor of history at Leiden University. He posited a genetic relationship between Latin, Greek, Germanic, Slavic, Welsh, Latvian, and Persian, while Sanskrit was added later, in 1643, by his colleague Claude Saumaise (1588 – 1653), professor of Classics, on the basis of Indic words in Ctesias. Van Boxhorn proposed that all these languages derived from a common ancestral language, which was now lost. Furthermore, he stressed that for potential relationship between languages one should look not at mere look-alikes, but at systematic correspondences, preferably in the grammar, and that one should beware of coincidental resemblances and false etymologies.

In the 18th century, van Boxhorn’s theory reached Denmark (where it was of direct influence on the ideas of Rasmus Rask) and Britain. Probably through the writings of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714 – 1799), it then became known to Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794), the author of the famous quote from 1786, which is now commonly celebrated as the birth of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: “No philologer could examine them all three [Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin], without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”.

It would be almost two centuries later, in 1974, that a chair for Indo-European Linguistics be established in Leiden, but before this date Indo-European Studies were well represented there by scholars who held different chairs. We would like to single out the most important ones.

C.C. Uhlenbeck

Christianus Cornelis Uhlenbeck (1866 – 1951) was professor of Old Germanic languages in Leiden from 1899 to 1926, after holding an extraordinary chair of Sanskrit at the University of Amsterdam for seven years. He published two fundamental articles about the homeland of Indo-European: ‘Waar werd de Indogermaansche stamtaal gesproken? [Where was the Indo-European proto-language spoken?]’ (1895) and ‘De voorgeschiedenis der Indo­germaansche volken [The prehistory of the Indo-European peoples]’ (1897). In a study on Indo-European syntax, ‘Agens und Patiens im Kasussystem der indogermanischen Sprachen’ (1901), he points out that Proto-Indo-European must have been an ergative language. During his Amsterdam years, Uhlenbeck also wrote and published Handboek der Indische Klankleerin vergelijking met die der Indogermaansche stamtaal, ten gebruike van studenten in de Nederlandsche en de Klassieke letteren [Handbook of Indic phonology, in comparison with the Indo-European proto-language, for students in Dutch and Classical letters] (1894), Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch der gotischen Sprache (1896) and Kurzgefasstes etymo­logisches Wörterbuch der altindischen Sprache (1898).  

Although in his Leiden inaugural address, De onderlinge verhouding der Oudgermaansche tongvallen en hunne plaats in den Indogermaanschen taalstam [The mutual relationship between the Old Germanic tongues and their place in the Indo-European language family], Uhlenbeck clearly announced the Indo-European orientation of his teaching and since 1913 he was also officially “belast met het onderwijs in de grammatica der Indo-Germaansche talen [responsible for teaching the grammar of Indo-European languages]”, he came to believe that a deeper understanding of the Indo-European proto-language would only be possible by comparison with other language groups. During his time in Leiden, he therefore first primarily worked on Basque and the Eskimo languages. Later, his focus shifted to the indigenous languages of North America and he even conducted fieldwork on Blackfoot. Nevertheless, he constantly returned to the problem of genetic relationship of Indo-European with other languages, especially with Uralic and Eskimo.

One of Uhlenbeck’s students, Willem Calánd (1859 – 1932), was first lector and then extraordinary professor in Sanskrit and Comparative Indo-European Linguistics at the University of Utrecht from 1903 till 1930.

Nicolaas van Wijk

In 1913 Nicolaas van Wijk (1880 – 1941), another of Uhlenbeck’s students, became the first Dutch professor of Balto-Slavic, a position which he held until his death. In 1902-3, Van Wijk studied Indo-European linguistics in Leipzig with K. Brugmann, A. Leskien, E. Windisch, and his interests in historical linguistics can be seen in many of his writings. Van Wijk totally reworked ‘Franck’s etymologisch woordenboek van de Nederlandsche taal’ (1912), and his brilliant treatment of Dutch and Germanic etymology makes it one of the best etymological dictionaries ever written. Van Wijk also extensively worked on Balto-Slavic historical linguistics, and one of the Balto-Slavic accent developments bears his name.

