Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Kopitar, Jernej

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    Scholars, scientists, intellectuals
    Kopitar, Jernej
    Kopitar, Jernej

    Jernej Kopitar (Repnje 1780 – Vienna 1844, his first name is often rendered in German as “Bartholomäus”), leading Slavic philologist, was one of the founders of Slavic studies, a zealous instigator of Austro-Slavism and one of the fathers of early Pan-Slavism. He was also a powerful supporter of separate Slavic cultural revival movements, nationalisms, especially Slovenian and Serbian. His work was also important for the development of library science, classical philology and Balkan studies.

    The son of a respected farmer, mayor of his home village, Kopitar was schooled in Ljubljana from 1791 to 1800, then entered employment as a private tutor, and around 1803 became assistant to the erudite nobleman Žiga Zois, as secretary, librarian and custodian of the mineral collection. Zois stimulated and supervised Kopitar’s eager interest in Slovenian history, philology and literature, especially his study of Slavic languages and literatures, and in October 1808 sent him on a mission to Vienna. Kopitar was to study law and thus to acquire proper credentials for a future career; he was also instructed to complete a Slovenian grammar, to investigate the history of the Slovenian language and to act as intermediary between Zois’s circle and other Slavic centres in the Austrian Empire. Zois’s sponsorship and support gave Kopitar access to high and intellectual society; after Zois’s death in 1819, this mentorship was taken over by Josef Dobrovský.

    In 1810 Kopitar was appointed to the position of censor of Slavic and Greek (later also Romanian) publications; an appointment at the Imperial Court Library in Vienna followed. Kopitar abandoned the study of law and devoted himself entirely to scholarly work, intellectual life and his career at the Court Library, which prospered because of his abilities and diligence. As an imperial representative in Paris in 1814 he successfully managed the restitution of precious manuscripts and books purloined by Napoleon in 1809; in 1817 he re-catalogued the manuscripts; ultimately, in 1844, he rose to the rank of first custodian of the Court Library. He also obtained memberships in many of Europe’s leading scholarly academies, and was awarded the highest Prussian decoration, the Pour le Mérite.

    Kopitar’s attitudes were shaped in the erudite, even intellectualist Enlightenment values of the Zois circle and Austrian Josephinism; he endorsed neither the radicalism of French Jacobin-style democracy nor the fervent Catholicism of the Romantic ultramontanists. His philological thought followed in the footsteps of Adelung, Herder, Schlözer and Dobrovský. Like these predecessors, his revivalist ideology centred on the cultivation and prestige of the Slavic languages and literatures.

    Even so, Kopitar is a transitional figure between the Enlightenment and Romantic Nationalism. He evinced a strongly Romantic sense for the individual rather than the universal, and his scholarly work was deeply involved in the Romantic mission of cultural nationalism. This ambivalence within Kopitar was an important cause of his conflicts both with older Enlightenment scholars (e.g. Dobrovský) and with the younger Romantic generation (e.g. František Palacký).

    Kopitar’s character was notoriously difficult. He was widely known and admired for enormous erudition (“monstrum scientiarum” according to Jacob Grimm), but his demeanour was often proud, stubborn, temperamental and blunt. Scornful towards opponents (Prešeren) or those he considered inferior scholars (Valentin Vodnik), he could also be generous and helpful; he taught Wilhelm von Humboldt, and famously supported Vuk Karadžić. His vehement clashes with the Prague and Ljubljana Romantics did not prevent him from entertaining a convivial literary gathering of “regulars” at his favourite inn, Zum weissen Wolf in Vienna (celebrated in a poem by Hoffmann von Fallersleben). Although his fiery temperament often blinkered his judgement, he was a tireless correspondent and always and energetically undertook or supported initiatives in the orthographic or lexicographical reform of Slovene or Serbian, and periodical journalism. His own work (such as his edition of the Freising Manuscript) was often held back by these many activities. As a result, his achievements have only recently come to be acknowledged more widely.

    With regard to his native Slovenian culture, Kopitar adopted Zois’s programme for a linguistic and literary revival, involving the publication of a scholarly Slovenian grammar and dictionary, the implementation of an alphabet reform and the writing and publishing of useful books in correct, authentic Slovenian. Kopitar translated Kotzebue’s comedy Der Hahnenschlag for public performance in Ljubljana in 1803, and compiled the Grammatik der Slavischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steyermark, published in 1809 in Ljubljana. This first scholarly grammar of Slovenian was based on the principles of Adelung and Dobrovský and embraced all Slovenian dialects, disregarding Carniolan and Styrian particularisms. What is more, it traced the history of the Slovenian language and its connections with other Slavic languages. With its publication Kopitar established a literary standard which, he proposed, could be used to purify spoken Slovenian, cleanse it of German influences and connect it with its Slavic relatives. On this grammatical basis, Kopitar went to outline his further desiderata: a dictionary, a university chair for Slovenian and the production of books for the broad reading public: religious and educational prose texts, and simple poetry modelled upon Serbian folk songs.

