Hübschmann felt himself to be an orientalist. Originally an Iranian scholar, through his fundamental studies he became also the founder of modern Armenian linguistics; for it was he who created a solid basis for future historical-comparative research in this field.


HÜBSCHMANN, (JOHANN) HEINRICH, eminent German scholar of Iranian and Armenian studies (b. l July 1848 in Erfurt, d. 20 January 1908 in Freiburg im Breisgau; Figure 1). Hübschmann was born into the family of a mill owner. From 1868 he pursued philological studies in Jena (with August Schlei-cher), Tübingen, Leipzig, and Munich, where in February 1872 he was awarded his doctorate. His thesis, on Yasna 30 of the Avesta, had been supervised by Martin Haug (q.v.) and was published under the title Ein Zoroastrisches Lied (1872). After further studies in Avestan texts and in grammatical and etymological problems of this language, from 1874 he turned more and more to Armenian, only to come back to diverse aspects of Iranian studies again and again. In that year he stayed on the island of San Lazzaro (Venice), site of the home monastery of the Mechitarist order, and he learned the Armenian language thoroughly with the monks. In 1875 he published a translation of the “Armenian History” written by Sebêos (Zur Geschichte Armeniens des Sebêos, 1875). With this habilitation thesis he qualified as a university lecturer in Aryan (i.e., Indo-Iranian) languages at the University of Leipzig. In the following year he was appointed extraordinarius (associate professor) there, and from 1877 until his untimely death at the age of 59 he taught as full professor of comparative philology at the University of Strasbourg, which at that time was a German institution named afterWilhelm I, Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität.

Hübschmann felt himself to be an orientalist. Originally an Iranian scholar, through his fundamental studies he became also the founder of modern Armenian linguist-ics; for it was he who created a solid basis for future historical-comparative research in this field. Altogether Hübschmann’s activity centered on three subjects: (1) studies about the Iranian languages, (2) Armenian studies, and (3) comparative philology of the Indo-European languages.

For the general public and for the historians of linguistic sciences the chief merit associated with his name is that he definitely proved that Armenian is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages (see Hübschmann, 1877 [but published already in 1875]) and does not belong to the Iranian languages; such was the prevailing, if not the universal, view at that time (cf. Schmitt, 1975), and it was forcefully propagated by Friedrich Müller and Paul de Lagarde. Hübschmann in fact went one step further and asserted that Armenian is not even part of the Aryan (Indo-Iranian) language group. Curiously enough he provided this proof in the lecture given for qua1ifying himself as a lecturer in Aryan languages.

From the point of view of Iranian studies this judgement of his merits is somewhat biased, however, because it neglects his second important achievement. Apart from the basic work he did for several Iranian languages, he was the first to ask what the term “Iranian” signifies; and by so doing he was practically the first to define the characteristic linguistic features of Iranian as a whole in contrast to the other Indo-European languages.

This development came about in this way: When Hübschmann familiarized himself with Armenian, it soon became clear to him that in its lexicon Armenian held a rather ambiguous position, by which he became somewhat disturbed. On the one hand there is a large number of Armenian words which are more or less identical with the corresponding Iranian and, more exactly, New Persian words; on the other hand there are a good many words which quite obviously are rather different, not only from their Iranian, but also from the other equivalents and which at the same time show profound peculiarities. The premise and the main principle guiding Hübschmann in this case was that any reliable statement about the true character of Armenian itself can be made only if it is based exclusively on material not borrowed. Therefore he eliminated from his analysis the countless Iranian (and other) borrowings and all words which are suspected of being borrowed. By this procedure he drew up the basic elements, as itwere, of “genuine” Armenian vocabulary; these words could be explained only as directly inherited from the Indo-European proto-language, because they had gone through particular phonological developments independent of, and quite different from, the Iranian ones. At the same time Hübschmann realized that in the Armenian nominal and verbal inflection nothing is found which looks specifically Iranian. The differentiation between inherited, “genuinely Armenian” (ech-tarmenische) words and several layers of borrowings (from Iranian languages, Greek, Syriac, etc.) was carried out for the first time by him; the analysis continued, even more systematically, so that at last his etymological dictionary of Armenian, in the only volume published of his Armenische Grammatik (1897), achieved the desired structure. It set a good example also for the analysis of other languages.

