Jernej Kopitar Essay - Critical Essays

Kopitar, Jernej


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.

Principal Works

Grammatik der slavischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steyermark (history) 1808

“Patriotische Phantasien eines Slaven” (essay) 1810

“Slavische Sprachkunde” (essay) 1811

“Blick auf die slavischen Mundarten, ihre Literatur und die Hülfsmittel sie zu studieren” (essay) 1813

“Serbische Literatur, Narodna srbska pěsnarica” (essay) 1816

Glagolita Clozianus [editor] (sermons) 1836

Hesychii glossographi discipulus [editor] (dictionary) 1839

Barth. Kopitars kleinere Schriften (essays) 1857

Selbstbiographie (autobiography) 1857


Rado L. Lencek (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Lencek, Rado L. “Kopitar's Share in the Evolution of Slavic Philology.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 1-24.

[In the following essay, Lencek summarizes Kopitar's theories and accomplishments as a seminal figure of early nineteenth-century Slavic philology.]

My subject is one of which I think my first teacher in slavicis, Rajko Nahtigal, would have approved. He would have applauded my topic not only because he himself belonged to that line of Slavic philologists who came from the small world at the edge of the Eastern Alps—who does not know, to paraphrase the Book of Generations, that Kopitar begat Miklosich, and Miklosich Jagić, and...

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Jože Pogačnik (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Pogačnik, Jože. “Jernej Kopitar and the Issue of Austro-Slavism.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 25-40.

[In the following essay, Pogačnik studies Kopitar's activity in recognizing and promulgating Slavic cultural identity within the Austrian Empire.]

The host of problems raised by Jernej Kopitar's cultural and political activities, including his scholarly work, will not be solved in any acceptable way for a long time to come.1 His intellectual status established in modern research includes both elements of acceptance and denial, which is the reason why we still lack a historically objective value judgment concerning those meaningful...

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Henry R. Cooper, Jr. (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Cooper, Henry R., Jr. “Kopitar and the Beginning of Bulgarian Studies.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 55-64.

[In the following essay, Cooper argues that Kopitar was foremost among early nineteenth-century Slavic philologists in acknowledging the uniqueness of Bulgarian language and culture.]

If we define Bulgarian studies not only as the scientific investigation of the Bulgarian people (that is, their literature, language, ethnographic culture, and history), but also as the introduction of things Bulgarian to the international scholarly community, so that bulgarica might be integrated into the larger disciplines of Slavic linguistics, European...

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Kenneth E. Naylor (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Naylor, Kenneth E. “Kopitar as Slavicist: An Appreciation.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 65-70.

[In the following essay, Naylor praises Kopitar as a promoter of the Slavic literary language rather than as a scientific scholar in the modern sense.]

It is inevitable that we judge the work of scholars of earlier generations by the standards of today rather than looking at their work in the context of their time. When we examine the work of nineteenth-century Slavicists, we see it through the eyes of the twentieth century and our expectations for this work are the same which we apply to the work of our contemporaries. We expect nineteenth-century...

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Jože Toporišič (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Toporišič, Jože. “Kopitar's Grammar.Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 76-97.

[In the following essay, Toporišič examines the morphological features of Kopitar's Grammar.]

In the scholarly literature Jernej Kopitar's Grammar1 has been characterized as scientific, and that by right. Published in 1809 (with the year 1808, when the printing began, imprinted in it), it had two types of forerunners: that of Adam Bohorič (Arcticae horulae succisivae, de Latinocarniolana literatura, ad Latinae linguae analogiam accomodata … [Wittemberg, 1584, reprinted 1715, 1758]), and that of Marko Pohlin (Kraynska grammatika, das...

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Thomas Butler (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Butler, Thomas. “Jernej Kopitar and South Slavic Folkore.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 108-21.

[In the following essay, Butler assesses Kopitar's contributions as a collector and translator of Serbo-Croatian folktales.]

