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  • Henry Max Hoenigswald
  • Anna Morpurgo Davies

Henry Hoenigswald (1915–2003) was one of the many refugees from Germany who arrived in the United States in the late 1930s and succeeded in finding their way into the academic world of their new country. The start was not auspicious. Henry's university education (in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy) had been continuously interrupted through no wish of his own. When he left Europe in 1939 he was only twenty-four, and for his first several years in the US held a series of temporary positions. In 1948, however, he was appointed to an associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, which was to become his permanent home.

From that moment onward, his career was accompanied by success and recognition: he became a full professor in 1959 and chaired his department from 1963 to 1970; he was Collitz Professor at the Georgetown Summer Institute (1955), and president of the LSA (1958) and of the American Oriental Society (1966–67); he was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society (1971), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1974), the National Academy of Sciences (1988) and to a corresponding fellowship of the British Academy (1986), and held a number of visiting professorships in Europe and America; he received honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College (1981) and the University of Pennsylvania (1988); and for his seventieth birthday he was presented with an important festschrift edited by George Cardona and Norman Zide (1987), and in 1986 an issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society (106.2) was dedicated to him. This reads like an academic rags-to-riches story. In fact, there is more to it, but the sequence of events cannot be ignored. Henry's intellectual development and achievements make better sense if looked at in the context of the political situation of the period, his family circumstances, and the position of linguistics in the United States and in Europe in the late 1930s and 1940s.1 [End Page 856]

Perhaps we may start from the end or, rather, the middle. By the late 1960s Henry was considered one of the main exponents of historical linguistics in the US. But the term needs definition. There was a long tradition of Indo-European studies in Europe that went back to the nineteenth century, when the first chairs of Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft and then Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft were created in Germany. In the US scholars like William Dwight Whitney at Yale (1827–1894) absorbed that tradition, as did in the next generation Benjamin Ide Wheeler at Cornell and then Berkeley (1854–1927) and Maurice Bloomfield at Johns Hopkins (1855–1928), who also had German training. Even Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield were trained in Germanic philology and Indo-European and absorbed most of their views about historical linguistics from that tradition. But all of these scholars produced work that is recognizably different from that of their European counterparts, starting with Whitney, whose books had a more descriptive and theoretical aspect and were influential both on the next German generation and on the young Ferdinand de Saussure. Yet in Germany, until the Second World War at least, the traditional comparative grammar of Indo-European dominated; the type of formal linguistics developed in eastern Europe had little or no influence, and the same could be said of Saussure's Cours (Hoenigswald 1991:9). The emphasis was on the reconstruction of the parent language and on the technical analysis of later developments; textbooks about Laut- und Formenlehre of the various Indo-European languages multiplied. There were, of course, more general or methodological discussions, but, after the neogrammarian revolution of the 1870s, they were of secondary importance in the standard academic set up. Idealism, whatever form it took, was more associated with Romance than with Indo-European, and its impact was limited.

The success of Indo-European studies was both understandable and legitimate. It was supported by the spectacular results that the subject had had and continued to have: the discovery of a method that allowed linguists to define language families and to analyze their history, or to reconstruct through comparison both the main features of a parent language that had never been...


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