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Berchtold to Humboldt
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Linguists of the Teutonic race > Berchtold to Humboldt

A German philanthropist of a different class, Count Leopold von Berchtold (173H—1809) the Howard of Germany, deserves to be named, not merely for his devoted services to the cause of humanity throughout the world, but for his remarkable acquirements as a linguist. He spoke fluently eight European languages; and, what is more rare, wrote and published in the greater number of them, tracts upon the great subject to which he dedicated his life. He. died, at a very advanced age, of the plague, and has long been honoured as a martyr in the cause of philanthropy; but he has left no notable work behind him. Very different the career of the great author of the Mithri-dates, John Christopher Adelung, who lived almost exclusively for learning. He was born in 1734, at Spantekow in Poinerania. In 1759, he was appointed to a professorship at Erfurt; but he exchanged it, after a few years, for a place at Leipsic, where he continued to reside for a long series of years. Although habitually of a gay and cheerful disposition, and a most agreeable member of society, he was one of the most assiduous students upon record, devoting as a rule no less than fourteen hours a day to his literary occupations. His services to his native language are still gratefully acknowledged by every German etymologist, and his Dictionary, (although since much improved by Voss and Campe,) has been declared as great a boon to Germany, as the united labours of the Academy had been able to oiler to France. Adelung's personal reputation as a linguist was exceedingly high, but his fame with posterity must rest on his great work, the Mithridates, which \ have already briefly described. the very origination of such a work, or at least the undertaking it upon the scale qn which he has carried it out, would have made the reputation of an ordinary man. In the touching preface or the first volume, (the only one which Adelung lived to see published,) he describes it as "the youngest and probably the last child of his muse ;" and confesses that " he has nurtured, dressed, and cherished it, with all the tenderness which it is commonly the lot of the youngest child to enjoy." It is indeed a work of extraordinary labour, and, although from the manner in which its materials were supplied, necessarily incomplete and even inaccurate in its details, a work of extraordinary ability. the first volume alone (containing the languages of Asia, and published in 1806,) is exclusively Adelung's. Of the second, only a hundred and fifty pages had been printed when the venerable author died in his seventy-third year. those printed sheets, and the papers which he bad collected for the subsequent volumes, he bequeathed to Dr. Severinus Vater, professor of theology at Konigsberg, under whose editorship, with assistance from several friends, (and especially from the lamented William von Humboldt and Frederic Adelung,) the second volume, which comprises the languages of Europe with all their ramifications, appeared in 1809. the third, on the languages of Africa, and of America, (for which last the work is indebted to Humboldt,) appeared, in parts, between 1812 and 1816; and a supplementary volume, containing additions to the earlier portions of the work, by Humboldt, Frederic Adelung, and Vater himself, was published in 1817. It is impossible to overstate the importance and value of this great linguistic repertory. the arrangement of the work is strictly scientific, according to the views then current. the geographical distribution, the origin and history, and the general structural peculiarities of each, not only of the great families, but of the individual languages, and in many cases even of the local dialects, are carefully, though briefly described. the specimen Pater- Noster in each language and dialect, is critically examined, and its vocabulary explained. To each language, too, is prefixed a catalogue of the chief philological or etymological works which treat of its peculiarities; and thus abundant suggestions are supplied for the prosecution of more minute researches into its nature and history. And for the most part, all this is executed with so much simplicity and clearness, with so true a perception of the real points of difficulty in each language, and with so almost instinctive a power of discriminating between those peculiarities in each which require special explanation, and those less abnormal qualities which a philosophical linguist will easily infer from the principles of general grammar, or from a consideration of the common characteristics of the family to which it belongs, that one may learn as much of the real character of a language, in a few hours, from the few suggestive pages the Mithridates, as from the tedious and complicated details of its professional grammarians. Adelung's associate in the Mithridates and its continuator, Dr. Severinus Vater, was born at Altenburg, in 1771; he studied at Jena and Halle, in both of which universities he afterwards held appointments as professor; at Jena, as extraordinary Professor of theology in 1796, and at Halle, as Professor of Oriental Languages in 1800. thence he was transferred, in 1809, to Konigsberg in the capacity of Professor of theology and Librarian ; but he returned, in 1820, to Halle, where he continued to reside till his death, in 1826. Although Vater was by no means a very scientific linguist, the importance of his contributions to the study of languages cannot be too highly estimated. Besides the large share which he had in the preparation of the Mithridates (the last three volumes of which were edited by him,) he also wrote well on the grammar of the Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and German languages. Nevertheless, his reputation is rather that of a scholar than of a linguist. A few years after the author of the Mithridates appears the celebrated Peter Simon Pallas, to whom we are indebted for the great "Comparative Vocabulary" already described. He was born