The dominant purpose of an impressive number of subsequent minor or major publications was to back up this far-reaching discovery by fully analyzing the Old Armenian lexicon (including also the anthroponyms as well as geographical names) and thus provide more and more evidence for his thesis. His minor studies on Armenian started with basic articles on the pronunciation of Old Armenian, the analysis of the writing system, the transcriptions of foreign wordsand names and the like; then they dealt systematically with questions of the phonological development of Armenian in historical and prehistoric times and established additional evidence of loan-words. They are collected in the volume Kleine Schriften zum Armenischen (1976). Of special importance is Hübschmann’s examination of the Armenian vocalism, in particular the functioning and the chronology of the vowel alternations.

Hübschmann’s studies are fundamental chiefly as regards methodology; so it is no wonder that all his major Armenological writings have remained standard works until today, not only his masterpiece, the first and only volume of the Armenische Grammatik (1897). This work is de facto an etymological dictionary, which treats separately the Iranian, Syriac, Greek, and other borrowings and, only in the final chapter, 438 genuinely Armenian words. It is unfortunate that only this first volume was published, apart from the preliminary studies, Armenische Studien I (1883), and a paper on the Semitic loanwords; the volumes on word-formation, phonology, morphology, and syntax remained unfinished. His other major work in the field of Armenian studies is “Die altarmenischen Ortsnamen” (1904), which is a list and a morphological analysis of the Old Armenian toponyms. It also has fundamental importance for the historical geography of ancient Armenia, because it deals with the history and civilization of the region and not least with the peoples and tribes settled there in antiquity.

For his Armenian studies Hübschmann benefited from his outstandingly good knowledge in (the then known) Iranian languages. After Martin Haug published the first reliable philological studies on the Avestan texts and the insight found increasing acceptance that only knowledge of the early Vedic language brings their understanding a decisive step further, a sound grammatical foundation was laid by Hübschmann (first mainly in regard to the sounds of Avestan and the phonetic value of the individual signs of its writing system) and then by his pupil Christian Bartholomae (q.v.). After several contributions to the interpretation of Avestan texts (beginning with his doctoral thesis) and to grammatical questions, he turned to a thorough investigation of the nominal cases and of the use of prepositions in Avestan and Old Persian (Zur Casuslehre, 1875); the work also discusses, in passing, grammatical problems of single forms and words. This book is the first systematic study of Avestan case syntax (and syntax at all), and a number of particular inherited syntactic phenomena in Iranian are first pointed out here: e.g., the genitive absolute, special patterns such as the Old Persian naming constructions with a sentence-initial parenthetic nominative, or phrases (comparable to similar constructions in Latin) consisting of the preposition Av. paiti (mostly) with the ablative of a noun, that is determined by a participle indicating a previous action.

A short appendix to this book on the use of nominal cases in the later Iranian languages gave rise to the first doubts about the Iranian character of the Armenian language (Zur Casuslehre, pp. 332-34, n. 1). The discussion that ensued led Hübschmann also to deal with the question of the linguistic definition and characterization of Iranian as such. In a long article (ZVS 24, 1879, pp. 323-415) he compared, mainly with regard to phonological peculiarities and differences, Avestan with Old Indic, Old Persian with Avestan, New Persian with Old Persian, etc. Thus he was the first to establish definitely the characteristic features of Iranian which distinguish it from the other Indo-European languages, even if Iranian and Old Indian are based on a common Indo-Iranian proto-language and in that respect form a linguistic unity.

Hübschmann published studies about all periods of Iranian linguistic history from Avestan to modern Pashto and Ossetic, not forgetting the prehistoric phonological development. His book Etymologie und Lautlehre der ossetischen Sprache (1887) was basic to the study of this language. It was Hübschmann who correctly determined its classification; in his view it is a distinct Iranian dialect “with a Caucasian look.” He compiled in this work the etymologies of 325 words (apart from borrowings) and on this basis dealt with the intra-Iranian historical phonology of Ossetic. He himself understood the book to be merely a contribution to the knowledge of the Iranian language group and a preliminary to a comparative dictionary.

