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Nicholas Poppe

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Nicholas Poppe

Nicholas N. Poppe (Russian: Никола́й (Ни́колас) Никола́евич Поппе; July 27, 1897 – August 8, 1991) was an important Russian linguist.

He is also known as Nikolaus Poppe, with his first name in its German form. He is often cited as N.N. Poppe in academic publications.

Poppe was a leading specialist in the Mongolic languages and the larger Altaic language family to which, in the view of many linguists, the Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic languages belong. Poppe was open-minded toward the inclusion of Korean in Altaic, but regarded the evidence for the inclusion of Korean as less strong than that for the inclusion of Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic.


Nicholas Poppe's father was stationed in China as a consular officer in the Russian diplomatic service. Poppe was born in Yantai, Shandong, China on July 27, 1897.

Poppe’s boyhood and youth were marked by wars: the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, and the Russian Civil War, which was followed by the establishment of the Soviet regime. Later, he experienced Stalin's Great Purge and the Second World War.

Poppe began teaching at the Institute for Modern Oriental Languages in 1920 at the age of 23. Three years later, in 1923, he began teaching at the University of Leningrad. In 1931, he was appointed head of the Department of Mongolian Studies in the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1933, at the age of 36, he was elected as the youngest associate member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

During World War II Poppe lived in the Caucasus, in a region which was overtaken by the Germans. Poppe served as a translator between the local population and the German invaders. When the Germans withdrew he and his family also took the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. In 1943 Poppe moved with his family to Berlin. There, Poppe began working at the SS-affiliated Wannsee Institut, a research institute that studied the politics and economics of the Soviet Union.[1] After the war, he spent several years underground in hiding from the Soviets. In 1949, he managed to emigrate to the United States, where he joined the faculty of the Far East and Russian Institute at the University of Washington. He continued teaching there up to his retirement in 1968.

In 1968, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Bonn. He was elected a Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences in 1968 and again in 1977.

In May 1989, a group of graduate students interested in Central and Inner Asian Studies initiated the first Nicholas Poppe Symposium. Poppe attended its first meeting in 1989 and the second in 1990. He was invited to the third meeting in May 1991 but was unable to attend on account of the state of his health.

Poppe died in June 1991 in Seattle at the age of 94.

Academic career

Poppe spoke fluent Mongolian and attained an unmatched familiarity with Mongolian oral literature. His research focused on studies of the Altaic language family, especially Khalkha-Mongolian and Buriat-Mongolian, and on studies of the folklore of these and related languages. He wrote manuals and grammars of written and colloquial Khalkha-Mongolian and Buriat-Mongolian, Yakut, the Alar dialect, and Bashkir.

His publications in the realm of Mongolian oral literature include eleven volumes of Mongolian epics, collections of Mongolian sayings, songs, and fairy tales, and Mongolian versions of works in Sanskrit.

After 1949, Poppe wrote mostly in German and English, in addition to Russian. Regardless of the language he used, his writing was remarkable for its simplicity and clarity. As a result, his works are easily comprehensible to specialists and non-specialists alike.


Poppe was an exceptionally prolific scholar. A bibliography of his publications from 1924 to 1987 includes 284 books and articles and 205 book reviews. Between 1949 and 1968 — a period during which he was teaching 16 to 17 hours a week at the University of Washington, with only three months in the summer for uninterrupted research — he wrote 217 works, including over 40 books.

The secret of his high productivity, as he jokingly described it, was that while other people were enjoying “the beautiful surroundings of Seattle, climbing the mountains or sailing the waters”, “he sits at his desk, wearing out one typewriter after the other like other people wear out their shoes”.


