MORGENSTIERNE, Georg Valentin von Munthe af


MORGENSTIERNE, Georg Valentin von Munthe af, Norwegian linguist and Orientalist, specializing in Indo-Iranian languages, particularly those spoken in Afghanistan, the Pamirs, and the northwest of the Indian subcontinent (b. 3 January 1892, d. 3 March 1978; FIGURE 1). He was born in Oslo (then Kristiania), to a family that had for generations served the Danish and Swedish-Norwegian kings as government officials both in Norway and Denmark. After matriculation in 1909, Morgenstierne studied classical and comparative Indo-European linguistics in Oslo, but he became more and more attracted by the culture and languages of India. From 1914 to 1917 he studied Oriental, mainly Indian, philology in Bonn and Berlin, but also Persian, and he tried to study the Sogdian texts in the Berlin collection. In 1918, he took his doctorate in Berlin, with a thesis on an Indological theme, the relations between Śudraka’s drama Mṛcchakaṭikā “The Little clay cart” and Bhāsaδs recently found play Cārudatta. As a secondary subject he chose Tibetan, and worked for some time on Tibetan manuscripts in London. However, he gradually became absorbed in Iranian linguistics and began to study Pashto, which became the center of his scholarly life work.

In 1923, Morgenstierne visited India and spent the following year in Peshawar studying Pashto with a native scholar while collecting linguistic data from Pashtun tribesmen speaking Afridi and various other Pashto dialects. Then he went to Kabul and stayed for some months, primarily to get a general survey of the linguistic geography of Afghanistan, especially the northeastern area. This was a pioneering attempt, as Afghanistan had been linguistically almost a terra incognita. Additionally, he collected materials on Dari (Persian of Afghanistan), Shughni, and Ormuri. It was during this period that he rediscovered Parachi, which Bābor (r. 1483-1530), had mentioned in his memoirs but had thus far remained unrecorded. On the Indian side, he studied the Dardic languages, mainly Pashai and Khowar (see DARDESTĀN ii.); but it was the Kafiri languages of Nuristan (Kafiristan) that engaged his interest most, despite the fact that the political situation did not permit him to go to this area. Nevertheless, Morgenstierne’s work on the Dardic and Kafiri languages made it possible for the first time to define the historical relations between these linguistic families (see below).

In 1929, Morgenstierne returned to India. In Quetta, he worked on Brahui and Balochi, and especially, on the Pashto dialect Wanetsi. He continued his work in Peshawar, collecting information on the Pashai dialects. He spent several months in Chitral, where he worked on various Indian, Iranian. and Kafiri dialects, some never before recorded. He also gathered information about the mythologies of the last pagan tribes of the Kalashas. In Report on a Linguistic Mission to Afghanistan (Oslo, 1926) and Report on a Linguistic Mission to North-Western India (Oslo, 1932) he gave an account of his investigations during the two trips. In 1927, he published An Etymological Vocabulary of Pashto (Oslo), that he was preparing for a revised edition (publ. 2003) at his death. In 1929, the first volume of his Indo-Iranian Frontier Languages (IIFL, Oslo) appeared, in which Parachi and Ormuri were treated. This monumental series appeared in 3 volumes, 1929-67.

In 1930, Morgenstierne was appointed to the chair of Sanskrit and Indo-European linguistics at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden), and in 1937 he succeeded Sten Konow as professor of Indian language and culture at the University of Oslo, a position he held until retirement in 1963. During the 1930s, Morgenstierne published a number of monographs and articles on Iranian, Kafiri, and Indian languages. In 1938 appeared the second volume of IIFL, containing texts and grammars of various Pamir languages (Yidgha-Munji, Sanglechi-Ishkashmi, Wakhi).

