Theodor Benfey

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This is about the German philologist. For Theodor Benfey (born 1925) who developed a spiral periodic table of the elements in 1964, see Alternative periodic tables.
Theodor Benfey
Benfey, Theodor (1809-1881).jpg
Born (1809-12-28)28 December 1809
Died 26 June 1881(1881-06-26) (aged 71)
Nationality German
Occupation philologist

Theodor Benfey (January 28, 1809, Nörten near Göttingen – June 26, 1881, Göttingen) was a German philologist.


He was the son of a Jewish trader from Nörten in Lower Saxony. In 1834 he became a Privatdozent (associate professor) at the University of Göttingen, teaching Sanskrit and Comparative Grammar.[1]

Although originally destined for the medical profession, Benfey's taste for philology was awakened by a careful instruction in Hebrew which he received from his father. After brilliant studies at Göttingen he spent a year at Munich, where he was greatly impressed by the lectures of Schelling and Thiersch, and afterwards settled as a teacher in Frankfurt.[1]

Benfey's pursuits were at first chiefly classical, and his attention was diverted to Sanskrit by an accidental wager that he would learn enough of the language in a few weeks to be able to review a new book upon it. This feat he accomplished, and rivalled in later years when he learned Russian in order to translate V. P. Vasilev's work on Buddhism. For the time, however, his labours were chiefly in classical and Semitic philology. At Göttingen, where he had returned as Privatdozent, he wrote a little work on the names of the Hebrew months, proving that they were derived from the Persian, prepared the great article on India in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopaedia, and published from 1839 to 1842 the Lexicon of Greek Roots which gained him the Volney prize of the Institute of France.[2]

From this time Benfey's attention was principally given to Sanskrit. In 1848 he became an assistant professor, and published his edition of the Sama-veda; in 1852–1854 his Manual of Sanskrit, comprising a grammar and chrestomathy; in 1858 his practical Sanskrit grammar, afterwards translated into English; and in 1859 his edition of the Panchatantra, with an extensive dissertation on the fables and mythologies of primitive nations. All these works had been produced under the pressure of poverty, the government, whether from parsimony or from prejudice against a Jew, refusing to make any substantial addition to his small salary as extra-professor at the university.[3]

At length, in 1862, the growing appreciation of foreign scholars shamed it into making him an ordinary professor, and in 1866 Benfey published the laborious work by which he is on the whole best known, his great Sanskrit-English Dictionary. In 1869 he wrote a history of German philological research, especially Oriental, during the 19th century. In 1878 his jubilee (50th anniversary) as doctor was celebrated by the publication of a volume of philological essays dedicated to him and written by the first scholars in Germany. He had designed to close his literary labours by a grammar of Vedic Sanskrit, and was actively preparing it when he was interrupted by illness, which terminated in his death at Göttingen.[3]

A collection of Benfey's various writings was published in 1890, prefaced by a memoir by his son. Among his pupils was James Murdoch.[4] Some of his ideas were developed in Russia by Fyodor Buslaev.[3]


Selected works:[3]

  • Lexicon of Greek Roots, 1839-1842.
  • The Cuneiform Inscriptions, 1847.
  • The Hymns of Sama-Veda, 1848.
  • The History of Oriental Philosophy in Germany, 1868.
  • A Practical Grammar of the Sanskrit Language for the Use of Early Students, 1868.
  • A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: With References to the Best Edition of Sanskrit Author and Etymologies and Comparisons of Cognate Words Chiefly in Greek, Latin, Gothic and Anglo-Saxon, 1866




  • Willibald Kirfel (1955), Benfey, Theodor, in: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB), vol. 2, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. ISBN 3-428-00183-4, p. 46
  • Adalbert Bezzenberger (1902), Benfey, Theodor. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 46, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, p. 358
  • Renate Heuer (ed.) (1993), Lexikon deutsch-jüdischer Autoren, vol. 2, München: Saur, pp. 31–50