    Such utilitarian concepts resounded with Kopitar’s adepts in the 1820s and 1830s – mostly conservative, clerical writers – but they were challenged by the post-1830 generation of Romantic Nationalists around Matija Čop and Prešeren, who preferred cultivating a Slovenian high literature for educated readers. Kopitar responded by censoring the fourth volume of their anthology Kranjska čbelica (“The Carniolan bee”). Their more flamboyant style disrupted Kopitar’s gradualism, although in the long run, Kopitar’s utilitarian and more didactic aims were maintained by successors such as Miklošič, and Levstik.

    Kopitar also laid the basis for Slovene nationalism by coining the ethnonym “Slovenian” to refer jointly to the inhabitants and culture of areas that had until then been referred to separately (the Duchies of Carniola, Carinthia and Styria, the Counties of Gorizia and Istria, the City of Trieste); Slovenec and slovenski are used as of 1809 in his correspondence with Slavic scholars such as Dobrovský and Vodnik; at that time he also took over the day-to-day leadership of the Zois circle from that aged nobleman, and through a rigorously organized epistolary network marshalled cultural regenerators in the various regions. His letters not only distributed tasks and supervised their realization, but also ranked co-workers. Especially after 1810, when he attained financial and personal independence, Kopitar exerted increasing influence even on Zois. His control went to far as to discipline disobedient collaborators (Vodnik) or obstructing their promotion (Primic). Harsh as his leadership was, Kopitar did initiate many of the most important projects of Slovenian cultural nationalism: a new grammar and alphabet (Metelko), new dictionaries (Vodnik, Primic), a new translation of the Bible (Ravnikar, Zupan), the first modern literary history (Čop), the first ethnographical description (Jarnik), collecting of folk songs (Zupančič), of proverbs (Zupan) and of material for cultural history (Erberg). At the end of his life Kopitar sponsored the career of Miklošič and procured for him a position in the Court Library. He also acted as the main agent between the patriarch of Slavic studies, Dobrovský, and the Slovenians, organizing countless exchanges of information, books and ideas between Prague and Ljubljana. Finally, he decisively contributed to the establishment of two centres of higher education for Slovenian. In 1812 he recommended Primic for the first professorship of Slovenian at the lyceum of Graz, and between 1815 and 1817 he supported the creation of a Slovenian chair at the lyceum in Ljubljana. Both chairs were designed to train students for the priesthood, not only for pastoral work but also as cultural actors: collectors and cultivators of Slovenian, and potentially writers. In the same period Kopitar supported the concept of a Carniolan grammar school with exclusively Slovenian (as opposed to German) textbooks.

    By means of letters and editorial and journalistic work, Kopitar broadcast his ideas across the Slavic world (e.g. his ideals of a common Slavic Latin alphabet and a common Slavic literary language). The Zois-Kopitar network with its centres in Vienna and Ljubljana enabled the first permanent communication between Western and Southern Slavs, effectively linking Slovenians with national revivalists from Czech (Josef Valentin Zlobický and Dobrovský) to Polish (Ossoliński) to Dalmatian (Francesco Maria Appendini), Croatian (Maksimilijan Vrhovac) and Serbian (Dositej Obradović, Pavle Solarić and Karadžić) – more on all these below. This pajžina (“web”), as Kopitar termed it in Slovenian, not only made possible the rapid exchange of new ideas and publications, but supported, and gave a sense of common purpose to, the literary projects of all the Slavic nations in the Austrian Empire.

