VIDEO: Rasmus Rask – Indiana Jones of linguistics


Co-creation between Denmark and India has a long history. That history can be traced back to the 1820s, when Rasmus Rask travelled to India in order to study what we now know as Indo-European. Rasmus Rask was a Danish linguist who lived from 1787 to 1832. During his time as language researcher he made revolutionary discoveries within the field of Indo-European, and his work proved that the Nordic languages were related to Greek and Latin. This discovery was groundbreaking in linguistics and it put him on the map as one of the greatest language experts of that age. According to Kenneth Zysk, Associate Professor at Copenhagen University, Rask’s research also led to the foundation of Indo-European linguistic studies at the University of Copenhagen.

 Indiana Jones of linguistics

Rasmus Rask travelled around the world and collected ancient texts and scriptures in many different languages, in order to study them further. This included Sanskrit, Zend, Tamil, Pehlevi and many other languages from South India. He started his journey in Sweden and travelled through Russia into India. On the way he learned many different languages, studied their grammar and collected texts. He brought the texts and his notes back to Denmark, after the long journey through India, and they became sources that could explain the connection between the Indo-European languages. Rasmus Rask studied the similarities between the different European and Indian languages and discovered how they were related. He found their origin and used it to reconstruct the mother tongue, that we now know as Indo-European, explains Marie Heide, master’s student in Indo-European at The University of Copenhagen.

Rasmus Rask’s work became the basis for studying Indo-European at the University of Copenhagen, as his scriptures made it possible to further the research. He set the whole structure and tone for the study of English languages here in Copenhagen and particularly the languages of ancient India, explains Kenneth Zysk, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen. Rask also gave the Danish scholarly community an insight into ancient India. He was an instrument for bringing Sanskrit and Indian culture alive in its language, says Kenneth Zysk. In many ways, this new insight gave Denmark and India a common ground.

Unfortunately Rask died before he could finish his studies and some secrets in the scriptures are yet to be discovered. His studies has not been published but made known, says Kenneth Zysk. But despite Rask’s unfinished work he still made Indo-European discoveries that changed the landscape of Indo-European research and studies. The scriptures are presently at The Royal Danish Library.

Further Studies

For Denmark, Rasmus Rask’s work in India meant that Indo-European became a discipline at The University of Copenhagen as early as the 1850s. His collection became a central source for studying, says Kenneth Zysk. The fact that Rask proved that the Nordic languages were related to Greek and Latin made Indo-European an extremely relevant study at the University of Copenhagen and, thus, a vital part of Danish heritage. It is to this day one of the few universities in Europe that puts so much effort into Indo-European research. It is a source of ancient knowledge and in Denmark they recognize the importance of knowledge and research, says Kenneth Zysk as explanation to why the University of Copenhagen acknowledges it as an important academic discipline.

Thus, Rask’s research in Indo-European has created a linguistic relation between Denmark and India, as well as a joint cultural heritage that calls for further co-creation. Kenneth Zysk hopes to take this co-creation to the next step in a possible collaboration with the Indian education institute, Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute. He believes that a closer collaboration with India could be extremely fruitful for Indo-European research, as both countries are very knowledgeable about the subject. The idea of collaboration is still at an early stage, but hopefully it will be a reality in the nearest future.

 VIDEO: Rasmus Rask – Indiana Jones of linguistics

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