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Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > French Linguists > Scaliger

Joseph Justus Scaliger was born at Agen in 1544, and made his school studies at Bordeaux, where he was only remarkable for his exceeding dulness, having spent three years in a fruitless, though painfully laborious, attempt to master the first rudiments of the Latin language. These clouds of the morning, however, were but the prelude of a brilliant day. His after successes were proportionately rapid and complete. The stories which are told of him seem almost legendary. He is said to have read the entire Iliad and Odyssey in twenty-one days, and to have run through the Greek dramatists and lyric poets in four months. He was but seventeen years old when he produced his CEdipus. At the same age he was able to speak Hebrew with all the fluency of a Rabbi. His application to study was unremitting, and his powers of endurance are described as beyond all example. He himself tells, that even in the darkness of the night, when he awoke from his brief slumbers, he was able to read without lighting his lamp ! So powerful, according to his own account, was his eye-sight, that like the knight of Deloraine:— " Alike to him was tide and time, Moonless midnight, and matin prime !" After a brilliant career at Paris, he was invited to occupy the chair of Belles Lett-res at Leyden, where the best part of his life was spent. Like most eminent linguists, Scaliger pos- sessed the faculty of memory in an extraordinary degree. He could repeat eighty couplets of poetry after a single reading : lie knew by heart every line of his own compositions, and it was said of him that he never forgot anything which he had learnt once. But with all his gifts and all his accomplishments, he contrived to render himself an object of general dislike, or at least of general dis-esteem. His vanity was insufferable ; and it was of that peculiarly offensive kind which is only gratified at the expense of the depreciation of others. His life was a series of literary quarrels; and in the whole annals of literary polemics, there are none with which, for acrimony, virulence, and ferocity of vituperation, these quarrels may not compete. And hence, although there is hardly a subject, literary, antiquarian, philological, or critical, on which he has not written, and (for his age) written well, there are few, nevertheless, who have exercised less influence upon contemporary opinion. Scaliger spoke thirteen languages, in the study of which Baillet says he never used either a dictionary or a grammar. He himself declares the same. The languages ascribed to him are strangely jumbled together in the following lines of Du Bartas :— " Scaliger, merveille de notre age, Soleil des savants, qui parle elegamment Hebreu, Grecois, Romain, Espagnol, Allemand, Francois, Italien, Nubien, Arabique, Syriaque, Persian, Anglois, Chaldaique." In his case it is difficult, as in most others, to ascertain the degree of his familiarity with each of these. To Du Bartas's poetical epithet, elegamment, of course, no importance is to be attached; and it would perhaps be equally unsafe to rely on the depreciatory representations of his literary antagonists. One thing, at least, is certain, that he himself made the most of his accomplishment. He was not the man to hide his light from any overweening delicacy. He was one of the greatest boasters of his own or any other time. In one place he boasts that there is no language in which he could write with such elegance as Arabic In another he professes to write Syriac as well as the Syrians themselves. And it is curiously significant of the reputation which he commonly enjoyed, that the wits of his own day used to say that there was one particular department of each language in which there could be no doubt of his powers—its Billingsgate vocabulary ! There was not one, they confessed, of the thirteen languages to which he laid claim, in which he was not fully qualified to scold !

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