Comparative Linguistics as Ethnology: In Search of Indo-Germans in Central Asia, 1770-1830
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Comparative Linguistics as Ethnology:
In Search of Indo-Germans in Central Asia, 1770-1830

On 11 January 1809, the German Orientalist Heinrich Julius von Klaproth (1783-1835) returned to St. Petersburg, suffering from a high fever that had killed his travel companions in the Caucasus mountains. For over a year, Klaproth and his assistants had plodded through "tiefen und mürben Schnee" [deep and unsound snow] to reach remote mountain villages in the provinces stretching between Baku and the Volga-Don line. The Russian Academy of Sciences had engaged them to complete a geographic and ethnographic survey of those northern areas recently brought under Czar Alexander's control and those further south still being contested militarily. But the twenty-five-year-old Klaproth was most interested in taking linguistic samples of the myriad little-known tongues spoken in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. He was drawn by the prospect of finding surviving evidence of "Medo-Germans" who he believed had once inhabited the Caucasus or traversed the region during their prehistoric migrations westward into Europe. Klaproth was not disappointed. His memoirs recall encountering speakers of the Ossetian language not far from the Inguri and Terek rivers. To his delight the members of this tribe appeared to use root words similar to those in German and Persian and had curiously blue eyes and blond or red hair.1 Based on his findings, Klaproth proposed the term indogermanisch (Indo-Germanic) in 1823 to designate those tongues and peoples he believed had descended from a common Central Asian homeland or Urheimat.2

Julius Klaproth was one in a long line of German Orientalists whose linguistic talents served the Russian Empire. His concern for the prehistoric ties early Germans may have had to the East also exemplifies a key preoccupation of nineteenth-century German Orientalism. Was the cultural starting point of the German nation to be found in Central Asia? How could comparative philology aid in this search? Russian imperial expansion into the Persian and Ottoman Empires provided Klaproth with the opportunity to seek first-hand evidence of Germanic migration across the so-called "Völkerbrücke aus Asia nach Europa" [bridge of nations from Asia to Europe].3 His research falls within a tradition of German language study that aided colonization of the Russian borderlands. It also suggests the historical significance of philology to early-nineteenth-century German Orientalism and points to an overwhelmingly positive national identification that German scholars cultivated with Central Asia as a possible primordial homeland. Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), there have been numerous attempts to identify an "Orient" that was the particular preserve of German scholarship and to characterize the relationship between knowledge and power among Orientalists trained in states without colonies.4 This paper suggests that nineteenth-century German language scholars showed a particular concern for Central Asia. Their research facilitated colonial expansion into the region; it also contributed to a new Orientalist definition of German national culture.

This paper takes specific issue with Said's claim that Germany lacked "a protracted, sustained, national interest" in the East.5 The prestige of language study in Germany renders Said's dismissal a major oversight. Early nineteenth-century Orientalists did in fact create an enduring model of German national origins that embraced the prospect of an Eastern cultural inheritance. This paper highlights the importance of comparative philology to German conceptions of culture, especially to the emergence of an Orientalist form of ethnology that used a historicist search for origins and primordial cultural forms to classify the peoples of Central Asia. Specifically, it examines the ethnological conclusions that followed the invention of the Indo-European language family and subsequent attempts by German Orientalists to discover what they thought to be distant relatives of modern German speakers, peoples who had stayed behind in the supposed Indo-European homeland when the Germanic tribes had migrated westward into Europe.6 A particular approach to language studies, [End Page 117] comparative-historical philology rose to prominence in Germany during the first half of the nineteenth century and made the interpretation of words central to a historical definition of cultures and to an ethnological project of establishing genealogical relations among...


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