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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Small dictionaries and curiosity. Lexicography and fieldwork in post-medieval Europe

IV The long eighteenth century

Polyglot collections from Gessner to Leibniz

Lhuyd’s interest in comparing data from multiple languages was by no means idiosyncratic, as can be seen by turning from his work in the extreme north-west of Europe to the work of early modern collectors elsewhere.

In the years after Conrad Gessner’s Mithridates presented twenty-two versions of the Lord’s Prayer to its readers, a series of collections building on this total was produced, with a tendency to expand steadily as versions were obtained in new languages from Europe and beyond. There were twenty-nine in the Recherche deplusieurs singu- larites of the French royal servant Francoys Merlin, preserved as a calligraphic manuscript written in 1583; three dozen or so, perhaps written around 1587, in the manuscript collections of the Dominican Martin Gruneweg, who had been a clerk to Armenian merchants in the highly multilingual environment of Lviv; forty in a collection published by Hieronymus Megiser in 1593 and eight more in a second edition of 1603 (John Wilkins drew on this collection as well as Mithridates for the parallel-text presentation of the Lord’s Prayer in forty-nine natural languages in his Essay); a hundred in the Oratio orationum of Andreas Muller, first published in 1680; and so on.1 These collections constitute a tradition: for instance, Merlin, Gruneweg, and Megiser all draw on Gessner for one or both of the two versions from Sardinia, and as we have seen, he had these from Sigismondo Arquer’s contribution to Munster’s Cosmographia.2 Needless to say, different readers had different uses for these books. For example, the copy of the Oratio orationum formerly owned by the earls of Macclesfield was part of a formidable collection of works on language (which at one time included Lhuyd’s ‘Geirlyer Kyrnweig’), whereas the copy formerly owned by Peter Gunning, Bishop of Ely, was the property of a theologian, not a philologist.3 But for someone who wanted

  • 1 Merlin’s Recherche is Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS Fran^ais 9152, fos. 7-35; Gruneweg’s collection is in his Aufzeichnungen, 1085-93; a catalogue of the tradition from the beginnings to 1805 is in Adelung, Mithridates 1: 645-76. Wilkins cites Megiser (for whose collection see Smitskamp, Philologia orientalis 116-18) in Essay 434-9.
  • 2 Merlin, Recherche fo. 23r; Gruneweg, Aufzeichnungen 1087; Megiser, Specimen quinquaginta lingua- rum sigs. A5r-A5v.
  • 3 The Macclesfield copy of the Oratio orationum was item 149 in Maggs Bros. Catalogue 1440; the Gunning copy is in the library of St John’s College, Cambridge. The Macclesfield bookplate is on the front pastedown of National Library of Wales MS Llanstephan 84.

Small Dictionaries and Curiosity. First edition. John Considine.

© John Considine 2017. First published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

to make a quick comparison between numerous languages, any collection in this tradition was a compact and powerful resource. Extensive dictionaries, like the eleven- language polyglots with which the Calepino tradition reached its height in the later sixteenth century, or like John Minsheu’s Ductor in linguas in seventeenth-century England, were inevitably unwieldy by comparison, in terms both of ease of consultation and of sheer physical bulk.[1]

Megiser’s Thesaurus polyglottus vel dictionarium multilingue, published in 1603, demonstrated a new possibility for polyglot lexicography: that it could address the relationships of languages rather than serving the needs of the traveller or translator.[2] Its universal scope and admirably small size—it is an octavo in two fat volumes of about eight hundred pages each—meant, however, that it could not pretend to cover the vocabulary of any language very thoroughly. So it was that when Leibniz urged Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld to undertake a union dictionary of the Slavonic language varieties, recommending the Thesaurus polyglottus as an example, Sparwenfeld replied that he was familiar with the work of Megiser, and suggested politely but discouragingly that he would be glad to hear from Leibniz how such a dictionary might be produced. I think that the editor of Sparwenfeld’s Lexicon Slavonicum, which is not a union dictionary and was nevertheless too large, complex, and specialized to be printed (though Eckhardt, who saw it in manuscript, thought it was the best dictionary of any Slavonic language) is right to detect ‘a slight irritation’ in his words.[3]

However, polyglot wordlists did have a future. The question was one of scale. A decade before his unhelpful suggestion to Sparwenfeld, in a letter of 1687 to Hiob Ludolf (whom we last saw gathering Romani words from their itinerant speakers), Leibniz projected a series of ‘little dictionaries, in which the principal words and roots of a number of known languages would be registered’, each supported by an outline grammar. Such a series, he thought, would make very wide-ranging work on the languages of the world possible.[4] By 1691, he was particularly interested in the languages of Inner Eurasia.[5] So, for instance, he sketched a plan for collecting linguistic data in a letter of 1693 to Carlo Mauritio Vota, the powerful confessor of Jan III Sobieski of Poland. Reflecting that many of the nations of Europe and of Asia had originated in Scythia, which he took to extend from Poland-Lithuania to the borders of the Chinese empire, and that by studying the current languages of Scythia it might be possible to understand more about the historical population of that region, he asked Vota to secure the King of Poland’s help in obtaining linguistic samples.