Frans Kuiper

Franciscus Bernardus Jacobus (Frans) Kuiper (1907 – 2003) studied Classics and Indology in Leiden but was most inspired by the classes of Uhlenbeck (Old Germanic, Indo-European) and van Wijk (Russian, Old Church Slavonic, Balto-Slavic). In Utrecht he studied Vedic in a privatissimum with Caland, who had already retired by that time. In 1934, Kuiper defended his PhD dissertation Die indogermanischen Nasalpräsentia and went to Batavia (Jakarta) where he taught Classical languages at a gymnasium. In 1939 he was appointed professor of Sanskrit at Leiden University (later his tasks were expanded to include teaching Comparative Indo-European Linguistics, Old Iranian, and Tamil).

Kuiper remained professor of Sanskrit until his retirement in 1972, with a break from 1940 to 1945, when Leiden University was closed by the Nazis. During this break, he wrote one of his most influential works, Notes on Vedic Noun-inflexion (1942). Kuiper recognized the importance of the laryngeal theory early on. His most important papers on this subject are: ‘Traces of laryngeals in Vedic Sanskrit’ (1947), ‘Shortening of final vowels in the Rigveda’ (1955, on the disappearance of laryngeals at the end of a word, nowadays usually called Kuiper’s Law), ‘Zur kompositionellen Kürzung im Sanskrit’ (1961, on the possible disappearance of laryngeals in compounds), and ‘On Zarathustra’s language’ (1978).

Yet another theme within Indo-European linguistics that had constantly occupied Kuiper throughout his scientific life was the problem of language contact. It was obvious to him that when Indo-European peoples entered new territories, be it Europe, Greece, or India, they were confronted with new cultures, new climates, new flora and fauna, etc., so that massive borrowing from the indigenous languages was inevitable, and he could not understand the reluctance of many Indo-Europeanists to accept loanwords in Classical Greek or Vedic. His most important contributions in this domain are ‘The etymology of ἄνθρωπος’ (1956, on pre-Greek), ‘The genesis of a linguis­tic area’ (1967, on non-IE elements in Sanskrit), his last book Aryans in the Rigveda (1991, on non-IE vocabulary in the RV), and ‘Gothic bagms and Old Icelandic ylgr’ (1995, on non-IE vocabulary in Germanic and other European languages).

Frederik Kortlandt

Frederik Kortlandt (PhD in mathematical linguistics, 1972, Amsterdam) was professor of Baltic and Slavic linguistics (since 1972) and later also of Descriptive and Comparative linguistics (1985 – 2011). He has published widely on comparative Indo-European phonology, morphology and syntax and has made fundamental contributions to the historical grammar of practically all language branches of Indo-European. Kortlandt is a well-known proponent of the glottalic theory and the Indo-Uralic theory.

Robert Beekes

In 1974, Robert S.P. Beekes (1937 – 2017) became the first professor in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics at Leiden University (a personal chair, later changed into a regular one). This was a crucial moment for Indo-European studies in Leiden since it was the birth of the Leiden study program as it is still known today.

Beekes studied Classics in Leiden but wrote his dissertation The Development of the Proto-Indo-European Laryn­geals in Greek (defended in 1969) under supervision of F.B.J. Kuiper. This work has greatly con­tribu­ted to the general acceptance of the laryngeal theory. Also in later years, Beekes regularly published articles on the reflexes of laryngeals in various languages, e.g. Some Greek aRa-forms (1976), GAv. uzirəidyāi and rārəša- (1979), Intervocalic laryngeal in Gatha-Avestan (1981), The neuter plural and the vocalisation of the laryngeals in Avestan (1981), On laryngeals and pronouns (1983), and Laryngeal developments: A survey (1988). In his article PIE. RHC– in Greek and other languages (1988), he formulated a rule which is now known as Beekes’s Law. He was also concerned with the phonetic nature of the laryngeals (cf. Who were the laryngeals? from 1994).

The topic that constantly had his attention in the last years of his career was the borrowed substrate vocabulary of European languages, e.g., Ancient European loanwords (1996),  The origin of Lat. aqua, and of *teutā ‘people’ (1998), and especially of Greek, culminating in  Pre-Greek: phonology, morphology, lexicon (2014).

