|LIFE OF CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI|
Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1836 to 1838 > Californian
ONE evening about this time, Dr. Wiseman, meeting Mezzofanti in the Piazza di Spagna, inquired where he was going.
" To the Propaganda," he replied; " I have to give a lesson there."
" In what language ?" asked Dr. Wiseman.
" In Californian," said Mezzofanti. " I am teaching it to the Californian youths whom we have there."
" Californian!" exclaimed his friend, " From whom can you possibly have learned that out-of-the-way tongue ?"
" From themselves" replied Mezzofanti: " and now I am teaching it to them grammatically."
This interesting anecdote illustrates another curious phase of Mezzofanti's marvellous faculty—the manner in which he dealt with a language, not only new to himself, but entirely unwritten, unsystematized, and, in a word, destitute of all the ordinary aids and appliances of study.
Two native Californians, children of one of the many Indian tribes of that peninsula, were sent to Rome to be educated at the Propaganda. One of these died not very long after his arrival ; the other, whose native name was Tac, and who exhibited much more talent than his companion, lived in the Propaganda for about three years, but eventually sunk under the effects of the Roman climate, and perhaps, of the confinement and unwonted habits of collegiate life. To these youths, from the day of their arrival, Mezzofanti attached himself with all the interest which a new language always possessed for him.
The Indians of the Californian peninsula are broken up into several independent tribes, the principal of which are three in number, the Picos, the Waicuros, and the Laymones. Their languages are as various as their subdivisions of race. In the days of the Spanish missionaries, there could hardly be found any two or three missions in which the same dialect was spoken ; insomuch that the fathers of these missions have never succeeded in doing for the native language, what they have done for most of the other languages of Northern and Central America— reducing it to an intelligible grammatical system. Upon Mezzofanti, therefore, in his intercourse with these youths, devolved all the trouble of discovering the grammatical structure of the Californian language, and of reducing it to rules. It was a most curious process. He began by making his pupils recite the Lord's Prayer, until he picked up first the general meaning, and afterwards the particular sounds, and what may be called the rhythm of the language. The next step was to ascertain and to classify the particles, both affixes and suffixes ; to distinguish verbs from nouns, and substantives from adjectives ; to discover the principal inflexions of both. Having once mastered the preliminaries, his power of generalising seemed rather to be an instinct than an exercise of the reasoning faculty. With him the knowledge of words led, almost without an effort, to the power of speaking.
I have been assured by the Rev. James Doyle, who was a student of the Propaganda at the time, and who had frequent opportunities of witnessing Mezzofanti's conversation with these youths, that his success was complete, at least so far as could be judged from external appearance—from his fluency, his facility of speech, and all the other outward indications of familiarity.
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