In 1942, Morgenstierne published two articles of great consequence. The first was his study “Orthography and Sound System of the Avesta” in Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap [NTS] (repr. in his Irano-Dardica, Wiesbaden, 1975, pp. 31-83), the first comprehensive phonetic and phonemic analysis of Avestan. In it he criticized F. C. Andreas’s theory of the Avestan text, which had dominated Avestan studies in the first decades of the 20th century (see ANDREAS iii.). According to Andreas, the Avesta had been set down in writing in the Arsacid period in a simple consonant script of the Aramaic-Pahlavi type, which created faulty pronunciations when unskillfully transcribed into the elaborate Avestan alphabet specifically invented to record phonetic features and usages of the Sasanian redactors. Morgenstierne argued that the Avestan alphabet was invented by Sasanian priests in order to record an orally transmitted liturgical text with its phonetic nuances; in other words, the first notation of the Avesta text must have been a Sasanian archetype in an orthography indicative of a number features of purely phonetic, non-phonemic nature. The use of individual letters is analyzed from a phonetic point of view with regard to their phonemic interpretation. Where the Avestan language differs from theoretical Old Iranian, the differences are comparatively regular and can mostly be accounted for by phonological laws. The vacillations and incongruencies of the manuscripts are easily explained as scribal errors, chronological or dialectal differences, or by the different linguistic strata of the scribes. East Iranian languages, in particular Pashto, are frequently referred to, as well as tendencies in non-Iranian languages. Thus, e.g., instead of original *iw we find written uu (Hoffmann’s transcription): juua- *jīwa- “living,” cuuant- < *ciwant- “how great.” This represents a sound change that is also found in Pashto and other East Iranian languages. The velar nasal ŋ is found to be phonemically significant. As to the development of medial ŋ before r Morgenstierneefers to Pashto nwar “sun” < *hwar-, a postvocalic sandhi form, and cūṇ(-sū) “400” < *čataŋrō. Morgenstierne concluded that the Avesta vulgata reflects a linguistic reality. How far the liturgical pronunciation of the Sasanian priests conformed to that of the original authors remained an open question; but, on the basis of his analysis, Morgenstierne presented tentative phonemic consonantal and vocal systems of both the Gathic and the Young Avestan dialects.

Morgenstierne’s second important publication in 1942 was his “Archaisms and Innovations in Pashto Morphology,” which still remains one of the few studies devoted to Pashto historical grammar.

In 1944 came his collection of Pashai texts (IIFL III/2: The Pashai Language, Texts and Translations); his Pashai dictionary (IIFL III/3: The Pashai Language, Vocabulary), appeared in 1956, and the grammar in 1967 (IIFL III/1: The Pashai Language, Grammar). The series was concluded in 1972 with IIFL IV: TheKalasha Language; and the next year the whole series was re-issued withadditions and new materials (2nd rev. ed., 1973, 4 vols. in 6, totaling some 2,100 pages).

Morgenstierne visited Afghanistan in 1949 and on various later occasions, and was always received with great honors as the leading European Pashto scholar (FIGURE 2). He was the first foreigner to be elected a member of the Pashto Academy in Kabul. His first visit to Iran was in 1954, to attend the Avicenna Jubilee in Tehran. In co-operation with E. Benveniste he had an opportunity of working for a few hours with a native speaker from Semnān, a town some 200 km west of Tehran, who continued to send him more words and grammatical forms. The results appeared in 1958 as “Notes on Sämnani” and “Additional Notes on Sämnani,” in which Morgenstierne discussed the phonetics and phonology of the dialect, gave a brief survey of the nominal and verbal inflections, a short list of verbs, and a few annotated texts, including some letters from his informant. He was able to modify somewhat previous studies of the dialect (primarily A. Christensen’s Contributions à la dialectologie iranienne II, Copenhagen, 1935).

The term Kafiri (later termed Nuristani) designates a group of Aryan languages (Kati, Prasun, Ashkun, Waigali, Tregami, if the latter is not to be regarded a Waigali dialect), spoken in small communities in Nuristan (formerly Kafiristan) in the Hindu Kush valleys of northeastern Afghanistan. The Kafiri-speaking population had preserved their ancient pagan religion until the end of the 19th century, when they were conquered and forcibly converted to Islam by the Afghan Amir ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān (r. 1880-1901). Morgenstierne’s attention was early drawn to these languages and their historical background. He was led to the conclusion that, whereas the Dardic languages (spoken in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir) are undoubtedly Indo-Aryan, the Kafiri languages form a distinct branch of the Aryan family. He first advanced this theory in 1926 (Report on a Linguistic Mission to Afghanistan), and later elaborated in a number of publications, most recently in an article (based on a lecture given in 1968) in his Irano-Dardica (Wiesbaden, 1973). He argued that the ancestor language must have branched off from proto-Aryan before, or a short time after, the division into Indian and Iranian, because the affinities are much closer with Indo-Aryan than with Iranian. These affinities must be very old, despite the millennia-long bilingual contacts with the northwestern Indian (Dardic) languages, which have resulted in extensive borrowings and typological influence. On the other hand, before the conversion to Islam the Iranian influence was unimportant.

