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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1836 to 1838 > Cingalese

Without wearying the reader, however, with further details, I shall transcribe (although it regards a later period,) an interesting letter received from the Rev. Charles Fernando, the missionary apostolic at the Point of Galle in Ceylon, which enters briefly, but yet very fully and distinctly, into the particulars of the languages which Mezzofanti used to speak in the Propaganda, during the writer's residence there as a student. M. Fernando is a native of Colombo in the Island of Ceylon. He came to Rome early in the year 1843, and remained until after the death of Cardinal Mezzofanti.

When I left Ceylon for Rome," he writes, August 29, i855, "I knew but very little of the Cingalese language; a very small vocabulary of domestic words, and a facility in reading in Cingalese characters, without understanding the written language, was the full stock of my knowledge when I reached the college of the Propaganda. From such a master you might be disposed to augur badly of the scholar. Still it was not so.

A few days after my arrival in college, I was introduced to his Eminence in his polyglot library and study room in the college itself. Cardinal Mezzofanti knew nothing of the Cingalese before I went to the Propaganda, vet in a few days he was able to assist me to put together a short plain discourse for our academical exhibition of the Epiphany.

My own knowledge of the language, nevertheless, was not at that time such as to warrant my saying that he knew the Cingalese, or that he spoke it well. This, however, lean assert confidently, that, after a few conversations with me, (I don't recollect having been with him above a dozen times for the purpose,) he thoroughly entered into the nature and system of the Cingalese language.

Among the other languages of Hindostan, I can only speak as to one. In my time there were no students who spoke the Mahratta, Canarese, or Malayalim ; but 1 heard him speak Hindostani with a student who is now missionary apostolic in .Agra, where he was brought up, the Rev. William Keegau.

The most remarkable characteristic of the Cardinal as a linguist was his power of passing from one language to another without the least effort. I recollect having often seen him speak-to a whole Camerata of the Propaganda students addressing each in bis own language or dialect in rapid succession, and with such ease, fluency, and spirit, and so much of the character and tone of each language that it used to draw a burst of merry laughter from the company; every one delighted to have heard his own language spoken by the amiable Cardinal with its characteristic precision. I may mention the names of many with whom the Cardinal thus conversed; with Moses Ngau (who died in Pegu not long ago) in the Peguan language ; with Zaccaria Cohen in Abyssinian ; with Gabriel, another Abyssinian, in the Amarina dialect; with Sciata, an Egyptian, in the Coptic; with Hollas in Armenian ; with Churi in Arabic; with Barsciu in Syriac; with Abdo in Arabico-maltese, (the Maltese speak a mixture of Arabic and Italian); in Tamulic with Pedro Royapen, (of this, however, lam not so sure) ; with Leang and Mongin Chinese; with Jakopski and Arabagiski in Bulgarian; with Beriscia and Baddovani in Albanian. With regard to Malay, Tibetan, and Mantchu, I cannot bear witness, as there were no students who spoke those dialects in my time. As for the European languages, I can assure you that I heard the Cardinal speak a great variety, Polish, Hungarian, Rhetian, Swedish, Danish, German, Russian, &c.

The caution with which M. Fernando speaks on the subject of Cingalese, as well as of the rest of the Indian languages, makes his testimony in other respects more valuable, inasmuch as I had frequently heard it said in Rome that the Cardinal spoke "Hindostani and all the dialects of India." It needed, however, but a moment's recollection of the number and variety of these dialects, (several of which till very recently were almost unknown even by name to Europeans,) to assure me that this was a great exaggeration. I am inclined to think that his knowledge of Indian languages lay entirely among those which are derived from the Sanscrit. The notion of Colebrook and the philologers of his time, that all the languages of India are of Sanscrit origin, is now commonly abandoned. It is found that the languages of the Deccan have but little of the Sanscrit element; and Mr. Caldwell, in his recent com the Holy Land, and afterwards, in 1851, in an expedition to the interior of Africa, which forms the subject of Signor Churi's volume.  I have been assured by M. Bauer, a student of the Propaganda in 1855, that he often conversed with the Cardinal in Hungarian, during the years 1847 and 1848. parative grammar of the South-Indian Languages,* has enumerated under the general designation of Dravidian, nine un Sanscritic languages of this region of India, among which the best known are the Tamil, Telugu, Canarese, and Malajalim. There seems no reason to believe that Mezzofanti was familiarly acquainted with any one of these four, or indeed with any member of Dravidian family, unless the Guzarattee can be included therein.

M. Fernando's hesitation regarding his knowledge of Tamil, induced me to inquire of Rev. Dr. Mac Auliffe, lately a Missionary at Madras, who, after spending several years in that Presidency, had entered the Propaganda, and who knew the Cardinal at the same time with M. Fernando. Dr. Mac Auliffe informs me, that his eminence did not know Tamil. The Indian languages which he knew, according to Dr. MacAuliffe, were Hindostani and Mahratta; that he was acquainted with at least the first of these there seems no possible doubt, both from M. Fernando's testimony, and from that of Count Lackersteen of Calcutta, a native East Indian gentleman, who assures mef that he conversed with him in Hindostani, in 1843-4. As to the Mahratta dialect, I have not (beyond Dr. MacAuliffe's assurance) been able to obtain any direct information ; but Mr. Eyoob, an Armenian merchant of Calcutta, testifies to the Cardinal's acquaintance with another Indian language the G-uzarattee. Mr.Eyoob saw the Cardinal in the same year with Count Lackersteen, and writes* that, when he was introduced to his eminence as a native of Bombay, the Cardinal at once addressed him in Guzarattee. Mr. Eyoob adds, that the Cardinal also spoke with him in Armenian and in Portuguese, in both of which languages his accent, vocabulary, and grammatical accuracy, were beyond all exception. Count Lacker-steen's letter fully confirms so much of this statement as regards Portuguese. The Count also spoke with Mezzofanti in Persian : but, as he does not profess to be a profound Persian scholar, his testimony on this head is not of so much value.

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