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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1823 to 1830 > Dr. Tholuck

It will be remembered that the Crown Prince of Prussia, on his arrival at Rome, counselled Dr. Tholuck not to return to Germany, without visiting the Bolognese prodigy. Having heard of this interview, which took place while Dr. Tholuck was returning to Germany, in 1829, I was naturally anxious to learn what was the impression made upon this distinguished orientalist, by a visit which may be said to have been undertaken with the professed design of testing by a critical examination the reality of the accomplishment of which fame had spoken so unreservedly. Dr. Tholuck, with a courtesy which I gratefully acknowledge, at once forwarded to me a most interesting account of his interview, a portion of which has been already inserted. Dr. Tholuck is known as one of the most eminent linguists of modern Germany. From the clear and idiomatic English of his letter, the reader may infer what are his capabilities, as a critical judge of the same faculty in another. After mentioning M. Bunsen's statement, that Mezzofanti had learned his languages entirely from books, Dr. Tholuck continues :

" This seemed the more incredible to me, having just made the experience as to Italian, how impossible it is to acquire the niceties of conversational language only from books. On my return from Rome, having arrived at Bologna, I considered it my first duty to call on that eminent linguist, accompanied by a young Dane who was conversant also with the Frisian language, spoken only by a small remnant of that old nation in Sleswic or Friesland. Mezzofanti having commenced the conversation in German, I continued it a quarter of an hour in my native language, He spoke it fluently, but not without some slighter mistakes, of which, in that space of time, I noticed as many as four, which I took notes of immediately after; nor was the accent a pure German accent, but that of Poles and Bohemians when they speak German, which is to be accounted for from his having acquired that language from individuals of that nation, from Austrian soldiers. Upon this I suddenly turned my conversation into Arabic, having obtained an easy practice in this language by long intercourse with a family in which it was spoken. Mezzofanti made his reply in Arabic without any hesitation, quite correctly, but very slowly, composing one word with the other, from want of practice. I then turned upon Dutch, which he did not know then, but replied in Flemish, a kindred dialect. English and Spanish he spoke with the greatest fluency, but when addressed in Danish he replied in Swedish. The Frisian he had not yet heard of. When requested to write a line for me, he retired in his study, and, as we had been talking together on the Persian, which at that time had been my chief study, and which he was able to converse in, though very slowly, and composing only words, as was my own case likewise, he wrote for me a fine Persian distich of his own composition, though only after long meditation in his study. In the mean while he permitted me to examine his library. Turning up a Cornish (of the dialect of Cornwall) Grammar, I found in it some sheets containing a little vocabulary and grammatical paradigms, and he told me that his way of learning new languages was no other but that of our school-boys, by writing out paradigms and words, and committing to memory. As to the statement of M. Bunsen, mentioned before, it was not confirmed by Mezzofanti's communication: he confessed to have acquired the conversational language chiefly from foreigners in the hospitals, in part from missionaries. The number he then professed to know well was upwards of twenty; those which he knew imperfectly, almost the same number. Of the poetical productions of several nations he spoke as a man of taste, but what we call the philosophy of language he did not seem yet to have entered upon."

Dr. Tholuck, it will be seen, did not suffer himself, to be carried away by the enthusiasm of those who had gone before him. He had eyes for faults as well as for excellencies. Nevertheless, the reader will probably agree with me in thinking the undisguised admiration which pervades his calm and circumstantial statement, even with the drawbacks which it contains, a more solid tribute to the fame of Mezzofanti than the declamatory eulogies of a crowd of uninquiring enthusiasts. There is an irresistible guarantee for his trustworthiness as a reporter upon Mezzofanti's German, in the fact that he did not fail to take "a note of the four minor mistakes," into which Mezzofanti fell in the course of their conversation ; Note 1 and one cannot hesitate to receive without suspicion what he tells of his " speaking Arabic and Persian without any hesitation, and quite correctly," when we find him carefully distinguish between these and the other languages on which he tried him, and note that in these he proceeded "very slowly, composing one word with another for want of practice." It is proper, however, to add that the opportunity of practice which he afterwards enjoyed at Rome, entirely removed this difficulty: and the fluency and ease with which Mezzofanti there spoke these most difficult languages, is the best confirmation of Dr. Tholuck's sagacity in ascribing the hesitation which was observable at the time of his visit to want of practice alone.

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Note 1
In the hope of arriving at a still more accurate estimate of Mezzofanti's performance in German conversation.. I wrote to request of Dr. Tholuck a note of the " four minor mistakes" to which he alluded. Unfortunately the memorandum which he had made at the time, although he recollects to have observed it quite recently in his papers, has been mislaid, as has also been the Persian distich which Mezzofanti composed during the interview.

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