The evidence for this is mainly based on historical phonology. Due to the loss of final syllables, the morphology of Kafiri has undergone such fundamental changes that we cannot expect to find many traces of old features. In phonetic matters Kafiri mostly agrees with Indo-Aryan. As in Indian (in contrast to Iranian), the internal Indo-European (IE) *ə laryngeal is not lost: Prasun lūšt “daughter” < *dužitā, Skt. duhitar-, but Old Av. dugədar- (2 syllables), Y.Av. duγδar-. IE *s has been retained as opposed to Iran. h: Waigali sōt “seven,” Skt. sapta, Y. Av. hapta; mās “moon,” Skt. mās-, OPers. māh-. Kati, Prasun, Ashkun, Waigali -miš <*masi, Vedic -masi, Av. -mahi, 1st person plural ending. In the development of dental + dental, Kafiri seems to agree with Indic; whereas these groups in Iranian resulted in st, zd, Indic has tt(h) dd(h): Kati bədi “thought” (< *bodh- “to notice”), Skt. buddhi-; Waigali ūttula “high,” Skt. uttha- “arising,” ud “up.”

A few Kafiri words seem to be closer to Iranian than to Indic: Kaf. *ven- “to see,Kati wäř-, Waigali wřē-, Ashkun wīṇ-, cf. Av. vāen- “to see” but Skt. ven- “to long for.”However, in this caseIranian and Kafiri have probably retained the original meaning. Kati and Waigali ew “one,” cf. Av. aēuua- but Skt. eka-. However, it is likely, as Morgenstierne frequently stressed, that in proto-Aryan an absolute borderline never existed between an Iranian and an Indic dialect, and that we have to presume various dialectal intersections. Nevertheless, the Kafiri languages do not share certain features with Indic. The tenues (ph, th, kh) and mediae (bh, dh, gh) aspiratae have lost their phonemically relevant aspiration: Ashkun betö “understood” < *butta-, Skt. Buddha; lotā “found” < *lapta-, Skt. labdha-. However, the de-aspiration goes further than in Iranian: Kati kur “donkey,” Av. xara-, Skt. khara-. The Kafiri have developed no spirant phonemes (f, θ, c). The Dardic languages show a tendency to de-aspiration of the mediae aspiratae, but this development is evidently late and not total, whereas in Kafiri it is absolute and old.

The development of the IE palatal and (labio)velar stops shown in Table 1 plays an important part in the argumentation for the position of the Kafiri languages as a separate branch of the Aryan family.

Table 1. Development of IE palatal and (labio)velar stops

1. IE *k′ > Kaf. c Ind. ś Iran. s
2. IE *g′ > Kaf. j/z Ind. j Iran. z
3. IE *g′h > Kaf. j/z Ind. h Iran. z
4. IE *gw > Kaf. ǰ/ž Ind. j Iran. j (before front vowels)
5. IE *gwh > Kaf. ǰ/ž Ind. h Iran. j (before front vowels)
6. IE *sk′ > Kaf. c Ind. ch Iran. s

However, IE *k ´ is represented in Kafiri, not only by c, but also by a palatal sibilant, as in Indic, but the distribution in the individual languages is uneven: Waigali dōš, Ashkun dus, but Kati duc “ten,” Skt. daśa, Kati and Waigali wac-, Ashkun was- “to bellow,” Skt. vāś-. There is apparently no phonetic reason for this fluctuation. Morgenstierne tentatively suggested some kind of sandhi in the sentence (Report, p. 58). In later studies he explained Kaf. š as due to the influence of, or borrowings from, Indic (Dardic); it is remarkable that such š-words are especially common in Ashkun and Waigali, which have been more strongly influenced by Indic (Dardic) than the sister languages have been.