Jernej Kopitar's role in promoting the collection and popularization of South Slavic folklore, as well as the establishment of a scientific basis for its investigation, has never been adequately examined nor sufficiently appreciated. When the Slovene's name is mentioned within the context of folklore it is usually in connection with his encouragement and support of the activities of Vuk Karadžić (1787-1864), the foremost collector...

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Olga Nedeljković (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Nedeljković, Olga. “New Perspectives on the Collaboration Between Maksimilijan Vrhovac and Jernej Kopitar.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 122-49.

[In the following essay, Nedeljković probes the sources of Kopitar's work on the South Slavic languages and discusses the mutual influence of Kopitar and the Zagrebian bishop-scholar Maksimilijan Vrhovac.]

Jernej Kopitar's ideas regarding the reform of the Serbian literary language were realized in the work of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, thanks to the very close collaboration of these two men. The antecedents of that achievement, however, can be traced all the way back to the time of the Counter...

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Benjamin Stolz (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Stolz, Benjamin. “Kopitar and Vuk: An Assessment of Their Roles in the Rise of the New Serbian Literary Language.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 150-67.

[In the following essay, Stolz describes Kopitar's considerable influence on Vuk Karadžić and the modern development of the Serbo-Croatian literary language.]

But the most important result of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars together was the quickening of nationalism, marked by a return to local origins: the collection and imitation of folklore, folk dance, and music, and medieval and Renaissance works. This passed beyond a revival of themes and forms into the rebirth of the...

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Sergio Bonazza (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Bonazza, Sergio. “Jernej Kopitar: His Place in Slovene Cultural History.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 178-83.

[In the following essay, Bonazza responds to Slovene critics who label Kopitar “anti-progressive.”]

Jernej Kopitar's place in Slovene cultural history is anachronistic and paradoxical. He was indeed one of the great Slovenes and one of the few whose works were known and celebrated internationally. He was, however, classed as one of those worthless, awkward, and even damaging personalities by official Slovene critics. The critics have always tried, and are still trying, to stick labels like “anti-progressive,” “anti-liberal,”...

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Henry R. Cooper, Jr. (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Cooper, Henry R., Jr. “Jernej Kopitar and the Beginning of South Slavic Studies.” In American Contributions to the Ninth International Congress of Slavists, Vol. II: Literature, Poetics, History, edited by Paul Debreczeny, pp. 97-111. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Cooper offers evidence to support the claim that Kopitar is the “Father of South Slavic Studies.”]

Hier entscheiden facta,
nicht Räsonnements!

(Kopitar to Dobrovský)

Scholarly paternity, unlike its human correlate, often matters more to distant generations than to the immediate offspring. In the rapid changes and advances...

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Jože Toporišič (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Toporišič, Jože. “Kopitar as Defender of the Independence of the Slovene Language.” In The Formation of the Slavonic Literary Languages, edited by Gerald Stone and Dean Worth, pp. 193-205. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1985.

[In the following essay, Toporišič details Kopitar's efforts on behalf of an independent Slovene language and culture.]

The late Professor Robert Auty dedicated a great deal of his scholarly attention to the languages of the Slavs who live more or less on the Pannonian planes and in adjacent areas to the south, west, and east. This is also the area which attracted the undivided attention of our Jernej Kopitar, whose endeavors...

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Further Reading


Stone, Gerald. “On Kopitar's Visit to Oxford.” Slovene Studies 3, no. 2 (1981): 106-07.

Comments on Kopitar's stop at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, while visiting England in 1815.


Fryščák, Milan. “Kopitar and Dobrovský.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 41-54.

Summarizes Kopitar's collaboration with the Czech Slavist Josef Dobrovský.

Ivić, Pavle. “Kopitar and the Evolution of Vuk Karadžić's Views on the Serbian Literary Language.” Papers in Slavic Philology 2 (1982): 98-107.

Contrasts Vuk...

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