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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 > Mr. Rhys Powell

Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Welsh : Click to enlarge picture
Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Welsh
In the marked conflict between these testimonies and the strong adverse opinion expressed by Mr. Ellis, "that the Cardinal was unable to keep up or even understand a conversation in the language of the Cymry," nay that " he could not even read an ordinary book with facility," I have had inquiries made through several Welsh friends, the result of which, coupled with the authorities already cited, satisfies me that Mr. Ellis was certainly mistaken in his judgment. The belief that Mezzofanti knew and spoke Welsh appears to be universal. Mr. Rhys Powel, a Welsh gentleman who was personally acquainted with him, often heard that he understood Welsh, and I have received a similar assurance from a Welsh clergyman of my acquaintance. Mr. Rhys Powel, mentions the name of the late Mr. Williams of Aberpergwin, as having " actually conversed with the Cardinal in Welsh," during a visit to Rome some time before his eminence's death ; and a short composition of his in that language, which I submitted to two eminent Welsh scholars, is pronounced by them not only correct, but idiomatic in its structure and pharseology.

With such a number of witnesses, entirely independent of each other, and spread over so long a period, attesting Mezzofanti's knowledge of Welsh, I can hardly hesitate to conclude that Mr. Ellis's impression to the contrary must have arisen from some accidental misunderstanding, or perhaps from one of those casual failures from which even the most perfect are not altogether exempt. The concluding paragraph of Dr. Edward's notice is interesting, although upon a different ground.

"It is to he regretted," he adds," that a man who surpasses all others by his prodigious knowledge of languages, should content himself with what is but an evidence of his own learning, and should conceal from the world the science upon which that learning is founded. It is not to his prodigious memory and the, so to say, inborn aptitude of bis mind for retaining words and their combinations, that he owes the facility with which he masters all languages, but to his eminently analytical mind, which rapidly penetrates their genius and makes it its own. I collect from himself that he studies languages, rather through their spirit than through their letter. What do we know of the spirit of languages ? Almost nothing. But if Mezzofanti would communicate to the world the fruit of his observations, we should see a new science arise amongst us.

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