Johannes Benzing (1913-01-13 – 2001-03-16) was a German specialist of Turkic languages and other languages of northern Eurasia.
Johannes Benzing was born in Schwenningen, a small town located in the Black Forest of Southern Germany. After secondary school, he spent some time as a commercial trainee with a local firm. Very early, however, he had discovered his profound interest in scholarly issues. In 1936, he thus moved to Berlin to take up Oriental studies. At the University of Berlin, Benzing studied Islamic Philology with Richard Hartmann, Hans Heinrich Schaeder and Walther Björkman, Turcology with Annemarie von Gabain, and Mongolistics with Erich Haenisch. At the same time, he acquired practical knowledge of oriental languages at the Oriental Seminar, where Gotthard Jäschke and Sebastian Beck belonged to his teachers. He also learnt Tatar from Saadet Ishaki (Çagatay), the daughter of the famous Tatar intellectual Ayaz Ishaki. In 1939, Benzing received his doctoral degree with a thesis on the verbal system of Turkmen (“Über die Verbformen im Türkmenischen”). In 1942, he completed his habilitation with a thorough study on the Chuvash language (“Tschuwaschische Forschungen”). At that time, in the middle of the war, the young scholar was unable to get an adequate position at a university. Instead he found an occupation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After the war, Johannes Benzing worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spending five years (1950-1955) with his family in Paris, where he established close contacts with the leading French Orientalists. In 1953, he was elected member of the Oriental Commission of the newly established Academy of Sciences and Literature at Mainz. In 1955, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany and was one year later appointed consul of the Cultural Section at the Consulate General in Istanbul. Besides his diplomatic duties, Benzing gave courses in Turkic languages at the Turcological Department of the Faculty of Letters (“Edebiyat Fakültesi”) of the University of Istanbul. Sporadically he also taught Turcology at the German universities of Tübingen and Mainz. On December 4, 1963, Johannes Benzing was appointed full professor (“Ordinarius”) in Oriental studies (“Islamische Philologie” and “Islamkunde”) at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, as the successor of Professor Helmuth Scheel. On February 25, 1966, he was elected Ordinary Member of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz.
Together with his fellow professors Georg Buddruss and Helmut Humbach, he arranged interdisciplinary seminars on Central Asian languages, e.g. Pamir languages, Tajik, Khotanese and Tokharian. It was also Benzing who took the initiative to establish Iranistics as an academic discipline at Mainz.
Benzing always dealt with the written word in a highly economic way and communicated many of his boldest – and perhaps most fruitful – ideas in oral discussions only, without ever committing them to paper. After the long mobile phases of his life, he did not want to leave Mainz, which means that he never attended conferences and congresses. On the other hand, he permanently welcomed visiting scholars from all parts of the world, generously sharing his wide knowledge and deep insights with them.
On March 31, 1981, Benzing retired from his position at the University of Mainz. Soon after the retirement, he and his wife Käte left Mainz and settled in Erdmannsweiler, close to their birthplace in the Black Forest. In March 1998, they moved to Bovenden (region Göttingen) to stay with their daughter, Professor Brigitta Benzing-Wolde Georgis, and her husband, Dr. Kahsai Wolde Georgis.
Johannes Benzing’s scholarly career was determined by interests developed during his early youth. Growing up in an Alemannic-speaking environment, close to the Swabian dialect region, he already as a schoolboy occupied himself with the linguistic history of his native province. As a student in Berlin, he discovered the partly neglected fields of the huge Eurasian territory. His interests very soon focused on the insufficiently known Turkic languages and cultures of Turkistan and the Volga region. As mentioned above, his doctoral thesis was devoted to Turkmen, whereas his habilitation thesis dealt with Chuvash. Historical-comparative research on Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic languages was Benzing’s main field of interest, to which he contributed outstanding studies. His sagacious investigations into the history of the Turkic languages are particularly important. With his profound knowledge, wide perspective and precise argumentation, Benzing continued the tradition of Willi Bang-Kaup’s Berlin school of linguistic Turcology, though markedly broadening its scope and refining its scholarly working procedures. Typical of Benzing’s method is the endeavour to gain new reliable insights through numerous small steps on a solid ground. Equipped with a sharp and creative mind, he preferred a systematic discussion of crucial details over speculative and precipitate general conclusions. One example of this is Benzing’s critical occupation with the so-called Altaic question, the still controversial problem of a possible genetic relatedness of Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic (maybe even Korean and Japanese). Over the years, Benzing gained an international reputation for his work in this field.
Benzing also showed a remarkable versatility in other domains of research. The local situation in his native Alemannic region had early inspired him to try to achieve a synopsis of studies in linguistics, folklore and territorial history. By the way, he always maintained his profound interest in dialectal, ethnographic and historical problems of his native region. In particular, Benzing realized the value of linguistic history for the solution of problems of cultural history. In a programmatic and truly visionary paper, “Herrenloses Land: Inner- und Nordasien als philologisches Arbeitsgebiet”, he argued that the ‘ownerless’ territory of Inner and Northern Asia, filling a fifth of the world’s surface, should finally be subject to comprehensive scholarly study. He was far-sighted enough to realize that this would not be possible without thorough investigations into the Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic and Paleoasiatic languages.
Besides publishing books and articles, Johannes Benzing devoted much time and care to highly instructive book reviews containing profound analyses and complementary remarks on important scholarly questions. A selection of these reviews, Kritische Beiträge zur Altaistik und Turkologie, appeared in 1988 as volume 3 in the series Turcologica (Harrassowitz). This book also contains an almost complete list of Benzings’s publications.
- “Herrenloses Land: Inner- und Nordasien als philologisches Arbeitsgebiet”
- Benzing, Johannes (1985) Kalmückische Grammatik zum Nachschlagen. (Turcologica, 1.) Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 3-447-02503-4.
- Benzing, Johannes (1993) Bolgarisch-tschuwaschische Studien. (Tucologica, 12.) Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 3-447-03341-X
An almost complete list of Benzing's publications is contained in Johanson & Schönig 1988.
- Johanson, Lars. 2001. Johannes Benzing (1913-2001). Turkic Languages 5.
- Johanson, Lars & Schönig, Claus (eds.) 1988. Kritische Beiträge zu Altaistik und Turkologie: Festschrift für Johannes Benzing. (Turcologica, 3.) Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 3-447-02766-5
This biographical article is based on Johanson 2001.