    Kopitar’s importance for the Serbian national revival ranks immediately after his Slovenian work. Soon after his arrival to Vienna, Kopitar started to study Serbian literature and to present it to Central European intellectuals. In 1813 he helped Dimitrije Davidović and Dimitrije Frušić to establish the Serbian newspaper Novine serbske in Vienna. In his capacity as censor, he continued to favour this enterprise and lent a hand as editor. In 1813 he met Vuk Karadžić, who became his favorite pupil and close friend. He supported him personally, financially and socially throughout his life. Among the Serbs, Karadžić successfully carried out that programme for gradual cultural revival which Kopitar himself struggled to achieve among Slovenians. Karadžić’s various works in Serbian language and literary life were all undertaken under Kopitar’s guidance; indeed it was Kopitar himself who (while concealing his co-authorship for political and tactical reasons) compiled the main part of the Srpski rječnik (1818), which modernized the Serbian literary lexicon and distanced it from impractical liturgical standards; that dictionary also standardized the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet by following Kopitar’s Adelung-derived phonemic principles. In 1815 Kopitar translated the first part of Karadžić’s collection of folk songs into German and sent it to Goethe; later he helped Therese von Jacob (Talvj) to arrange and publish these translations as Volkslieder der Serben (1825-26). In 1823 he arranged a meeting between Goethe and Karadžić; he helped John Bowring to prepare an English edition of Pesnarica (“Serbian popular poetry”, 1827) and Grimm to prepare a German edition of Pismenica (“Kleine serbische Grammatik”, 1834). As a censor and as a writer he always passionately intervened in favour of Karadžić and attacked the enemies of his reforms among Serbian conservative clergy; in 1824 he procured for him, through Grimm, membership in the Academy of Göttingen.

    Kopitar’s relations with other Slavic national revivalists were often complicated. He generously welcomed, entertained and helped all Slavic scholars that came to Vienna to meet him. His regulars’ table at the inn Zum weissen Wolf also saw Greek, Romanian, Albanian and Serbian guests in attendance. Kopitar particularly admired the rich literature and political self-confidence of the Czechs. In 1808 he was introduced to Zlobický, the first professor of Czech Language at the Vienna University, who became a staunch ally; after Zlobický’s death in 1810 Kopitar catalogued his personal library and attempted unsuccessfully to have it incorporated into the Court Library. In 1808 he entered into correspondence with Dobrovský, marking the beginning of a collaboration and friendship which would survive the occasional philological disagreement until Dobrovský’s death in 1829. The fruit of this collaboration was the Old Church Slavonic grammar Institutiones linguae Slavicae dialecti veteris, ultimately published in Vienna in 1822. He also encouraged and helped Pavol Jozef Šafárik acquire information about Slovenian writers for his Geschichte der südslawischen Literatur. Later he tried in vain to make him enthusiastic about the Pannonian theory and Slovakian revival. Inevitably, he got into a bitter quarrel with Czech Romantic Nationalists (Václav Hanka, Palacký), since he for decades publicly and critically (rightly) questioned the authenticity of the Bohemian Manuscripts. He also rejected Kollár’s Pan-Slavic notion of four great Slavic families and languages (Russian, Polish, Czechoslovakian and Illyrian or Serbo-Croatian) that underestimated Slovenian, Slovakian and other languages and disregarded the Carinthian and Pannonian theories.

    In 1809 Kopitar got acquainted with Count Ossoliński, a leading personality in the Polish cultural revival in Vienna, who became his superior in the Court Library and his patron. In exchange for his benevolence Kopitar helped him in supplementing his personal Slavic library. He corresponded and collaborated with most important Polish philologists, including Samuel Bogumił Linde, Jerzy Samuel Bandtkie and Antoni Zygmunt Helcel. An edition of the Florian Psalter led to a polemic about the age, origin and publication of the manuscript. Kopitar explained his arguments in Wiener Jahrbücher (1834) and in the polemical booklet Anti-Tartar (1836). Kopitar’s feelings about Russia were particularly complex. As a staunch supporter of Austro-Slavism, he was strongly adverse to the idea of Russian supremacy and influence in Slavic world. He also sharply criticized some Russian philologists (e.g. Petr Köppen, whom he considered naive), although there was fruitful cooperation with Aleksandr Hristoforovič Vostokov, with Nikolaj Nikolajevič Novosilcev (President of the Russian Academy of Science) and with the historian Mihail Petrovič Pogodin. Kopitar encouraged the Ukrainian cultural revival by endorsing work on Ukrainian grammar, dictionary and poetry and supporting the foundation of a Ukrainian printing house and teaching post in the city of Przemyśl. At the invitation of the Holy See and with support from the Austrian authorities he planned in 1842 and 1843 the foundation of a papal chair for Slavic studies, of a Ukrainian college and of a Slavic library in Rome. With these institutions the Catholic Church and Austria wanted to stop the conversion of Eastern Catholics in Galicia to the Orthodox Church. These plans were in perfect accordance with Kopitar’s Austro-Slavism, but they failed to materialize.

    Kopitar assiduously instructed Dalmatian and Croatian philologists and regenerators in the 1810s, supplying the Dubrovnik-based linguist Appendini and Bishop Vrhovac in Zagreb with recent Central European philological works, West Slavic grammars, dictionaries and Bible translations. However, in 1814 Vrhovac’s circle rejected Kopitar’s plan (connected to the Carinthian theory) of adapting their Kajkavian dialect (the dialect of north-central Croatia) to Slovenian standards, preferring instead an alignment with the southern Dalmatian and Serbian Štokavian dialect; this alignment away from Slovenian and in the direction of Serbian was consolidated in Ljudovit Gaj’s Illyrian movement, despite Kopitar’s polemical counterblast Hesychii glossographi discipulus (1840).

