« PreviousContinue »
that he spoke almost all the leading languages both of the East and West, with all but the freedom, the precision, and the propriety of an educated native of each of the countries. It is not alone that the general fact is attested by many of these authorities; each traveller has borne testimony to his perfection in the language of his own country. Baroness Ulmenstein took him for a German. Prince Volkonski ‘would be very glad if his son spoke Russian as well;' Stewart Rose's Smyrniote declared that he might pass for a Greek or Turk throughout the • dominions of the Grand Seignior.' Baron von Zach was, ‘taken by surprise, and stupefied by his excellent Magyar.' Molbech found him speak Danish with almost entire correctness;' and Fleck heard him speak Modern Greek to a 'young man who came into the library, Hebrew with a rabbi or
scrittore of the Vatican, Russian with a magnate who passed • through, Latin and German with himself, Danish with a young • Danish archæologist, English with the English, Italian with
many.' We have ourselves repeatedly received explicit and equally precise assurances, not only from French, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Poles, but from Orientals of every variety of race and of tongue. We must refer to M. Manavit for a very interesting account of his minute acquaintance with the various provincial dialects of France and Spain (pp. 108–110. 118– 121.), and particularly with the Basque language, which, as we have seen, he proposed to study with Guido Görres. Of his familiarity with English (although Fleck says, ' his English ' was only middling,') the accounts given by the English themselve seem almost more marvellous. He astounded Byron even
to his English;' Captain Smyth said, 'he spoke it more correctly • than himself.' Lady Morgan could not detect any trace of accent, although (at that time) he had never left Bologna.' With Dr. Baines he spoke it as fluently as we do, and with the
same accuracy, not only of grammar but of idiom. And, even as far back as 1817, Stewart Rose attests that, during long “repeated conversations in English, he never once misapplied the • sign of a tense, that fearful stumbling to Scotch and Irish !!*
• As an example of the extraordinary richness, accuracy, and precision of his vocabulary (both in English and in German), we may mention an anecdote which we heard from one of the parties. On a broiling day
a in summer, two Englishmen (both now eminent, and one in the very highest rank of English literature) were walking with Mezzofanti across the Pincian Hill; they were all conversing at the moment in German, and one of the Englishmen, wishing to say that it was truly a sweltering day,' hesitated and turned to ask his English com
We may add, upon our own part, the fullest confirmation of these statements; and perhaps we shall best illustrate them by stating that we have known more than one instance in which Irish visitors meeting him for the first time, have taken him for an English ecclesiastic, mistaking the slight foreign peculiarity which he retained, for what is called in Ireland the English accent.'
It would appear, indeed, as if, in acquiring a new language, Mezzofanti gave his whole mind to it for the time, and as if, when he had mastered it, he possessed the faculty, so rare even with the most practised linguists, of thinking directly in that language, rather than translating his thoughts into it from any other medium. Mezzofanti, too, was one of the few linguists whom we ever knew to succeed as a punster in foreign languages; and he had the curious faculty, besides, of acquiring with the words of each language the peculiar expletive interjectional sounds which characterise the native pronunciation of each, and by the absence of which foreigners are invariably detected. It was remarkable, too, that, in speaking Latin with the nations of different countries, he never failed to accommodate his pronunciation of that language to the national usages of the person with whom he conversed, which, in some Latin words, are such as to render natives of different countries who employ them, entirely unintelligible to each other.
We have already said, indeed, that the operations of his linguistic faculty partook more of the nature of an instinct than of an intellectual exercise. It has been not inaptly compared to the gift possessed by some musicians, of learning from ear, by a single effort, and retaining with unerring fidelity, the most difficult and complicated musical compositions. He himself often declared that every language had a certain rhythm (he meant, probably, in its structural inflections), which it was necessary to master in order to follow the language with facility. His mind possessed an instinctive power of catching up and echoing back this mysterious rhythm ; and there can be no doubt that, in this power, coupled with the singular quickness and retentiveness of his memory, lay the secret of his prodigious success as a linguist. *
panion what was the corresponding German expression. Without a moment's pause, and before the Englishman could speak, Mezzofanti interposed, Schwülig, of course.' How many natives of either country would have been equally ready with such an out-of-the-way epithet whether in English or in German ?
* Among the notable phenomena of Mezzofanti's linguistic faculty, it may be mentioned that in a severe illness (contracted during liis visit to the Chinese College at Naples), delirium having set in, he com
It would be a great mistake, nevertheless, to infer that Mezzofanti was a mere mechanical linguist, and not a scientific philological scholar. It is unhappily true that he has not left behind any fruits worthy of the vast resources of his mind; and he himself, more than any one else, regretted that his philological studies came too late in life to be turned to much scientific purpose. In conversation with Guido Görres, he expressed his regret that his youth had fallen upon a period in which • languages were not studied from that philosophical point of view in which they are now regarded. Nevertheless, Görres
found him well acquainted with the philological labours of the • German, French, and English authors, and especially with the • Sanscrit school of Berlin, with Bopp, Rosen, Klaproth, and • Schlegel.' Molbech says that he was not merely a linguist, but was well acquainted with literary history and bibliography; and Jacobs bears similar testimony to his philological attainments. It would be impossible, however, that a man who was devoted to the actual study of languages, in so far as they are collections of words, could attain the same eminence in the science of languages as those who made the latter their peculiar study; and it is only to be regretted, that while Mezzofanti was in possession of these unexampled stores, he was not, by some lucky combination, thrown into close relations with some of the great comparative philologers of the day, and thus enabled to lend to their theoretical explorations the aid of his practical familiarity with those details which to them could be only known in theory and by conjecture. What might not science hope for from the union of Mezzofanti with Rask or Remusat!