However, be that as it may, in the representation of the IE voiced and voiceless palatals (Table 1, nos. 1-3, 6) as dental affricates (c, j) and the voiced (labio)velars (Table 1, nos. 4-5) as palatal affricates (ǰ), Morgenstierne saw archaisms that, besides other phonetic features, make the following conclusion logical: the Kafiri languages constitute a third branch of the Aryan linguistic family, and they originated from a proto-language which shared a number of isoglosses with Indo-Aryan, and that down through millennia has been exposed to a strong influence from the Indic neighbor languages.

In spite of some criticism, most scholars who have specialized in the investigation of the Kafiri languages have supported Morgenstierne’s theory (see in particular G. Fussmann: Atlas linguistique des parlés dardes et kafires, Paris, 1971, II, and Georg Buddruss, “Nochmals zur Stellung der Nūristān-Sprachen des afghanischen Hindukusch,” MSS 16, 1977, pp. 19-38).

As a student, Morgenstierne was trained in the methods of the Neo-Grammarian school of linguistics, and these methods remained his theoretical basis. The Neo-Grammarian school, which originated among German linguists (K. Brugmann, H. Osthoff) in the 1870s, reflected the historicism of the late 19th century. These scholars were particularly interested in historical phonology. Sound changes were considered regular processes which take place according to laws that permit no exceptions. The same sound will always develop in the same way in the same environments, although analogies are admitted. This means that systematic sound correspondences between languages, not merely individual cases of similar phonetic shape, are the proof of their historical relatedness. Most linguists of Morgenstierne’s youth adhered to these principles. His own main interest was always just historical phonology.

The structuralist methods of the 1920s and 1930s also left their mark on his linguistic thinking. The influence of the Prague school of phonology is evident in his article about the sound system of the Avesta. The Prague school of linguists was a group of Czech and other scholars who were centered around N. Trubetzkoy (professor in Vienna, d. 1938 and who published the series Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague. Their program was put forward in Trubetzkoy’s Grundzüge der Phonologie (1939). The Prague linguists devoted their interest mainly to phonological theory, elaborating the concept of the phoneme. They treated the phoneme as a complex phonological unit realized by the speech sounds. Each phoneme was composed by a number of distinctive features, each feature standing in opposition to its absence or to another feature in at least one other phoneme in the language. This analysis of speech sounds into their component articulation features revealed the complexity of phonological systems. Phonemes “enter into different systems of relations in different positions. /p/ and /b/, /t/ and /d/, /k/ and /g/ contrast as voiceless and voiced initially, medially, and finally in English words, but after initial /s/ the voice-voiceless contrast is non-operative or “neutralized,” since only one plosive can occur at each point of articulation. To express this, the term archiphoneme was formed, comprising just the features still distinctive in these positions of neutralization (i.e. bilabiality, etc. and plosion)” (R. H. Robins: A Short History of Linguistics, 2nd ed., London, 1969, p. 205).



Biography. A. Sommerfelt, in Norsk Biografisk Leksikon IX, Oslo, 1940, pp. 523-24.

K. Kristiansen, in Lexicon grammaticorum, Tübingen, 1996, pp. 652-53.

Georg Morgenstierne, Paa sprogjakt i Hindukush. Dagboksnotater fra Chitral 1929, ed. Eva M. Lorentzen, with Knut Kristiansen, and Fridrik Thordarson, Oslo, 1992.

F. Thordarson, in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne I, Acta Iranica 21, Leiden, 1981, pp. 1-7.

Bibliography, in IIFL IV, pp. 245-53.

Obituaries. K. Kristiansen, Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi: Årbok 1978, Oslo, pp. 9-12; H. W. Bailey in JRAS, 1979, pp. 95-96.

Literary estate. Morgenstierne’s unpublished manuscripts are preserved in the Norwegian National Library, including his preparatory notes for the revised edition of An Etymological Vocabulary of Pashto and seven envelopes containing Kati materials. There is also a great collection of ethnographic and archeological photographs from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (Chitral), as well as sound recordings and a film taken at the Kalasha spring festival (Joshi) in Chitral in 1929. For selections from the audiovisual and photographic materials, as well as a timeline of his life, see the Internet site developed by the Norwegian National Library: “Om Georg Morgenstierne”: /english/aboutm.html.

