Pokorny, Julius (1887–1970), Indo-European philologist and Celtic scholar, was born 12 June 1887 in Prague, Bohemia, but was brought up in Austria. He attended Vienna University to study jurisprudence and comparative philology under Much, Kretschmer, and Meyer-Lübke. He graduated with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1912 for a dissertation, ‘Ein archaischer irischer Sagentext’. He was appointed Lektor in Irish at the same university that year and became Dozent in Celtic philology in 1914. He was given the chair of Celtic at the University of Berlin in 1920, at the age of 32, in succession to Kuno Meyer (qv), where his students included Myles Dillon (qv) and Michael A. O'Brien (1892–1962), later a professor at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. After the rise of the National Socialist government in Germany, he was suspended from his post and later dismissed (1935) because of his Jewish background. He sought asylum in Zürich, where he remained for the rest of his life. For various reasons, he was never given a permanent academic post in Switzerland, but remained as guest lecturer at the universities of Zürich and Bern.
At various times between 1908 and 1912 he visited Ireland to learn Irish at the Dunquin, Ring, and Tourmakeady Gaeltachta. He went to Wales to study Welsh. In 1908 and again in 1910, he taught courses in the School of Irish Studies established by Meyer in Dublin, where he acquired the nickname ‘Póigín’ from his fondness for the affections of young ladies. He was an ardent supporter of the revival of spoken Irish, and his views on Irish history were decidedly nationalistic.
Pokorny's courageous political views secured the release of his fellow scholar Ernst Lewy from a Nazi prison in 1935, but may have cost him the recognition that he deserved. He was, as the foreword to the English translation of his nationalistic History of Ireland (1933) said, ‘a scholar with strong human and even political sympathies’. At the end of his teaching career he was appointed professor honorarius of Celtic at the University of Munich in 1955. He received honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland (NUI) (1925), the University of Wales (1966), and Edinburgh (1967).
He was a scholar of extraordinary range, combining Indo-European grammar and philology with prehistory and a lyric sensibility to early Irish and Welsh poetry and literature, as shown in his Altkeltische Dichtungen (1944). He had a lifelong interest in the traces of Illyrian language and culture surviving in central and western Europe, and in the non-Indo-European stratum of the early Celtic languages, in particular Old Irish. His original views on the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland were summarised in ‘The pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland’ (Celtica, v (1960)). His many publications include Altirisch Grammatik (1925; 2nd ed. 1969), and Historical reader of Old Irish (1923), published in a Spanish translation in 1952 as Cancionciro da poesía Celtica. He also published several important works on Indo-European lexicology and etymology, including Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der indogermanischen (1927–32) and Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959–70), which became standard works in the field, in addition to a great many learned articles on Old Irish etymology, morphology, and syntax. He was editor of the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie from 1921 to 1940 (vols xiii–xxi) and again from 1954 to 1970 (xxiv–xxxi) and a frequent contributor to Kuhns Zeitschrift and Die Sprache. He popularised his theories on the non-Indo-European elements of the Celtic languages in an article entitled ‘Celtic languages’ in the Encyclopedia Americana.
He died in Zürich on 8 April 1970 at the age of eighty-two as the result of a road accident, when still both mentally and physically active. He never married.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).