Afghanistan research newsletter - No. 19

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Georg Morgenstierne: Early Norwegian Research in Afghanistan

by Michael Fergus

In February and March 1977, I spent six weeks in eastern Afghanistan, conducting a socio-economic survey in Kunarha and Nuristan Provinces. The survey, connected with a feasibility study for a Norwegian consulting company, focused on a hydropower project on the Kunar River (that was ultimately never built). At that time, I visited Kamdesh, Barikot, Assadabad, Dar-i-Nur, the Pech Valley and many other villages in the region. I came from Norway, and it was not long before local people in Kunarha started asking if I knew Georg Morgenstierne, the great professor from Norway who had travelled widely in the area and who knew and spoke most of the local languages and dialects. In fact, Professor Morgenstierne was still well remembered in Kamdesh village when I visited it 13 years after he had last been there. To my shame, I had to admit that I had never heard of Morgenstierne. I corrected that, however, as soon as I travelled back to Norway. There I sought out Professor Georg Morgenstierne, who was Professor Emeritus of Indo-Iranian Languages at the University of Oslo. By this time, however, he was 85 years old and living in a retirement home in a suburb of Oslo. Nonetheless, I tracked him down and had afternoon tea with him. I found that he was a charming, highly articulate and entertaining conversationalist. He was particularly interested in my experiences of Kamdesh village (situated at 2,020m in the Hindu Kush), which he knew well; he quizzed me on the fragments of the Pashai language I had picked up during my interviews with local people. Professor Morgenstierne (who was born in 1892) died the year after our meeting, in 1978. Now, 30 years later, Nils Johan Ringdal has written a comprehensive biography in Norwegian about Professor Morgenstierne. The title of the biography, in English, is The Strange Life and Travels of Georg Valentin von Munthe af Morgenstierne; it is uncertain whether or not the book will be translated into English. The book - nearly 800 pages long - tells of a young man with an aristocratic background who was born into one of Norway´s best families. (His grand-uncle was a prime minister, his father was a rector of Oslo University and his brother was an ambassador to the US). At an early age, Professor Morgenstierne resolved to devote his life to philology, particularly the study of Indian and Iranian languages. Later in his life, he became known in Norway as "the man who knows 100 languages"; Morgenstierne's biography lists over 300 languages that he had - in some respect - been in contact with. (This list included more than 50 variants of Pashto and Dari.) Professor Morgenstierne did field research on many of the so-called "Kafir" languages of the more remote parts of the Hindu Kush, which related to eastern Afghanistan´s pre-Islamic culture. Morgenstierne´s work is still the only research in existence regarding many of these languages, which makes his publications invaluable. Morgenstierne showed that the "Kafir" languages of Nuristan were quite distinct from the Indo-Iranian family of languages.