Selected works of G. Morgenstierne (in addition to those cited in the text). “Iranian ni-haδ-,” BSL 24, 1923, pp. 205-13.

“Iranian Notes: 1. Notes on the Old Persian Inscriptions. 2. Modern Iranian Etymologies. 3. Miscellaneous Iranian Etymologies. 4. Indian Loan-Words in Baluchi,” AO 1, 1923, pp. 245-84.

“Afghan kōr ’maison’,” BSL 25, 1925, p. 65.

“Afghan rūnd ‘âveugle’,” BSL 25, 1925, p. 64.

“Notes on Shughni,” NTS 1, 1928, pp. 32-84.

“Persian Texts from Afghanistan,” AO 6, 1928, pp. 309-28.

“The Linguistic Classification of Dardic and Kafiri,” in Oostersch Genoostschap in Nederland, Verslag van het 5. congres, Leiden, 1927, pp. 31-32.

With A. Lloyd-James, “Notes on the Pronunciation of Pashto (dialect of the Hazara District,” BSOS 5, 1928, pp. 53-62.

“The Language of the Ashkun Kafirs,” NTS 2, 1929, pp. 192-289.

“Notes on Professor Charpentier’s Article” [on Pashto etymology]. AO 7, 1929, pp. 198-200.

“The Waṇetsi Dialect of Pashto. A Preliminary Note,” NTS 4, 1930, pp. 156-75.

Review of W. Lentz, Die nordiranischen Elemente in der neupersischen Literatursprache bei Firdosi, in Deutsche Literaturzeitung 51, 1930, cols. 1458-61.

“The Name Munjān and some other Names of Places and Peoples in the Hindu Kush,” BSOS 6, 1930, pp. 439-44.

“Das Wort für ‘Sichel’ in neuindischen und neuiranischen Sprachen,” Göteborgs högskolas årsskrift 36/3, 1931, pp. 63-69.

“Notes on Balochi Etymology,” NTS 5, 1931, pp. 37-53. “Persian Etymologies,” NTS 5, 1931, pp. 54-56 and 53 (Addenda).

“The Story of an Afridi Sepoy,” in Studia Indo-Iranica, Ehrengabe für W. Geiger, Leipzig, 1931, pp. 289-300.

Report on a Linguistic Mission to North-Western India, Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, Serie C III, Oslo, 1932.

“Supplementary Notes on Ormuri,” NTS 5, 1932, pp. 3-36.

“A Kafir on Kafir Laws and Customs” [extracts in translation, with comments, from an untitled MS in Urdu written by Moḥammad Abd-Allāh “Āzar,” purchased from the author by Morgenstierne in 1929], Göteborgs högskolas årsskrift 39/2, 1933 (= Donum natalicium Oscari von Sydow oblatum), pp. 195-203.

“Neupersisch rūda und Verwandtes,” KZ 61, 1933, pp. 29-36.

“Additional Notes on Ashkun,” NTS 7, 1934, pp. 56-115.

“Munji žūt: Gothic qi*i*,” NTS 7, 1934, pp. 116-20.

“Die Worter für ‘Lüge’ und ‘Wahrheit’ in den Dard- und Kafir-Sprachen,” appendix to H. Frisk, “‘Wahrheit’ und ‘Lüge’ in den indogermanischen Sprachen,” GHÅ 41, 1935, pp. 35-39.

“Iranian Elements in Khowar,” BSOS 8, 1936, pp. 657-71.

“Notes on an Old Pashto Manuscript, Containing the Khair-ul-bayān of Bāyazīd Anṣārī” [misprinted Bayāzīd Ansarī], New Indian Antiquary 2, 1939, pp. 566-74.

Notes on Phalūṛa, an Unknown Dardic Language of Chitral, Oslo, 1940.

"’Pashto’, ‘Pathan’ and the Treatment of r + Sibilant in Pashto,” AO 18, 1940, pp. 138-44.

“Archaisms and Innovations in Pashto Morphology,” NTS 12, 1942, pp. 88-114.

“Notes on Dameli, a Kafir-Dardic Language of Chitral,” NTS 12, 1942, pp. 115-98.

