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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1838 to 1841 > Abbadies

A very interesting instance has been communicated to me by M. Antoine d'Abbadie,* who visited the Cardinal in 1839, at Rome. M. d'Abbadie had been a traveller from early manhood. Setting out in the year 1837, in company with his brother Arnauld, to explore the sources of the White Nile, he traversed the greater part of north eastern Africa. Their wanderings, however, proved a mission of religion and charity, no less than of science. During their long and varied intercourse with the several tribes of Abyssinia, they observed with painful interest that strange admixture of primitive Catholic truth with gross and revolting superstition by which all travellers have been struck ; and their first care was to study carefully the condition of the country and the character of the people, with a view to the organization of a judicious and effective missionary expedition by which their many capabilities for good might be developed. Hence, it is that, while their letters, reports, and essays, communicated to the various scientific journals and societies of France and England,* have added largely to our knowledge of the languages, the geigraohy, and the natural history of these imperfectly explored provinces, their services to the Church by the introduction of missionaries, by the advice and information which they have uniformly afforded them, and even by their own personal cooperation in the great work, have entitled them to the gratitude of all to whom the interests of truth and civilization are dear.

M. Antoine d'Abbadie, after two years spent in such labours, returned to Europe in 1839, for the purpose of preparing himself for a further and more systematic exploration. On arriving in Rome, he took an early opportunity of waiting upon the Cardinal, accompanied by two Abyssinians, who spoke only the Amarinna language, and by a Galla servant, whose native (and only) language was the Ilmorma, a tongue almost entirely unknown, even to the learned in this branch of philology. M. d'Abbadie himself spoke Basque, a language which was still new to Mezzofanti ; and he was thus witness of what was certainly a very unwonted scene—the great Polyglottist completely at fault.

I saw Cardinal Mezzofanti," writes M. d'Abbadie, " in 1839. He asked me in Arabic what language I wished to speak, and I, in order to test him, proposed conversing in Basque. lam far from knowing this idiom well; but, as I transact my farmer's business in Basque, I can easily puzzle a foreigner in it. The Cardinal waived my proposal, and asked me what African language I would speak. I now spoke Amarinna, i.e., the language named Ancharica by Ludolf, who probably added the final c in order to suit the word to Latin articulation. Not being able to answer in Araarinna, Mezzofanti said: Ti amirnu timhirta lisana Gi-iz ('Have you the knowledge of the Gi-iz language ?') This was well said, and beautifully pronounced, but shewed that the Cardinal got his knowledge of Gi-iz from persons who read, but did not speak it in general. I afterwards ascertained in Abyssinia that no professor, i.e., no person accustomed to colloquial Gi-iz, had been yet in Rome, during this century at least. I may here mention that Gi-iz, generally called Ethiopic in Europe, is the liturgical language in Abyssinia, where it is looked on by the learned as a dead language, although it is still spoken by at least one of the shepherd tribes near the Red Sea. In my visit to Cardinal Mezzofanti, I had with me two Amara Abyssines, with whom he could not speak, as neither of them knew Gi-iz enough, and I had not yet learned that language. My third companion was a Galla, who had taught me his language, viz., Ihnorma, in a most tedious way, for he knew no other tongue, and I was forced to elicit every meaning by a slowly convergent series of questions, which I put every time he used a word new to me. Some of these had until then remained a mystery to me ; as the word self, and some others of first alluded to the Ilmorma, its existence, as a distinct language, was absolutely denied, the same abstract class. I had likewise laboured in vain to get the Ihnorma word for 'soul'; and having mentioned all this to Mezzofanti, I added, that as a philologist and a father of the church, he could render me no better service than giving me the means of teaching my Galla barbarian that he had a soul to be saved. 'Could not your eminence, 'said I, ' find the means of learning from this .African what is the word for soul ? I have written twelve hundred words of his language, which you will certainly turn to better account than I can.' The Cardinal made no direct answer. I saw him several times afterwards, and he always addressed me in Arabic; but, being a tyro in that language, I could not pretend to judge his knowledge or fluency. However, a native Syrian then in Rome, told me that both were admirable: this referred, I suppose now, to the Syrian dialect.

A failure so unusual for Mezzofanti, and in so many languages, could not but prove a stimulus to the industry of this indefatigable student. He was at the moment busily engaged in the revision of the Maronite and Armenian liturgies ;—a circumstance, by the way, which perhaps may account for his passing over without notice, M. d'Abbadie's proposal about the Galla language ;—but, a few months later, he addressed himself to the Arnarinna with all the energy of his most youthful days. How it ended, we shall see.

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