Benfey, Theodor

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BENFEY, THEODOR (1809–1881), German comparative philologist and Sanskritist. Benfey was born in Noerten, near Goettingen, and lived in Goettingen from his childhood. His first works in classical philology were produced hastily and contained many inaccuracies (as in his Griechisches Wurzellexikon, 1839–42). As a young scholar he interested himself in the relationship of Egyptian to Semitic languages, on which he wrote Ueber das Verhaeltniss der aegyptischen Sprache zum semitischen Sprachstamm (1844), his sole work on Semitic linguistics. He also dealt extensively with the recurrence of certain motifs in narrative literature, tracing their derivation from Oriental, especially Indian, sources. His work turned increasingly to Indian linguistics, a field in which he became a recognized authority. His two Sanskrit grammars, the complete (1852) and the short (1855), for many years served as basic texts in this field. Though Benfey was a pioneer in the study of the language of the Veda, he never completed the Vedic grammar on which he worked for many years. In 1834 Benfey was appointed a lecturer at the University of Goettingen; in 1848, after converting to Christianity, he was appointed associate professor; and in 1862 full professor. A noted teacher, his students included Jacob Wackernagel and Theodor Noeldeke. For the Bavarian Academy's history of sciences in Germany, Benfey wrote the volume Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und orientalischen Philologie… (1869), with an outstanding chapter on the beginnings of comparative linguistics and its spiritual background.


T. Benfey, Kleinere Schriften, 1 (1890), biography by M. Benfey; 2 (1892), 133–56 (bibliography).

[Hans Jacob Polotsky]