The quickest way to do it would be if one could obtain the Lord’s Prayer translated into a number of languages. But it would always be necessary to have a word-for-word interlinear translation. If one could also obtain some of the most common words in these languages—for instance, for parts of the human body, family relationships, numbers, animals, provisions and other necessities, the Elements, and so on—then so much the better.[6]

Some of the languages of Scythia, he acknowledged, were well enough documented, for instance Polish, Lithuanian, and Estonian.[7] However, information about others was much harder to find: Tatar, Romanian, Bulgarian, Kalmyk, Mari, and Nenets, languages of the Caucasus such as Mingrelian and Circassian, and languages of the east of Scythia such as Uzbek and Mongolian.[8]

Russia continued to excite Leibniz’s curiosity for the rest of his life. In its last year, 1716, he wrote in his memorandum to Peter the Great on the furtherance of the arts and sciences in Russia of the ‘new discoveries for which excellent opportunities are provided by the extensive territories of the Russian empire together with so many adj a- cent territories in Europe and Asia’, these discoveries being of animals, plants, minerals, and other naturalia.[9] Not for the first time in our narrative, we see the relationship between lexicographical fieldwork and natural history, both of which Leibniz could imagine as reasons for expeditions of discovery in the Russian empire. Soon after the date of this memorandum, Peter began to sponsor exploration in Siberia.[10] But by the time of the first Russian enquiries into the languages and natural resources of the east, western Europeans had already been at work.

  • [1] For the polyglot dictionaries, see Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe 288-91; the first eleven-language Calepino appeared in 1590 and the last in 1627 (Labarre, Bibliographie, items 152 and 196).
  • [2] Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe 291-3.
  • [3] Birgegard, Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld 88-9, discussing Sparwenfeld’s letter to Leibniz of 11 January1698, Leibniz’s to him of 27 December 1698, and Sparwenfeld’s reply of 15 January 1699; on the difficultyof printing the Lexicon Slavonicum, see ibid. 93-103; Eckhardt’s judgement is in the Historia studii etymo-logici linguae Germanicae 305, ‘Omnibus Slavorum Lexicographis palmam facile praeripiet insignis virJoh. Gabriel Sparvenfeldius.
  • [4] Leibniz, letter of 19 (?) December 1687 to Ludolf in his Samtliche Schriften 1.5: 31 (translation adaptedfrom Leibniz and Ludolf on Things Linguistic 20), ‘dictionariola . . . quibus plerarumque linguarum cogni-tarum radices atque primariae voces continerentur’.
  • [5] Droixhe, ‘Le voyage de “Schreiten” ’ 14-18; for the concept of Inner Eurasia, see Christian, ‘InnerEurasia as a unit of world history’, esp. the brief geographical definition at 175.
  • [6] Leibniz, letter of December 1693 to Vota in his Samtliche Schriften 1.10: 173-5 at 174, ‘Le plus courtseroit de pouvoir obtenir le Pater noster traduit en plusieurs langues. Mais il faudroit tousjours avoir uneversion interlineaire, mot a mot. Si on pouvoit encor obtenir dans ces langues quelques mots des plus vol-gaires, comme des parties du corps humain, des parentages, des nombres, des animaux, des vivres et autresnecessites, des Elemens etc. ce seroit d’autant mieux.’
  • [7] Leibniz, letter of December 1693 to Vota, cited in note 9, at 173-4, ‘Les Langues Polonoise,Lithuanienne et l’Estonienne sont asses connues’.
  • [8] Leibniz, letter of December 1693 to Vota, cited in note 9, ‘les Tartares de la Crimee, item lesMingreliens . . . les Moldaves, Wallaches, et Bulgariens . . . Samojedes, Czeremisses, Czircasses . . . les Kalmuks,les Youzbeks et les Monguls’.
  • [9] Leibniz, draft memorandum of 1716 on the furtherance of arts and sciences in the Russian empire, inGuerrier, Leibniz in seinen Beziehungen zu Russland 348-60 at 359-60, ‘neuen entdeckungen, dadurch dieWissenschaften vermehret werden . . . wozu die weiten Lande des russischen Reichs samt denen so vielen inEuropa und Asia angrenzenden Landen vortreffliche Gelegenheit geben.
  • [10] J. L. Black, G.-F. Muller and the Imperial Russian Academy 47.
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