de differentiis linguarum

The Latin discussion over at Matjjin-nehen reminded me of a post I started about 6 months ago and didn’t finished. I’d been drooling over Condrad Gesner’s de differentiis linguarum. It’s well worth learning Latin if you can’t read it in order to read this book. It’s a kind of late mediaeval Ethnologue, with information on about 130 languages and the Lord’s Prayer in 22. Apparently (according to a review of a book that discusses it in Bryn Mawr classical review), there’s not an original sentiment in the whole thing. It’s still fun to browse though.

The full title is Mithridates, de differentiis linguarum tum veterum tum quae hodie apud diuersas nationes in toto orbe terrarum in usu sunt. ‘Mithridates, on the differences between languages, not only of antiquity but also those which are in use today amongst diverse nations over the whole world.’ The Mithridates bit refers to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, an interesting figure by all accounts, who was said by Pliny (the later drain-obsessed Governor of Bithynia-Pontus) to be able to speak all 22 languages of his subjects. I’ve never seen a list of what those languages are supposed to be, but we could guess Greek, Scythian, Pontic, Latin?, Persian (I imagine at least some speakers of an Iranian language), Laz, Armenian, what else? Apparently Aulus Gellius wanted to know the same thing…

Speaking of Mithridates (Gesner’s book, not the king of Pontus), I came across this map of the languages of Europe in 1741 at the ever-wonderful Strange Maps. (Original at Enjoy.

Multilingual Europe


8 responses to “de differentiis linguarum

  1. As one who has had command of more languages attributed to him than even Mithradates (by HarperCollins Inc, and hence indelibly, it seems, by Wikipedia and Vicipaedia), I conjecture a few more that M might have known, even sticking to his known subjects. He did manage to gain control of the whole Black Sea coast, it seems. So we could add (Bastarnian) Gothic, Getic, Paeonian, Thracian, Dacian, Illyrian (wrong side of the Balkans?), Macedonian, Phrygian, Lycaonian, Galatian, Lydian, Cappadocian and Paphlagonian. (The irreductible Isaurians would have been on the margins too.) Note that his very name seems to be Persian – ‘gift of/dedicated to Mithras/Mitra’. He could also easily have known Aramaic, of course, though it was not spoken in his realm. And Sallust imagines him writing to the king of Parthia: so perhaps Parthian too, why not?

    In fact, it shows that the Black Sea littoral in those times was a good microcosm for Indo-European. Putting Gothic, Thracian, Illyrian, Galatian and Lydian-Paphlagonian (assuming it = Palaic) together with Armenian, Latin, Phrygian-Greek, and Scythian-Persian-Parthian, M. would have been in a good position to stumble across Indo-European 20 centuries ahead of Sir Wm Jones, since he should thereby have known representatives of Germanic, Albanian, Balkan, Hellenic, Celtic, Anatolian, Armenian, Italic and Iranian. He was only missing (as fara s we know) Lusitanian, Baltic, Slavonic, Tocharian and Indic. But I guess his life-and-death struggle with the Roman Empire didn’t leave him much time for academic speculation.

    And by the way, that 1741 map is an interesting forerunner to the UK cover of my ‘Empires of the Word’!
    Perhaps, though, it makes Europe a much more prayerful place than the historical record would suggest.

  2. Gesner’s de differentiis linguarum is not to be confused with Adelung and Vater’s Mithridates (early nineteenth century), of which David Chalmer’s stolen pdf grammar page (of blessed memory) used to host a full PDF version which I downloaded just in time.

    I have not seem Gesner’s work however. Any African languages among the 130 languages treated by him?

  3. Some of us didn’t like having our stuff redistributed without permission (calling it ‘stolen’ doesn’t make it ok if he’s asked repeatedly to post links to pages hosted elsewhere and ignores the request).

    I got Gesner from interlibrary loan and so can’t check what languages there were now. I want to say yes to at least one African language, though.

  4. Oops, I wasn’t aware of this history. I see your point, though its main use to me was its great collection of old, rare and out of copyright works.

    One African language… hmm, probably Old Nubian, Geez/Amharic, or a Berber language.

  5. I agree, and I don’t know why it was necessary to pull the whole site rather than fix up what people had complained about.

  6. No biggie, but it’s Pliny the Elder, the earnest military man who died rescuing people from the eruption of Vesuvius, not his grandnephew the drains man, who told the stories of Mithridates in his collection of wondrous facts, the Historia Naturlis.

    It’s true, and Wikipedia agrees.

  7. oops, thanks Gary!

  8. To Nicholas Ostler:

    Gothic would most definitely NOT have been one of the languages spoken by Mithridates: Gothic was introduced in the region of the Black Sea over half a millenium after his death. And while speculating on which ones he indeed did speak is entertaining enough an exercise, we should accept the possibility that he spoke a number of languages whose very names did not come down to us.

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