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Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > British and Irish linguists > Lee

By far the most noticeable names in the list of living linguists of British race are those of Sir John Bowring, now Governor at Hong-Kong, Professor Lee of Cambridge, and the American ex-blacksmith, Elihu Burritt. All three, beyond their several degrees of personal merit, possess a common claim to admiration, as being almost entirely self-educated. John (now Sir John) Bowring, as I learn from a Memoir published about three years since, before he had attained his eighteenth year, had learned Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch. He is said to have since added to his store almost every language of Europe;—Russian, Servian, Bohemian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Lettish, Finnish, and even Basque; and he is further described as familiar with all the provincial varieties of each; for instance, of the various offshoots of German, and of the several dialects of Spanish which prevail in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia. Dr. Bowring's later career brought him into familiarity with Arabic and Turkish; and his still more recent successes in China and in Siam and its dependencies are equally remarkable. It is not so easy to offer an opinion as to the degree of Sir John Bowring's acquaintance with each of the languages which are ascribed to him. His interesting poetical translations from Russian, Servian, Bohemian, and other languages of Europe, are rather a test of elegant literary tastes-than of exact linguistic attainments; nor am I aware to what more direct ordeal his various attainments have been subjected. It were to be wished that the Memoir from which those parti-culars are derived had entered more into detail upon this part of the subject. But, even making every allowance for possible exaggeration, it seems impossible to doubt the claim of Sir John Bo wring to a place in the very highest rank of modern linguists. Dr. Samuel Lee is perhaps even a still more extraordinary example of self-education. He was born in the very humblest rank in the village of Longnor in Shropshire, and, after having spent a short time in the poor-school of his native village, commenced life as a carpenter's apprentice, when he was but twelve years old. In the few intervals of leisure which this laborious occupation permitted, Mr. Jerdan states' that, without the least assistance from masters, he taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldee ; having contrived, from the hoardings of his scanty wages, to procure a few elementary books in those and other languages. On his marriage, however, he was forced to sell the little library which he had accumulated, in order to provide for the new wants with which he found himself encompassed : and for a time his struggle after learning was suspended ; but his extraordinary attainments having begun to attract notice, he was relieved from the uncongenial occupation which he had hitherto followed, and appointed master of a school at Shrewsbury. In the more favourable position which he had thus obtained, he soon extended his reading to Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani. In 1813 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where it is worthy of note that he distinguished himself no less in science than in languages, and took his degree with much credit. He was afterwards appointed superintendent of the Oriental press of the British and Foreign Bible Society, for which body he has not only edited the Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Hindustani, Malay, and other versions of the Bible, but has also translated, or superintended the translation, of many tracts in those various languages. When Mr. Wheaton, an American traveller, (brother of the well-known American jurist of that name) visited Professor Lee, he found him acquainted with no less than " sixteen languages, in most of which he was able to write." neither this writer, however, nor Mr. Jerdan, informs us as to the extent of Dr. Lee's attainments in speaking foreign languages. the list of linguists of the British race may be closed not unworthily with the still more remarkable name of Elihu Burritt, who, though born in America (in 1811,) is descended of an English family, settled in Connecticut for the last two centuries. the circumstances of Burritt's father, who was a shoemaker, were so narrow, that the education of Elihu, the youngest of five sons, was entirely neglected. When his father died, Elihu, then above fifteen years old, had spent but three months at school; and, being altogethor dependent on his own exertions for support, he was obliged to bind himself as an apprentice to the trade of blacksmith. Fortunately, however, an elder brother who was a schoolmaster, settled in the same town before the term of Elihu's apprenticeship expired; and as the latter had carefully devoted each spare moment of his laborious life to reading every book that came within his reach, he gladly availed himself, as soon as he became his own master, of his brothor's offer to take him as a pupil for half a year, which was all the time he could hope to spare from his craft. During that time, brief as it was, Elihu " became well versed in mathematics, went through Virgil in the original, and read several French books." Having thus laid the foundation, he returned to his trade, resolved to labour till he should have acquired the means of completing the work; and, in the strong passion for knowledge which devoured him, he actually engaged himself to do the work of two men, in order that, by receiving double wages, lie might more quickly realize the desired independence. Yet, even while he was thus doubly tasked, and while his daily hours of labour were no less than fourteen, he contrived to give some time in. the mornings and evenings to Latin, French, and Spanish; and he actually procured a small "Greek grammar, which would just lie in the crown of his hat, and used to carry it with him to read during his work—the casting of brass cow bells, a task which required no small amount of attention!" With the little store which he thus toilfully accumulated, he betook himself to New Haven, the seat of Hale College, although without a hope of being able to avail himself of its literary advantages. Here too he worked almost unaided. He took lodgings at an inn frequented by the students, though too poor to enter the university; and in the course of a few months, by unremitting study, he read through the whole Iliad in Greek, and had made considerable progress in Italian and German, besides extending his knowledge of Spanish and French. Having obtained, soon afterwards, a commercial appointment, he was partially released, for a space, from the mechanical drudgery in which he was so long engaged; and, as he was thus enabled to devote a little more time to his favourite studies, he contrived to learn Hebrew, and made his first advance towards a regular course of Oriental reading. But this interval of rest was a brief one; after a very mortifying failure, he was at last compelled to return once more to the anvil, as his only sure resource against poverty. Still, nevertheless, he toiled on in his enthusiastic struggle for knowledge. Even while engaged in this painful drudgery, " every moment," says Mrs. Howitt, " which he could steal out of the four-and-twenty hours was devoted to study; he rose early in the winter mornings, and, while the mistress of the house was preparing breakfast by lamplight, he would stand by the mantel-piece, with his Hebrew Bible on the shelf, and his lexicon in his hand, thus studying while he ate; the same method was pursued at the other meals; mental and bodily food being taken in together. This severe labour of mind, as might be expected, produced serious effects on his health; he suffered much from headaches, the characteristic remedy for which were two or three additional hours of hard forging, and a little less study." An extract from his own weekly Diary, which Mrs. Howitt has preserved, tells the story of his struggle still more touchingly :—"Monday?, June 18, headache; forty pages Cuvier's theory of the Earth, sixty-four pages French, eleven hours forging. Tuesday sixty-five lines of Hebrew, thirty pages of Trench, ten pages Cuvier's theory, eight lines Syriac, ten ditto Danish, ten ditto Bohemian, nine ditto Polish, fifteen names of stars, ten hours forging. Wednesday, twenty-five lines Hebrew, fifty pages of astronomy, eleven hours forging. Thursday, fifty-five lines Hebrew, eight ditto Syriac, eleven hours forging. Friday, unwell; twelve hours forging. Saturday, unwell; fifty pages Natural Philosophy, ten hours forging. Sunday, lesson for Bible class." Through those and many similar difficulties, has this extraordinary man found his way to eminence. Without attempting to chronicle the stages of his progress, it will be enough to state that a writer of last year describes him as at present acquainted with eighteen languages, besides his native English, viz :—Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Ethiopic, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Danish, Irelandic, Esthonian, Bohemian, and Polish." He is author of several works, and was for some time Editor of a Journal entitled "the Christian Citizen." As in the case of Di Lee, no attempt is made, in either of the biographies of Burritt which I have consulted, to define mill exactness the degree of his knowledge of each among the various languages which he has learned ; but if his proficiency in them be at all considerable, his position among linguists must be admitted to be of the very highest; and as he is still only in his forty-sixth year, it would be difficult to predict what may be the limit of his future successes.

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