(1801-52), virtually the founder of Iranian linguistics, as well as of the study of the history of Buddhism.


BURNOUF, EUGÈNE (1801-52), virtually the found­er of Iranian linguistics, as well as of the study of the history of Buddhism in France. He was born in Paris the son of a Hellenist and studied Sanskrit with de Chézy at the Collège de France; in 1829 he began to teach comparative grammar at the École Normale Supérieure, and in 1832 he replaced Chézy at the Collège de France. Although he continued to teach Sanskrit, he pursued his Indian and Iranian studies throughout his life.

Of Burnouf’s works in the field of Iranian linguistics, his most important publication is the Commentaire sur le Yaçna (1833), in which he established the basis for understanding Avestan and for Iranian linguistics as a whole. The documents then at his disposal consisted only of four manuscripts of the Avesta, A. H. Anquetil-Duperron’s translation of the Pahlavi commentary (1771), and the 15th-century Sanskrit translation by the Parsi Neriosengh of this same commentary. Burnouf’s aim was to test these different translations and to understand the Avestan text. To do so, he relied on Neriosengh’s text and above all on his own knowledge of Sanskrit, Persian, and comparative grammar. His constant reference to Vedic Sanskrit inspired Burnouf with the intuition of what would later be labeled the “Indo-Iranian” branch of the Indo-European lan­guages. He recognized concomitantly that, “in its present state, [Avestan] is a mixture of forms of varying age” (1833, p. 15). Commentaire sur le Yaçna is at once a dictionary, a grammar of Avestan, and a commentary on the text of the Yasna. Burnouf succeeded in furnish­ing an improved though not yet definitive version of the Avestan alphabet; elucidating much of the vocabulary in the opening portion of the Yasna; and explaining a great many grammatical forms, as well as some of the contracted forms, of Avestan writing. In this process he established the place of Old Iranian within comparative grammar. Nevertheless, Commentaire sur le Yaçna cannot be read in isolation from the context in which Burnouf was working. He relied heavily on the work of Vedic scholars, especially Rasmus Rask (1826) and Franz Bopp (1816).

Burnouf made important contributions to the study of Old Persian, which he realized was closely related to Avestan.

Burnouf’s letters reveal a most engaging personality: warm, loyal, extremely modest, and gifted with a sense of humor. His health was always poor, and, having worked himself to the point of exhaustion, he died quite young, just after being elected Permanent Secretary to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.



Works by E. Burnouf, “Extrait d’un commentaire et d’une traduction nouvelle du Vendidad Sadé,” JA, 1829, pp. 321-49; Vendidad, l’un des livres de Zoroastre, lithographié d’après le manu­scrit zend de la Bihliothèque du roi . . ., Paris, 1829-43; “Affinités du zend avec les dialectes germaniques,” JA, 2nd ser., 9, 1832, pp. 53-61; Choix de lettres d’Eugène Burnouf 1825-1852 suivi d’une biblio­graphie, Paris, 1891; Commentaire sur le Yaçna I, Paris, 1833; “Observations sur la partie de la Gram­maire comparative de M. F. Bopp, qui se rapporte à la langue zende,” Journal des savants, 1833, pp. 412-­29, 491-503, 588-603; “Observations sur les mots zends et sanscrits Vahista et Vasischta et sur quelques superlatifs en zend,” JA, 2nd ser., 13, 1834, pp. 56-86; “Études sur la langue et sur les textes zends,” JA, 3rd ser., 10, 1840, pp. 5-52, 237-67, 320-58; 4th ser., 4, 1844, pp. 449-505; 5, 1845, pp. 249-308, 409-36; 6, 1845, pp. 148-61; 7, 1846, pp. 5-72, 105-60, 244-79 (according to Darmesteter, I, p. XXV n. 2, repr., Paris, 1840-50).

Idem, Mémoire sur deux inscriptions cunéiformes trouvées près de Hamadan et qui font maintenant partie des papiers du Dr. Schulz, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Paris, 1836.

See also A. H. Anquetil-Duperron, Zend-Avesta, 3 vols., Paris, 1771, esp. I, pp. XXIII-XXVII.

F. Bopp, Ueber das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache . . ., Frankfurt, 1816.

Kent, Old Per­sian, p. 11.

M. J. Mold, “Eugène Burnouf,” JA, 4th ser., 20, 1852, pp. 22-36.

R. Rask, Om Zendsprogets og Zendavestas œlde og œgthed, Copenhagen, 1826.

For a bibliography of Burnouf’s works see, e.g., Choix de lettres (above).

(Clarisse Herrenschmidt)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: December 15, 1990

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 6, pp. 566-567