In general learning, it might hardly be expected that he should have attained to much eminence; but he held a respectable rank in almost every department. In the peculiar sciences of his own profession his name stood high in Rome. He was a skilful canonist, and a well-informed theologian. He was not an eloquent preacher, but his familiar lectures (especially instructions intended for children, for which he had a peculiar taste) were most touching and impressive. We should add that he more than once preached extempore in Polish to the soldiers at Bologna. Nor can he be
pletely lost his knowledge of foreign languages, and for several days could not speak a word except his
native Italian. It is stated by Mr. Fleck that the various languages became confused in his memory ; but we have it on the authority of Mezzofanti himself, that the lan. guages were not confused, but for the time entirely lost by him. This would seem to show that his attainments were chiefly through the faculty of memory.
said to have been unfamiliar with natural science. At one period of his life he cultivated botany *, and even Mrs. Paget records as among the Magyar books which he had read, Pethe's Natural History During his residence at Bologna he enjoyed the reputation of a mathematician, and M. Libri, whom no one will accuse of a tendency to exaggerate, states that he found him well acquainted not only with the Sanscrit treatise on Algebra, the Bija Gannita, but with all the peculiarities of Algebraic science as cultivated by the Hindoos, and with the curious analogies which it presents with the Algebra of the Western world.
Of the personal character of Mezzofanti, all who have written regarding him concur in speaking in the most laudatory terms. The few depreciatory observations of Mrs. Paget are not only entirely unsupported by other visitors, but are at variance with the whole mass of written and oral evidence on the subject. He was amiableness and good nature itself. Warmly and earnestly devoted to his own creed, he was most charitable and tolerant to every variety of belief. His charities in Rome procured for him the soubriquet of Monsignor Limosiniere ("My Lord Almoner'). His habits were exceedingly simple, modest, and unassuming. What Mrs. Paget puts down to the account of small vanity,' was in reality the result of his simple good nature. He delighted in amusing and giving pleasure; he was always ready to display his extraordinary gifts, partly for the gratification of others, partly because it was to himself an innocent and amusing relaxation : but the idea of display was the last that occurred to him as a motive of action. We can say from our own observations that never, in the most distinguished circle, did he give himself to those linguistic exercises with half the spirit which he evinced among his humble friends, the obscure and almost nameless students of the Propaganda; nor could any one who knew Mezzofanti doubt the full sincerity of the sentiment which he expressed to Görres: · Alas! what will all
these languages avail me towards the kingdom of Heaven, “since it is by works, not words, we must win our way thither!'
It only remains to be added, that, as an author, Mezzofanti, unfortunately,; is all but unknown. He himself stated that, from weakness of the chest, he had always found the labour of writing excessively distressing; and with the exception of a few dissertations (chiefly philological, but in part also critical and hermeneutical) his pen appears to have been entirely unproductive. One of these dissertations, on the curious philological problem of the Language of the Sette Comuni' (a dis
Manavit, p. 50.
trict near Vicenza), is supposed to have been peculiarly interesting ; but, unfortunately, no trace either of this or of an equally interesting essay, 'On the Comparative Signs of Lan
guage,' which he is also known to have composed, has been found
papers. The only known published composition of Mezzofanti is a panegyric of his old friend and professor, Padre Emanuel da Ponte, which was read by him at the Institute of Bologna in 1819, and is published in the Opuscoli Letterari di Bologna.'
In taking leave of Mezzofanti, we must repeat that our admiration of his undisputed attainments is in no wise diminished by this reluctance to pronounce a definitive judgment on one particular point of his literary character, the precise degree of his familiarity with the several languages which he is reputed to have known. We felt that we should not really honour his name by echoing the vague and undiscriminating praise of the unlearned crowd. It is far more difficult to establish the reputation of a linguist now-a-days than it was in his early career. Many of the officials of the Bibliothêque Imperiale at Paris, or of the British Museum (and high upon the list stands the gentleman to whose extremely interesting paper we owe so much — Mr. Watts,) are required, by the every-day exigencies of their official position, to possess as many languages as, some years back, would almost have sufficed to constitute a Mithridates. The difference between the excellence of linguists now-a-days, must be sought more in the degree of their familiarity with the several languages, than in the absolute number of languages which they possess. And although Mezzofanti is proved to have possessed a truly marvellous familiarity with a number of languages certainly beyond all precedent, yet there must still remain much obscurity, both as to the total number of languages which he knew, and the precise degree of his knowledge of some among the number.
Perhaps some yet undiscovered evidence may resolve these curious and interesting doubts. In the meantime, we must content ourselves, like Mr. Watts, with pronouncing him, despite of every drawback and every doubt, the greatest linguist the world has ever seen.'