    Kopitar’s scholarly outlook revolved around his Carinthian and Pannonian theory, which also underpinned his Slovenian nationalism and his Austro-Slavism. It postulated primordial Slavic settlements (proto-Slovenians and Kajkavian Croats) in Carinthia or Pannonia, as distinguished from later Slavic settlement (of proto-Štokavian Croats and Serbs) in Dalmatia and the Balkans. Kopitar adopted this theory from Linhart and Zois and bolstered it by postulating, on the basis of recent discoveries of of historical sources (the 10th-century Freising MSS, 1807), a Pannonian infuence on Old Church Slavonic. Kopitar was convinced that Old Slovenians, as part of the ancient Pannonian Slavs, had adopted Christianity before the 9th-century mission of SS Cyril and Methodius, and had exercised a formative influence on Old Church Slavonic as it was passed on to other Slavic nations. Kopitar passionately propounded this theory in his letters (from 1808 onwards) and publications (from 1822 onwards). Although the theory failed to convince influential Slavic scholars like Dobrovský and Vostokov, it was maintained by his pupils Šafárik and Miklošič against the gradually growing dominance of the model deriving Old Church Slavonic from Macedonian/Bulgarian origins.

    An important aim of Kopitar was to reform the Slavic Latin alphabet. In his grammar, he proposed the adoption of the Latin alphabet as a common basis for the concerted development of Slavic languages, literatures and cultures. The establishment of the Illyrian Provinces, uniting several Slavic nations under French rule in 1809, stimulated Kopitar’s reform plan, and he devised a scheme introducing Cyrillic letters for awkward Slavic phonemes. Between 1809 and 1820 he tried in vain to win support from Dobrovský for the projected reform. In 1820 he made one last attempt to realize the project: he organized a special meeting with Dobrovský and Slovenian philologists (including Metelko) in Vienna, which ended inconclusively. After 1825 he firmly supported the reform of the Slovenian Latin alphabet (with the addition of certain Cyrillic letters) as outlined in Metelko’s Slovenian grammar Lehrgebäude der Slowenischen Sprache in accordance with his instructions. The rejection of the new alphabet by Čop and Prešeren led to the bitter “ABC-War” between Kopitar and the Romantics. The government ultimately prohibited Metelko’s alphabet in Slovenian schools (1833), and instead Gaj’s Illyrian aphabet, modelled upon Czech and Slovak, was adopted by both Slovenians and Croats. This was one of Kopitar’s greatest defeats.

    Kopitar’s theories and schemes were all inextricably connected with his Austro-Slavism, based (again) on views he had picked up in Zois’s circle (Linhart had in his Versuch einer Geschichte von Krain, 1788-91, emphasized the relative majority and great importance of Slavs under the Habsburg Crown). Kopitar combined Linhart’s opinion with the Austro-Slavic ideas of Dobrovský. According to Kopitar, the Austrian Empire, as a homeland of Old Church Slavonic, as a state with a relative majority of Slavs and finally as a modern (in the future preferably federalized) Catholic monarchy, was the best ambience to shelter West, South and even East Slavs against the “Eastern Despotism” of Hungary, Russia and Turkey. The imperial capital Vienna, with a university chair for Old Church Slavonic and with a Slavic academy, could become the Slavs’ political and cultural hub, connecting local centres and academies in Ljubljana, Prague, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Karlovci, L’viv, Przemyśl and elsewhere. This vision inspired Kopitar’s proposal to Emperor Francis I to acquire old Slavic manuscripts from the monasteries on Mount Athos for the Court Library in Vienna in 1827. Kopitar’s Austro-Slavic plans involved an increased Austrian (Western and Catholic) influence in the countries under the Hungarian Crown (Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians) and its extension also into the countries under Turkish domination and/or Russian religious and cultural influence (Serbs, Ukrainians and Bulgarians). Especially in the second decade of the 19th century, Kopitar hoped for the territorial expansion of Austria toward the Black Sea and for the annexation of Serbian and Bulgarian lands. In 1814 and 1816 he supported, together with Zois, the establishment of an Illyrian kingdom, uniting Slovenians, Croats and Serbs under the Habsburg Crown.

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    Slavist and leader of the "Wiener Hofbibliothek."

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    Article version
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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Vidmar, Luka, 2022. "Kopitar, Jernej", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 20-04-2022, consulted 23-05-2024.