Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Ancient period > Legendary linguists
I have thought it desirable, therefore, to prefix to his Life a summary history of the most eminent linguists of ancient and modern times. There is no branch of scholarship which has left fewer traces in literature, or has received a more scanty measure of justice from history. Viewed in the light of a curious but unpractical pursuit, skill in languages is admired for a time, perhaps indeed enjoys an exaggerated popularity; but it passes away like a nine days' wonder, and seldom finds an exact or permanent record. Hence, while the literature of every country abounds with memoirs of distinguished poets, philosophers, and historians, few, even among professed antiquarians, have directed their attention to the history of eminent linguists, whether in ancient or in modern times. In all the ordinary repositories of curious learning—Pliny, Aulus Gellius, and Athenseus, among the ancients; Bayle, Gibbon, Feyjoo, Disraeli, and Vulpius, among the moderns— this interesting chapter is entirely overlooked; nor does it appear to have engaged the attention even of linguists or philologers themselves. The following Memoir, therefore, must claim the indulgence due to a first essay in a new and difficult subject. No one can be more sensible than the writer of its many imperfections ; —of the probable omission of names which should have been recorded;—-of the undue prominence of others with inferior pretensions; and perhaps of still more serious inaccuracies of a different kind. It is only offered in the absence of something better and more complete; and with the hope of directing to what is certainly a curious and interesting subject, the attention of others who enjoy more leisure and opportunity for its investigation. The diversity of languages which prevails among the various branches of the human family, has proved, almost equally with their local dispersion, a barrier to that free intercommunion which is one of the main instruments of civilization. "The confusion of tongues, the first great judgment of God upon the ambition of man," says Bacon, in the Introductory Book of his "Advancement of Learning," "bath chiefly imbarred the open trade and intercourse of learning and knowledge." Perhaps it would be more correct to say that these two great impediments to intercourse have mutually assisted each other. The divergency of languages seems to keep pace with the dispersion of the population. Adelung lays it down as the result of the most careful philological investigations, that where the difficulties of intercourse are such as existed among the ancients and as still prevail among the less civilized populations, no language can maintain itself unchanged over a space of more than one hundred and fifty thousand square miles. It might naturally be expected, therefore, that one of the earliest efforts of the human intellect would have been directed towards the removal of this barrier, and that one of the first sciences to invite the attention of men would have been the knowledge of languages. Few sciences, nevertheless, were more neglected by the ancients. It is true that the early literatures of many of the ancient nations contain legends on this head which might almost throw into the shade the greatest marvels related of Mezzofanti. In one of the Chinese stories regarding the youth of Buddha, translated by Klaproth, it is related that, when he was ten years old, he asked his preceptor, Babourenou, to teach him all the languages of the earth, seeing that he was to be an apostle to all men; and that when Babourenou confessed his ignorance of all except the Indian dialects, the child himself taught his master " fifty foreign tongues with their respective characters," A still more marvellous tale is told by one of the Rabbinical historians, Rabbi Eliezer, who relates that Mordechai, (one of the great heroes of Talmudic legend), was acquainted with seventy languages ; and that it was by means of this gift he understood the conversation of the two eunuchs who were plotting in a foreign tongue the death of the king. Nor is the Koran without its corresponding prodigy. When the Prophet was carried up to Heaven, before the throne of the Most High, " God promised that he should have the knowledge of all languages." But when we turn to the genuine records of antiquity, we find no ground for the belief that such legends as these have even that ordinary substructure of truth which commonly underlies the fables of mythology. Neither the Sacred Narratives, nor those of the early profane authors, contain a single example of remarkable proficiency in languages. It is true that in the later days of the Jewish people, interpreters were appointed in the synagogues to explain the lessons read from the Hebrew Scriptures for the benefit of their foreign brethren; that in all the courts of the Eastern monarchs interpreters were found, through whom they com-municated with foreign envoys, or with the motley tribes of their own empire; and that professional interpreters were at the service of foreigners in the great centres of commerce or travel, who, it may be presumed, were masters of several languages. The philosophers, too, who traversed remote countries in pursuit of wisdom, can hardly be supposed to have returned without some acquaintance with the languages of the nations among whom they had voyaged. Solon and Pythagoras are known to have. visited Egypt and the East; the latter also sojourned for a considerable time in Italy and the islands; the wanderings of Plato are said to have been even more extensive. Nay, in some instances these pilgrims of knowledge extended their researches beyond the limits of their own ethnographical region. Thus, on the one hand, the Scythian sages, Anacharsis and Zamolxis, themselves most probably of the Mongol or Tartar tongue, sojourned for a long time in countries where the Indo-European family of languages alone prevailed ; on the other, the merchants of Tyre were in familiar and habitual intercourse with the Italo-Pelasgic race; and the Phoenician explorers, in their well-known circumnavigation of Africa described by Herodotus, must have come in contact with still more numerous varieties both of race and of tongue. Nevertheless it may fairly be doubted whether these or similar opportunities among the ancients, resulted in any very remarkable attainments in the department of languages. The absence of all record furnishes a strong presumption to the contrary ; and there is one example, that of Herodotus, which would almost be in itself conclusive. This acute and industrious explorer devoted many years to foreign travel. He visited every city of note in Greece and Asia Minor, and every site of the great battles between the Greeks and Barbarians. He explored the whole line of the route of Xerxes in his disastrous expedition. He visited in succession all the chief islands of the Egean, as well as those of the western coast of Greece. His landward wanderings extended far into the interior. He reached Babylon, Ecbatana, and Susa, and spent some time among the Scythian tribes on the shores of the Black Sea. He resided long in Egypt, from which he passed southwards as far as Elephantine, eastwards into Arabia, and westwards through Lybia, at least as far as Cyrene. And yet Dahlmann is of opinion that, with all his industry, and all the spirit of inquiry which was his great characteristic, Herodotus never became acquainted even with the language of Egypt, but contented himself with the service of an interpreter.
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