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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1820 to 1823 > Birmese

Mezzofanti's handwriting in Burmese : Click to enlarge picture
Mezzofanti's handwriting in Burmese
There is another letter, however, of nearly the same period) addressed to his friend count Valdrighi of Modena, on the subject of a MS. in the Birman language submitted by the count for his examination, which will be read with more curiosity. "

I have to reproach myself for not being more prompt in my acknowledgement of your polite letter; or rather I regret the resolution which I formed of delaying my answer in the hope of being able to make it more satisfactory ; since thus it has turned out, that while I was only waiting in the hope of being able to reply with greater accuracy, I have incurred the suspicion of discourtesy, by delaying to send you the little information regarding your oriental MS. which 1 possessed at the time, and which I regret to say is all that even still I am possessed of.

Although your MS. is the first in these characters that I have ever seen, yet I recognized it at once as a MS. written, or, I should more correctly say, graven, in Burmese, the native language of the kingdom of Ava, and the language also which is used by all persons of cultivation in the dependent provinces of that kingdom. I was enabled to recognize the form of the characters from having once seen the alphabet, which was printed by the Propaganda, first in 1776, and again in 1787. Note 1

As my knowledge in reference to the language when I received your letter, did not extend any farther, I was unable to give you any other information regarding your MS. except that it is composed of that species of palm leaves which they use in that country, for the purpose of inscribing or engraving their written characters thereon. The tree, which does not differ much in appearance from the other species of palm, is said to live for a hundred years, and then to die as soon as it has produced its fruit; but perhaps it may be said to live on by preserving on its leaves the writings which they wish to transmit to posterity. It is called in Burmese (or Birmese) by the name of Ole.

You will ask what is the character of their writings. The people are said to be ignorant in the extreme, and even the class called Talapuini, who live together in community in a sort of Pythagorean college, possess but very little learning, Their studies are confined   to   two books, written in a peculiar character, one entitled Kammua, the other Padinot. Note 2 The Barnabite Fathers also, who founded several churches in Ava, and preached the gospel with incredible zeal all over those vast regions, have written in the native language, several useful books calculated to maintain and increase the fruit of their apostolic labours. The most remarkable of them was Mgr. Peristo,who wrote and spoke the language with great perfection,and whose life has been written by the late distinguished Father Michael Angelo Griflini.

I was about to write all this to you as soon as I first received your MS., but I was anxious to be able to tell you something more; and with this view, I waited for a long time in the hope of obtaining from Paris, Carey's Birmese Grammar, published at Serampore in 1314, and some other books besides; as such books must necessarily be in existence, now that the English have added to their Indian possessions a large tract of the Birmese Empire. But unfortunately, these books either are not to be had at Paris, or have not been carefully sought for.

Accordingly, after all these months of delay, I return you your Birmese MS. written on the leaves of the Ole palm. It has most probably found its way to Italy through some missionary, and perhaps was written by a missionary. This, however, will likely be discoverable from the facts which are known as to the place whence it came.

The information which I am able to give is, you see, very little compared with what you might have expected, and bears a still smaller proportion to my desire to oblige you. I should have wished to translate it all for you, had it been in my power, if it were only as a means of expressing my gratitude and my homage to one from whom I receive so many kindnesses, and to whom I am indebted for so many charming books, either composed or illustrated by himself. For all these favours it only remains for me to offer you my most unbounded thanks. I trust that, if you should chance to honour me again with any commission, I shall be able to execute it more successfully, or at all events more satisfactorily. I will at least promise not to delay as I have now done, in the hope of obtaining more information ; but, relying that your kindness will lead you to accept what little explanation I shall be able to afford from myself, I will at least endeavour to show my anxious wish to oblige by the promptness of my reply."

Neither Carey's Birman Grammar, nor any other modern book on the subject, appears in the catalogue of Mezzofanti's library. It comprises, however, a few Birman books, amongst which are the two alphabets referred to in the above letter, a translation of Bellar-mine's "Doctrina Christiana," and an "Explanation of the Catechism for the use of the Birmese." These books (all printed at the Propaganda press) appear to have been procured after his removal to Rome, where by private study and by intercourse with a few Birmese students in the Propaganda, he acquired the language, as we shall see, sufficiently for the purposes of conversation.

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Note 1
See Catalogo della Libreria, p. 65.

Note 2
For an account of these books see FatherVincenzo Sangermano's Relazione del Regno Barmano, Rome, 1833. Sangermano was a Barnabite Father, and had been for many years a missionary in Ava and Pegu. He states that he himself translated these sacred books. (p. 359.) His orthography of the names is slightly different from Mezzofanti's.

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