Jernej Kopitar Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jernej Kopitar 1780-1844

(Full name Jernej Bartholomäus Kopitar) Slovene linguist.

Kopitar is considered the founder of Slavonic studies—a designation he partially shares with the Czech linguist Josef Dobrovský—and is acknowledged as a seminal figure in the science of Balkanology, the study of Balkan languages. Viewing language as the distinct key to cultural identity, Kopitar supported regional differences and the convictions and rights of linguistic minorities. He is associated with the concept of Austro-Slavism, which promoted the Slavic, rather than purely German, linguistic and cultural identity of the Austrian Empire and succeeded in winning official sanction for the Slovene language within the monarchy. An impassioned supporter of the rights of Southern Slavs and noted for his outspoken views, Kopitar was frequently denigrated by late nineteenth and early twentieth century Slovene critics who found his approach unsystematic, reactionary, and anti-progressive. Nevertheless, Kopitar is typically regarded by contemporary scholars as an innovative Slavonic philologist and the progenitor of the modern study of South Slavic languages and cultures.

Biographical Information

Kopitar was born in the rural village of Repnje, near Ljubljana, in 1780 when the region of what is now Slovenia was under the control of the Austrian Empire. Unable to speak a word of German, Kopitar nevertheless received a classical education at Ljubljana and there demonstrated a natural capacity for language study. Between 1799 and 1808 he served as secretary to the Baron Sigismund Zois. A resident in Zois's home, Kopitar took part in the Baron's intellectual circle, engaging in discussions on topics ranging from current scientific advances to the revival of the Slovene language as a vehicle for literary composition. Early in 1809 he left Ljubljana for Vienna where he briefly studied law before his fascination with language, from ancient Greek and his native Slovene to a newfound interest in Serbian and Croatian, led him in another direction. During this period Kopitar began a correspondence with Josef Dobrovský, a Prague linguist who shared his interest in Slavic languages. The two conducted a mostly long-distance scholarly collaboration that lasted until Dobrovský's death in 1829, although their differing approaches and methods frequently led to discord. For most of his career Kopitar held a position at the Imperial and Royal Library of Vienna. Late in life he acceded to the post of Chief Librarian and for a number of years served the Austrian government as Censor for Slavic and Rumanian books. He traveled extensively through western Europe, gathering Slavonic texts and fragments in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere to enrich the library. He sought support from the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Klemens Metternich, to secure further manuscripts from foreign countries, particularly Greece, for the national library. Kopitar's connections with the important Slavic philologists of his day became so wide-reaching that his influence was felt by almost all of the significant first and second-generation Slavic scholars in central Europe. Kopitar had a particularly close relationship with the Serbian intellectual Vuk Karadžić, first coming into contact with the younger writer through his role as censor, but later becoming an advisor and friend. The two maintained an extensive correspondence and collaborated on a variety of projects, including Karadžić's 1818 Serbian dictionary. Kopitar died in Vienna in 1844.

Major Works

Although he is remembered as an outstanding scholar of the Slavic languages, Kopitar composed nearly all of his significant works in German. His Grammatik der slavischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steyermark (1808) is essentially a history of the Slovene language. While mentioning nothing of Slovene culture directly in its title, Kopitar's Grammatik makes reference to the three regions of the then Austrian Empire where use of the Slovene language predominated—Carinthia, Carniola, and Styria. In addition to offering historical data, the work features sections on etymology, orthography, and other linguistic classifications. In “Patriotische Phantasien eines Slaven” (1810) Kopitar outlined several of his significant theories on the Slavic languages that he was to address throughout his career. A spirited account of the uniqueness of South Slavic cultures and linguistic heritage, the essay ends with a call to create a central academy of Slavonic studies in Eastern Europe. Kopitar was among the first to revive interest in the oldest Slavic language, designated as Old Church Slavonic, and in 1839 edited a new edition of the Glagolita Clozianus, a classical text written in the Glagolitic alphabet (arguably a precursor of Cyrillic) from a manuscript discovered in 1830. Among Kopitar's principal studies on the subject of Old Church Slavonic was a furthering of the so-called Carantanian-Pannonian thesis. Studying Christian elements in Pannonian Slavic (a linguistic forebear of modern Slovene), Kopitar postulated a strong Slovene element among the origins of Old Church Slavonic, a hypothesis no longer accepted by modern scholars but valued for Kopitar's early insights on the subject. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the field of linguistics, Kopitar patterned his conception of literary Slavic on the spoken language of naïve, or uneducated, speakers. He based his studies on the living speech (dialects) of the central European regions of Carniola, Carinthia, and Styria, and sought to describe the linguistic structure as he found it rather than dictating its form with reference to historical antecedents as others had typically done. During his career, Kopitar wrote and published an exhaustive list of articles and reviews in periodicals throughout Slavic Europe. He also published a German translation of Serbo-Croatian folk songs collected by his colleague and disciple Vuk Karadžić. A collection of Kopitar's essays and miscellaneous writings was published in 1857. Entitled Barth. Kopitars kleinere Schriften, the volume includes a short autobiographical sketch, composed in 1839, that offers some insights into the linguist's youth and early interest in Slavism and Slavic folklore. Kopitar also produced a lengthier evaluation of his own life in Selbstbiographie (1857).

Critical Reception

During his life and long after his death Kopitar elicited the ire of a number of critics in his native land by decrying the work of France Prešeren, Slovenia's most celebrated poet. This and Kopitar's impassioned, rather than detached and scientific, approach to his work prompted criticism from many sides and damaged his reputation for more than a century. Disputes over the classifications and reforms of Kopitar's Grammatik, as well as distaste for its sometimes inadequate methodology, led to its rejection by critics for much of the nineteenth-century. Additionally, some early critics cited Kopitar's interest in regional dialects as evidence of a separatist agenda, though modern scholars generally dismiss this claim. However, contemporary commentators, notably Rado L. Lencek, have also found a paradoxical tension in Kopitar's desire to promote regional Slavic dialects alongside his pleas for integration of these forms into a pan-Slavic literary language. While most of Kopitar's specific linguistic theories have been superceded by the work of subsequent scholars, he continues to be accepted as the patriarch of Slavonic studies who set the pattern for others. And, despite some lingering reservations, Kopitar is widely viewed as an innovative figure in the field of Slavonic linguistics whose influence on the subsequent generation of Slavic philologists was enormous.