Books authored

  • 1926
    • Jakut Grammar for students.
  • 1927
    • The Chuvash and their neighbors.
    • Materials for the investigation of the Tungus language: the dialect of the Barguzin Tungus.
    • The Finno-Ugric peoples: a sketch.
  • 1930
    • The Alar dialect. Part I, Phonetics and morphology
  • 1931
    • The Alar dialect. Part II, Texts
    • Practical manual of colloquial Mongolian (Khalkha dialect)
    • Materials on the Solon Language
  • 1932
    • Manual of Mongolian
    • Specimens of Khalkha-Mongolian folklore: North Khalkha dialect
    • Notes on the dialect of the Aga Buriat
  • 1933
    • Buriat-Mongolian linguistics
    • Linguistic problems of East Siberia
  • 1934
    • The language and collective farm poetry of the Buriat-Mongols of the Selenga region
  • 1935
    • Annals of the Barguzin Buriats: texts and investigation
    • Annals of the Khori-Buriate. First issue: The chronicles of Tugultur Toboev and Vandan Yumsunov
  • 1936
    • Annals of the Selenga Buriats. First issue: Chronicle of Ubashi Dambi Jaltsan Lombo
    • Tserenov of 1868
    • Khalkha-Mongolian structure
    • Buriat-Mongolian folkloristic and dialectological collection
  • 1937
    • Khalkha-Mongolian heroic epics
    • Grammar of written Mongolian
    • Grammar of the Buriat-Mongolian language
  • 1940
    • Annals of the Khori-Buriats. First issue: Chronicles of Tugultur Toboev and Vandan Yumsunov
    • Manual of Mongolian
  • 1941
    • History of the Mongolian Script. Vol.1: The square script
  • 1951
    • Khalkha-Mongolian grammar: with bibliography, texts, and glossary.
  • 1954
    • Grammar of written Mongolian.
  • 1955
    • Introduction to Mongolian comparative studies.
    • Mongolian folklore: sayings, songs, fairytales and heroic sagas.
  • 1957
    • The Mongolian monuments in the 'Phagspa script
  • 1960
    • Comparative grammar of the Altaic languages. Part I: Comparative phonology.
    • Buriat Grammar
  • 1964
    • Bashkir manual
  • 1965
    • Introduction to Altaic linguistics
  • 1967
    • The twelve deeds of the Buddha: a Mongolian version of the Lalitavistara

Mongolian texts with English translation and notes

  • 1970
    • Mongolian language handbook
  • 1971
    • The Diamond Sutra: three Mongolian versions of the Vajracchedikaaprajnaapaaramitaa: texts, translations, notes, and glossaries
    • Khalkha-Mongolian heroic epic
  • 1972
    • The language and collective farm poetry of the Buriat-Mongols of the Selenga region
  • 1975
    • Mongolian epics I
    • Mongolian epics II
    • Mongolian epics III
    • Mongolian epics IV
  • 1976
    • Mongolian epics V
  • 1977
    • Mongolian epics VI
  • 1978
    • Tsongol folklore (the language and Collective Farm poetry of the Buriat-Mongols of the Selenga Region)
  • 1980
    • Mongolian epics IX
  • 1985
    • Mongolian epics XI

See also


  1. ^ The Wannsee Institut is unrelated to the 1942 Wannsee Conference at which the extermination of the Jews of German-occupied Europe was planned.
  • Poppe, N.N., Walther Heissig, and Klaus Sagaster. 1989: Gedanke Und Wirkung : Festschrift zum 90. Geburtstag von Nikolaus Poppe. Asiatische Forschungen Bd. 108. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. ISSN 0571-320X.
  • Cirtautas, Arista Maria. "Nicholas Poppe: A bibliography of publications from 1924-1977." Parerga 4. Seattle: Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies, University of Washington, 1977.
  • Алпатов В. М. Лингвистическое наследие Н. Поппе // ВЯ. 1992, №3. С.119-125.
  • Алпатов В. М. Николай-Николас Поппе // Бюллетень Общества монголоведов РАН. 1993.
  • Алпатов В. М. Советское востоковедение в оценках Н. Поппе // Mongolica, III. Санкт-Петербург. Фарн. 1994. С.38-46.
  • Алпатов В. М. Николай-Николас Поппе. М. Восточная литература. 1996. 144 с.
  • Алпатов В. М. Переписка Н.Н. Поппе с советскими востоковедами// Известия РАН, серия литературы и языка. 2000, №5. С.52-57.

External links

  • several dozens of Poppe works available on-line
  • Nicholas Poppe Symposium at the University of Washington Includes biographical material and photos.
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