at Berlin in 1741, and his early studies were mainly directed to natural philosophy, which he seems to have cultivated in all its branches. His reputation as a naturalist procured for him, in 17G7 an invitation from Cathorine II.. of Russia, to exchange a distinguished position which he had obtained at the Hague for a professorship in the Academy of St. Petersburg. His arrival in that capital occurred just at the time of the departure of the celebrated scientific expedition to Siberia for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus; and, as thoir mission also embraced the geography and natural history of Siberia, Pallas gladly accepted an invitation to accompany them. they set out in Juno, 1768, and after exploring the vast plains of European .Russia, the borders of Calmuck Tartary, and the shores of the Caspian, they crossed the Ural Mountains, examined the celebrated mines of Cath-enberg proceeded to Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia, and penetrated across the mountains to the Chinese frontier, whence Pallas returned by the route of Astrakan and the Caucasus to St. Petersburg. He reached that city in July, 17 74, with broken health, and hair prematurely whitened by sickness and fatigue. He resumed his place in the Academy ; and was rewarded by the Empress with many distinctions and lucrative employments, one of which was the charge of instructing the young grand-dukes, Alexander and Constantine. It. was during those years that he devoted himself to the compilation of the Vocabularia Comparative, which comprises two hundred and one languages; but, in 1795, he returned to the Crimea, (where he had obtained an extensive gift of territory from the .Empress) for the purpose of recruiting his health and pursuing his researches. After a residence there of fifteen years, he returned to Berlin in 1810, where he died in the following year. It will be seen, thorefore, that, prodigious as were his acquirements in that department, the study of languages was but a subordinate pursuit of this extraordinary man. His fame is mainly due to his researches in science. It is to him that we owe the reduction of the astronomical observations of the expedition of 1768; and Cavier gives him the credit of completely renewing the science of geology, and of almost entirely re-constructing that of natural history. It is difficult, nevertheless, to arrive at an exact conclusion as to the share which he personally took in the compilation of the Vocabulary; and still more so, as to his powers as a speaker of foreign languages ; although it is clear that his habits of life as a traveller and scientific explorer, not only facilitated, but even directly necessitated for him, the exercise of that faculty,io afar greater degree than can be supposed in the case of most of the older philo-logers. the career of Pallas bears a very remarkable resemblance to that of a more modern scholar, also a native of Berlin, Julius Henry Klaproth. He was the son of the celebrated chemist of that name, and was born in 1783. Although destined by his fathor to follow his own profession, a chance sight of the collection of Chinese books in the Royal Library at Berlin, irrevocably decided the direction of his studies. With the aid of the imperfect dictionary of Mentzel and Pere Diaz, he succeeded in learning without a master that most difficult language ; and, though he complied with his fathor's desire, so far as to pursue with success the preparatory studies of the medical profession, he never formally embraced it. After a time he gave his undivided attention to Oriental studies; and, in 1802, established, at Dresden, the Asiatisches Magazin. Like so many of his countrymen, he accepted service in Russia, at the invitation of Count Potocki,- who knew him at Berlin, ; and he was a member of the half-scientific, half-political, mission to Pekin, in 1805, under that eminent scholar and diplomatist. He withdrew, however, from the main body of this expedition, in order to be able to pursue his scientific researches more unrestrainedly ; and, after traversing eighteen hundred leagues in the space ot twenty months, in the course of which he passed in review all the motley races of that inhospitable region, Samoiedes, Finns, Tartars, Monguls, Pas-kirs, Dzoungars, Tungooses, &c, he returned to St. Petersburg, in IS06, with a vast collection of notes on the Chinese, Manlchu, Mongul, and Japanese languages. With a similar object, he was soon afterwards sent by the Academy, in September, 180/, to collect information on the languages of the Caucasus, a journey of exceeding difficulty and privation, in which he spent nearly three years.' On his return to St. Petersburg, he obtained permission to go to Berlin for the purpose of completing the necessary engravings for his work ; and he availed himself of this opportunity to withdraw altogethor from the Russian service, although with the for lei I lire of all his titles and honours. After a brief sojourn in Italy, he fixed his residence in Paris. To him the Societe. Mialir/ue may be said to owe its origin; and he acted, almost up to his death in 1835, as the chief editor of its journal—the well-known Journal Asialique. In Paris, also, he published his Asia Polyglotta, and " New Mithridates." Klaproth, perhaps, docs not deserve, in any one of the languages which he cultivated, the character of a very deep scholar; but he was acquainted with a large number: with Chinese, Mongol, Mant-chu, and Japanese, also with Sanscrit, Armenian, Persian, and Georgian ; he was of course perfectly familiar with German, Russian, French, and probably with others of the European languages. The eminent historical successes of Berthold GeorgeNiebuhr, born at Copenhagen in 1776), have so completely eclipsed the memory of all his other great qualities, that perhaps the rather will not be prepared to find that in the department of his attainments were of the highest rank. His Carsten Niebuhr, the learned Eastern traveller, had him to pursue his own career; but the delicacy of the youth's constitution, and other circumstances, forced his father to abandon the idea, and saved young