My holiday reading this year was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I had been meaning to read for a while. For the first three hundred pages, it was a total escape from work – but then what should pop up in Part III but a reference to Umbrian:
Alexei Alexandrovich ordered tea to be served in the study and, toying with the massive paper-knife, went to the armchair by which a lamp had been prepared, with a French book he had begun reading on the Eugubine Tables. Above the armchair, in a gilt frame, hung an oval portrait of Anna, beautifully executed by a famous painter. Alexei Alexandrovich looked at it. The impenetrable eyes looked at him insolently and mockingly, as on that last evening of their talk. […] Hastily sitting down in the armchair, he opened the book. He tried to read, but simply could not restore in himself the quite lively interest he had formerly taken in the Eugubine Tables. He was looking at the book and thinking about other things.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin Classics). p284
Notes on this passage tend to be rather inaccurate about the nature of the Eugubine Tables (now normally called the Iguvine Tables or Iguvine Tablets in English). Most editions correctly state that the tables were found in Gubbio (Italy) in 1444, but the edition I was reading then explains (incorrectly) that the tables are in Umbrian and Old Latin. In a quick online search of other editions, I discovered that they are also described as being in Umbrian, Latin, Etruscan and even Northumbrian, which I’m guessing is a misunderstanding of “Umbrian” or “North Umbrian” rather than a reference to north-east England. Part of the confusion about the language of the tables presumably stems from the fact that they are written in two different alphabets, and part from the fact that in the nineteenth century they had not yet been fully understood. (If you have reached this page because you are writing a new edition of Anna Karenina, please note the Iguvine Tables are in Umbrian only.) Several editions also put the date far too early – the tables are now dated between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, and the last three were probably written after the first four.
So what book was Alexei Karenin reading while trying to decide what to do about his wife’s infidelity? The note in my Penguin Classics edition on this passage suggests that the book that Alexei Karenin was reading was a French article on the Iguvine Tables by Bréal. This article, published in 1875, made Bréal’s career, and got him a huge amount of attention in the German universities where Indo-European linguistics was coming to life. Timing-wise, it’s the most probable “French book” on Umbrian for Karenin to be reading.
But why was Karenin – or Tolstoy – interested in a linguistics article in the first place?
By complete coincidence, my holiday was (in part) in Göttingen, the original home of Indo-European linguistics. Göttingen is still a university town, but the plaques which adorn almost every building make it clear in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was home to some seriously influential researchers. Among the most prominent were Göttingen’s linguists, and the most famous of these were the Brothers Grimm. They are now widely known for collecting and publishing local folktales, but this project was closely linked to their study of Indo-European linguistics. Among linguists, they are best known for their discovery of Grimm’s Law, one of the first sound change laws ever described.
Travelling around Göttingen (and nearby Weimar) shows that in the nineteenth century, Indo-European linguistics was not just a niche subject for a handful of specialists – it was part of intellectual life. New publications on Indo-European linguistics and the undeciphered languages of ancient European were widely read, and not just by fictional intellectual poseurs like Karenin. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Eliot spent time in the area, and many of the great literary figures of the nineteenth century were keenly interested in linguistics. The depictions of regional accents in Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens are also very much a part of the same scene, in which traditional and local language was becoming more valuable and worthy of preservation.
How many other novelists refer to Indo-European linguistics as directly as Tolstoy? George Eliot’s notebooks attest that she was extremely interested in linguistics, including the link between Sanskrit and European languages, and that she was well-versed in the German philological tradition of the time. In Middlemarch, Rev. Casaubon’s research into the Key to All Mythologies recalls the Grimm’s research into folktales – and his research is sadly out-of-date because he cannot read German. The link to linguistics here is implied rather than stated, perhaps, but it’s not a coincidence that German scholarship is mentioned. I’m sure there are more examples out there – what other examples of Indo-European linguistics in nineteenth-century literature are there that I am missing out?