“Iranica” (1. The Demonstrative Pronouns in Shughni. 2. Modern ‘Tokharian’. 3. Additional Pashto Etymologies. 4. Persian Etymologies. 5. Ossetic Etymologies. 6. The Saka Itinerary. 7. A Pashto Text from the 11th Century?),” NTS 12, 1942, pp. 258-71.

“Orthography and Sound-System of the Avesta,” NTS 12, 1942, pp. 115-98. “Indo-European in Kafiri,” NTS 13, 1945, pp. 225-38. “Some Features of Khowar Morphology,” NTS 14, 1947, pp. 5-28.

“The Spring Festival of the Kalash Kafirs,” in India Antiqua. A Volume of Oriental Studies presented ... to Jean Philippe Vogel, Leiden, 1947, pp. 240-48.

“Balochi Miscellanea,” AO 20, 1948, pp. 253-92.

“The Language of the Prasun Kafirs,” NTS 15, 1949, pp. 188-334.

“Linguistic Gleanings from Nuristan,” NTS 16, 1952, pp. 117-35.

“The Waigali Language,” NTS 17, 1955, pp. 146-324.

“Modern Indo-Aryan Words in Alberuni’s Indica,” Indian Linguistics 19, 1958 (= Turner Jubilee Volume I), pp. 319-22.

“Neu-iranische Sprachen,” in HO, Abt. 1, Band 4, 1, Leiden, 1958, pp. 155-78.

“Notes on Sämnani” and “Additional Notes on Sämnani,” NTS 18, 1958, pp. 91-117, 162-70.

With Wazir Ali Shah, “Some Khowar Songs,” AO 24, 1959, pp. 29-58.

“Afghān. (1) The people (2) The Pashto language (3) Pashto literature,” in EI2 I, 1960, pp. 216-21.

“Afghānistān, (2) ethnography (3) languages (4) religion,” in EI2 I, 1960, pp. 224-25.

“Stray Notes on Persian Dialects,” NTS 19, 1960, pp. 73-140. “Iranian Feminines in čī,” in Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, New Haven, 1962, pp. 160-64.

“Feminine Nouns in –a in Western Iranian Dialects,” in A Locust’s Leg, Studies in Honour of S. H. Taqizadeh, London, 1962, pp. 203-8.

“An Ancient Indo-Iranian Word for “dragon,” in J. M. Unvala Memorial Volume, Bombay, 1964, pp. 95-98.

“Dardic and Kāfir languages,” in EI2 II, 1965, pp. 138-39.

“Notes on the Pashto Ṭolana Vocabulary of Munji,” AO 30, 1966, pp. 177-88.

“Iranian Languages as a Source of History,” Afghanistan 20/4, 1968, pp. 20-26.

“Mythological Texts from the Kates of Nuristan,” in Mélanges d’indianisme à la mémoire de Louis Renou (= Publications de l’Institut de civilisation indienne, Sér. in-8°, fasc. 28), Paris, 1968, pp. 529-38.

“Notes on Bactrian Phonology,” BSOAS 33, 1970, pp. 125-31.

“Istālif and other Place-Names of Afghanistan,” BSOAS 33, 1970, pp. 350-52.

An Etymological Vocabulary of the Shughni Group, Wiesbaden, 1974.

A New Etymological Vocabulary of Pashto, eds. J. Elfenbein, D. N. MacKenzie, and N. Sims-Williams, Wiesbaden, 2003.

Reviews of books. A. Christensen, Codices Avestici et Pahlavici Bibliothecae Universitatis Hafniensis I-IV, in AO 13, 1935, pp. 331-32.

O. Mann, Kurdisch-persische Forschungen ... Abt. 3. B.2.4., in AO 13, 1935, pp. 326-28.

G. W. Gilbertson, The Pakkhto Idiom, A Dictionary, in AO 13, 1935, pp. 333-34.

A. Christensen, Contributions à la dialectologie iranienne, Deutsche Literaturzeitung 56, 1935, pp. 363-67).

W. Lentz, Pamir-Dialekte, 1. Materialien zur Kenntnis der Schugni-Gruppe, in AO 13, 1935, pp. 328-34.

D. N. MacKenzie, Kurdish Dialect Studies, in BSOAS 27, 1964, pp. 177-78.

(Fridrick Thordarson)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005