Niebuhr for the far more important studies to which his own tastes attracted him. His history, both literary and political, is too recent and too well known to require any formal notice. It will be enough for our purpose to transcribe from his life an extremely interesting letter from his father, which bears upon the particular subject of the present inquiry. It is dated December, 1807, when Niebuhr was little more than thirty years of age. " My son has gone to Memel," writes the elder Niebuhr, "with the commissariat of the army When he found he should probably have to go to Riga, he began forthwith to learn Russian. Let us just reckon how many languages he knows already. He was only two years old when we came to Meldorf, so that we must consider, 1 st, German, as his mother tongue. He learned at school, 2nd, Latin; 3rd, Greek ; 4th, Hebrew ; and, besides in Meldorf he learned, 5th, Danish; 6th, English; 7th, French; 8th, Italian; but only so far as to be able to read a book in those languages; some books from a vessel wrecked on the coast induced him to learn, 9th, Portuguese; 10, Spanish; of Arabic he did not know much at home, because I had lost my lexicon and could not quickly replace it; in Kiel and Copenhagen he had opportunities of practice in speaking and writing French, English, and Danish; in Copenhagen he learned, 11th, Persian, of Count Ludolph, the Austrian minister, who was born at Constantinople, and whose father was an acquaintance of mine ; and 12th, Arabic, he taught himself; in Holland he learned, 13th, Dutch; and again, in Copenhagen, 14th, Swedish, and a little Icelandic; at Memel, 15th, Russian; 16th, Slavonic; 17th, Polish; 18th, Bohemian ; and, 19th, Illyrian. With the addition of Low German, this makes in all twenty languages," As this letter does not enter into the history of Niebuhr's later studies, I inquired of his friend, the Chevalier Bunsen, whether he had continued to cultivate the faculty thus early developed. I received from him the following interesting state ment: —" Niebuhr," he says, "ought not to be ranked among Linguists, in contradistinction with Philologers. Language had no special interest for him, beyond what it affords in connection with history and literature. His proficiency in languages was, however, very great, in consequence of his early and constant application to history, and his matchless memory I have spoken of both in. my Memoir on Niebuhr, in tin German and English edition of Niebuhr's Letters and Life it is appended to the 2nd volume of both editions. I think it is somewhere stated how many languages he knew at an early age. What I know is, that besides Greek and Latin he learned early to read and write Arabic ; Hebrew he had also learned, but neglected afterwards; Russian and Slavonian he learned (to read only,) in the years 1808,1810. He wrote well English, French, and Italian ; and read Spanish, and Portuguese Danish he wrote as well as his mother tongue, German, and he understood Swedish. In short, he would learn with the greatest ease any language which led him to the knowledge of historical truth, when occupied with the subject; but language, as such, had no charm for him." Among the scholars who assisted Adelung and Vater in the compilation of the Mithridates, by far the most distinguished was the illustrious Charles William von Humboldt. He was born at Potsdam, in 1767, and received his preliminary education at Berlin. His university studies were made partly at Gottingen, partly at Jena, where he formed the acquaintance and friendship of Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, and, above all, of Herder, from whose well-known tastes it is highly probable that Humboldl's mind received the strong philological bias which «it exhibited during his life. Unlike most of the scholars who preceded him in this career, however, Humboldt's life was spent amid the bustle and intrigue of diplomatic pursuits. He was sent to Rome as Prussian Minister in 1802, and. from that period until 1819, he was almost uniformly employed in this and similar public services. From his return to Berlin,, in 1819, Iks lived almost entirely for science, till his death, which occurred at Tegel, near Berlin, in 1835. Ilumboldt ii», in truth, the author of that portion of the third volume of Ihe MUhridatcs which treats of the languages of the two continents of America; and, although a great part of rit-s materials were derived from the labours of others—from the published and unpublished, of the missionaries, from a and MSS. of Padre Hervaz, and other similar sources—yet no one can read any single article in the volume Without perceiving that Humboldt had made himself thoroughly master of the subject; and that, especially in its bearings upon ho general science of philology, or the great question of the unity of languages and its kindred ethnological problems, he had not only exhausted all the learning of his predecessors, but had successfully applied to it all the powers of his own comprehensive and original genius. To the consideration, too, of this numerous family of languages he brought a mind stored with the knowledge of all the other great families both of the East and of the West; and although it is not easy to say what his success in speaking languages may have been, it is impossible to doubt either the variety or the solidity of his attainments both as a scientific and as a practical linguist. But Humboldt's place with posterity must be that of a philo-loger, rather than of a linguist. His Essay on the " Diversity of the Formation of Human Language, and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind," published posthumously in 1836 as an Introduction to his Aral sis of the Kawi Language, is a work of extraordinary learning and research, as well as of profound and original thought; analysing all the successive varieties of grammatical structure which characterize the several classes of language in their various stages of structural development, from the naked simplicity of Chinese up to the minute and elaborate inflexional variety of the Sanscritic family.

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