Beekes’s co-operation with Kortlandt led to the development of several important ideas, e.g., on the origin of the Indo-European inflectional types in the noun (The origins of the Indo-European nominal inflection,1985), pronoun (On laryngeals and pronouns, 1983 and The origin of the Indo-European pronominal inflection, 1988), and verb (The subjunctive endings of Indo-Iranian, 1981).

Beekes was very committed to teaching and always prepared various tables for the students with paradigms and with phonological systems. This experience has resulted in the handbook Vergelijkende taalwetenschap (1990), which appeared a few years later in English as Comparative Indo-European linguistics: an introduction (1995). This book was translated into Greek and Persian and in 2011 it appeared in a new edition, revised and corrected by Michiel de Vaan.

Beekes supervised the PhD dissertations of M.C. Monna (The Gathas of Zarathustra: A recon­struc­tion of the text, 1978), A. Lubotsky (Nominal accentuation in Sanskrit and Indo-European, 1987), P.C.H. Schrijver (The reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European laryngeals in Latin, 1991), Dirk Boutkan (The Germanic ‘Auslautgesetze’, 1994), R.J. van der Staaij (A reconstruction of Proto-Italic, 1995), and Henri M.F.M. van de Laar (Description of the Greek individual verbal systems, 2000).

Jos Weitenberg

In 1979, Joseph Johannes Sicco (Jos) Weitenberg (1943 – 2012), an expert in Armenian and Anatolian, joined the department. He defended his thesis Die hethitischen u-Stämme in 1984, written under supervision of Philo H.J. Houwink ten Cate (University of Amsterdam). In 1994, Weitenberg became the first Professor of Armenian Studies in the Netherlands, as incumbent of a Chair made possible by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Dutch Armenian community under auspices of Association Internationale des Etudes Arméniennes. Weitenberg was the supervisor of Theo Maarten van Lint (Kostandin of  Erznka, an Armenian religious poet of the XIIIth – XIVth century. Armenian text with translation and commentary, 1996), Anna Prins (Hittite neuter singular – neuter plural: Some evidence for a connec­tion, 1997), Alwin Kloekhorst (The Hittite inherited lexicon, 2007), and Hrach Martirosyan (Studies in Armenian etymology with special emphasis on dialects and culture, 2008).

In 1980, the department was expanded with a new position, to which Alexander (Sasha) Lubotsky was appointed. In 1997, Lubotsky received a substantial research grant (3 postdocs) for the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary project from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), matched by the Centre for Non-Western Studies of Leiden University with three PhD students. Since 2005, this project is financially supported by the publishing house “Koninklijke Brill NV”, by the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University and by the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. The most important output of the project is a series of etymological dictionaries and an online platform with many etymological databases. Because of its large scope, the IEED project has had a strong impact on the department and on its scientific orientation.

In order to promote Indo-European Studies, the department has set up several projects, such as the Dutch Linguistic Olympiad (since 2000) and the Leiden Summer School in Languages and Linguistics (since 2006). The department also participates in a special program for secondary school children.

When Beekes retired in 1999, he was succeeded as full professor by Alexander Lubotsky, with Michiel de Vaan being appointed as lecturer. In 2009, after a restructuring of the program, Alwin Kloekhorst joined the team. When in 2015 De Vaan left for Lausanne, he was succeeded by Tijmen Pronk, and, a few years later, also Guus Kroonen (2017),  Michaël Peyrot (2018) and Lucien van Beek (2018) joined the department.

Also Peter Schrijver, Theo Maarten van Lint, Johnny Cheung, Leonid Kulikov, Rick Derksen, Dirk Boutkan, Hrach Martirosyan, Peter Alexander Kerkhof, and Hannes Fellner were connected to the department for longer or shorter periods.

After the presentation of ‘Farnah: Indo-Iranian and Indo-European Studies in Honor of Sasha Lubotsky’, June 2018. From left to right: Tijmen Pronk, Michaël Peyrot, Alexander Lubotsky, Alwin Kloekhorst, Lucien van Beek, Guus Kroonen (photo: Peter Rosekrans).