Johann Kaspar Zeuss


1806-1856; b. Vogtendorf, nr. Kronach, S. Germany [Franconia / Bavaria], 22 July 1806; ed. Munich University, 1826; studied history, philosophy, classics, Hebrew and Arabic; appt. college tutor; issued Die Deutschen und die Nachbarstamme [The Germans and their Neighbours] (1837); turned to Celtic studies in 1837;
appt. Professor of History in the College of Spires, 1840; inaugurated study of Celtic languages in c.1843, travelled to Karlsrühe, Darmstadt, Wurzburg, St. Gall, Milan, &c, copying glosses; published his Grammatica Celtica, (Leipzig 1853), later revised and enlarged by Herman Wilhelm Ebel - the finished work acquiring the designation ‘Zeuss-Ebel’ (1871);
Zeuss is said to have been disappointed by the reception of his work, which appeared without prior notice or any publisher’s advertisement; d. at Vorstendorf, 10 Nov. 1856 [aetat. 50]; an Irish stamp was issued with his portrait in 2006. OCIL

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Grammatica Celtica: e monumentis vetustis tam hibernica linguae, quam Britannicarum dialectorum Cambricae, Cornicae, Aremoricae, comparatis Gallicae priscae reliquiis construxit, I[ohann] C[asper] Zeuss [Leipzig: Weidmann 1853]. Editio altera, curavit H. Ebel (Berlin: Weidmannos 1871).

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Bernhard Forssman, ed., Erlanger Gedenfeier für Johann Kaspar Zeuss (1989). See also a review of Grammatica Celtica by John O'Donovan in Ulster Journal of Archaeology (Belfast 1859), quoted extensively in Alfred Webb, Compendium of Irish Biography (1878), as attached.


P. W. Joyce, A Short History of Ireland from the Earliest Times to 1608 (Longmans 1893)

Zeuss: The Grammatica Celtica. The first to make extensive use of the glosses for these purposes was Johann Kaspar Zeuss, a Bavarian; born 1806; died 1856. He had a great talent for languages, and began the study of the Celtic dialects about 1840. Thenceforward he laboured incessantly, visiting the libraries of Saint Gall, Wurzburg, Milan, Carlsrühe, Cambrai, and several other cities, in all of which there are manuscript books with glosses in the Celtic dialects; and he copied everything that suited his purpose. He found the Irish glosses by far the most ancient, extensive, and important of all. Most of them belonged to the eighth century; some few to the beginning of the ninth. At the end of thirteen years he produced the great work of his life, Grammatica Celtica, a complete grammar of the four ancient Celtic dialects: published 1853. It is a closely printed book of over 1000 pages, and it is all written in Latin, except of course the Celtic examples and quotations. Each of the four dialects is treated of separately. In this work he proves that the Celtic people of the British Islands are the same with the Celta3 of the Continent; and that Celtic is one of the branches of the Aryan or Indo-European languages, abreast with Latin, Greek, the Teutonic languages, Sanscrit, &c.

Zeuss was the founder of Celtic philology. The Grammatica Celtica was a revelation to scholars wholly unexpected, and it gave an impetus to the study, which has been rather increasing than diminishing since his time. He made it plain that a knowledge of the Celtic languages is necessary in order to unravel the early history of the peoples of Western Europe. It is now quite a common thing to find scholars from continental countries visiting and residing for a time in Ireland to learn the Irish language. Since the time of Zeuss many scholarly works have been written on Celtic philology: but the Grammatica Celtica still stands at the head of all.


Eleanor Knott, ‘Ernest Windisch, 1844-1918’ [obit.], in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review (June 1919): ‘What Zeuss did for Old Irish, Windisch did for the in some ways more complicated subject of Middle Irish. Zeuss, with a zeal and patience which remain an inspiration to all genuine students, deciphered the old Irish glosses, and, in his famous Grammatica Celtica, laid the foundations of an exact study of Old Irish. Windisch, by painstaking study of all available Irish documents, laid in the first volume of his Irische Texte the foundations of a strictly scientific study of the language in which the sagas and [265] early poems are written.’ quoted in Eleanor Knott, ‘Ernest Windish 1844-1918’, obituary, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Dublin June 1919, p.265.)

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Iceland, 870 a.d. (Christians fleeing Vikings) ‘left behind them Irish books, bells, and other things, from whence it may be inferred that these Christians were Irish’ (Grammatica Celtica, [q.p.]; quoted in John Philip Cohane, The Indestructible Irish, NY: Hawthorn Books 1969, p.189.)

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Belfast Central Library holds Grammatica Celtica (1871 edn.)

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George A. Little, Dublin Before the Vikings (Duiblib: M. H. Gill 1957), notes that Grammatica Celtica (1853) discusses cliath/clethnat, glossed with tigillum (L.), ‘a little rafter, beam’ (p.282; Little, p.61.)

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