A solid foundation for the linguistic history of the Persian language from ancient to modern times—and it is only for Persian that we can trace the course of development through the ages—was laid by Hübschmann’s Persische Studien (1895). This work was based on Paul Horn’s (q.v.) Grundriss der neupersischen Etymologie (Strasbourg, 1893), which Hübschmann had suggested to his younger colleague and which attempted, for the first time, a critical compilation of the etymologies proposed by previous scholars. It is not surprising that Hübschmann, when going through it, was able to provide a great deal of addenda and corrigenda (Persische Studien, pp. 5-112). In the second part of this book (pp. 113-268) he started from Old Persian and expounded the phonological development within Persian, establishing its various stages in Old, Middle, and New Persian.

Already the book Zur Casuslehre (1875) went beyond Iranian, because its first part treated from a historical point of view the nominal cases as seen by ancient and modern grammarians. Hübschmann’s third subject, the entire field of Indo-European studies, is the topic in Das indogermanische Vocalsystem (1885). This book contains the first discussion of the Indo-European ablaut system subsequent to the publication of Ferdinand de Saussure’s revolutionary theories in 1879; but the extra-Iranian writings of Hübschmann cannot be examined here in more detail.



Major Works. Ein Zoroastrisches Lied (Capitel 30 des Jasna) mit Rücksicht auf die Tradition übersetzt und erklärt, Munich, 1872. Zur Casuslehre, Munich, 1875.

Zur Geschichte Armeniens und der ersten Kriege der Araber, aus dem Armenischen des Sebêos, Leipzig, 1875.

“Ueber die stellung des armenischen im kreise der indogermanischen sprachen,” ZVS 23, 1877, pp. 5-49.

Armenische Studien I. Grundzüge der armenischen Etymologie, Leipzig, 1883. Das indogermanische Vocalsystem, Strasbourg, 1885; repr., Amsterdam, 1975.

Etymologie und Lautlehre der ossetischen Sprache, Strasbourg, 1887; repr., Amsterdam, 1969.

“Die semitischen Lehnwörter im Altarmenischen,” ZDMG 46, 1892, pp. 226-68.

Persische Studien, Strasbourg, 1895.

Armenische Grammatik I. Armenische Etymologie, Leipzig, 1897; 3rd ed., Hildesheim and New York, 1972.

“Die altarmenischen Ortsnamen mit Beiträgen zur historischen Topographie Armeniens,” IF 16, 1904, pp. 197-490; separately, Strasbourg, 1904; repr., Amsterdam, 1969.

Kleine Schriften zum Armenischen, ed. by R. Schmitt, Hildesheim and New York, 1976. Obituaries. J. Karst, in IF Anzeiger für indogermanische Sprach- und Altertumskunde 23, 1908-09, pp. 117-19.

G. Ciardi-Dupré, in Giornale della Società Asiatica Italiana 21, 1908, pp. 313-16.

L. Tayean, in Bazmawep 66, 1908, pp. 471-74 (in Armenian, with photograph, p. 471; publ. in Venice).

Other references. H. Reichelt, “Iranisch,” and H. Zeller, “Armenisch,” in Die Erforschung der indogermanischen Sprachen IV/2, Berlin and Leipzig, 1927, pp. 1-84 and 85-104.

W. Wüst, “Hübschmann, Heinrich,” in Neue Deutsche Biographie IX, 1972, p. 724.

R. Schmitt, “Von Bopp bis Hübschmann: Das Armenische als indogermanische Sprache,” ZVS 89, 1975, pp. 3-30.

Idem, “Schriftenverzeichnis Heinrich Hübschmann,” ZVS 111, 1998, pp. 185-90.

(Erich Kettenhofen and Rüdiger Schmitt)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 23, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 5, pp. 551-553