Johan David Åkerblad.

J. D. Åkerblad was one of those multilingual, multifaceted travelers I occasionally encounter and can’t resist posting about. “Johan David Åkerblad: Orientalist, Traveller, and Manuscript Collector,” by Fredrik Thomasson, a chapter from Travelling through Time: Essays in honour of Kaj Öhrnberg, ed. Sylvia Akar, Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, and Inka Nokso-Koivisto (Studia Orientalia, vol. 114, 2013), is available as a pdf online, and while its main focus is on the collecting, it’s got plenty of other material:

Åkerblad had profound knowledge of, and respect for, both Ottoman and Arab learning. He studied Arabic and Turkish at Uppsala University with Carl Aurivillius, probably the foremost Orientalist in Sweden at the time. Aurivillius had studied with Christian Benedikt Michaelis in Halle, Étienne Fourmont in Paris, and Albert Schultens in Leiden. Åkerblad was already at the age of twenty when he left Uppsala, knowledgeable about the new directions in Oriental scholarship, and he would visit several universities and libraries on his way to Turkey. At the risk of simplifying the history of Orientalism, Åkerblad was part of a growing secular strand of Oriental studies that saw the study of Oriental literature as an object that was worthy in and of itself, without being explicitly related to Christian and theological issues. The abundance of religious texts tired Åkerblad, as shown by his comment – in this case, on Coptic manuscripts – about their boring nature: “this literature offers few attractions, and … such studies require a lot of courage”.

When he arrived as jeune de langue in Constantinople in 1784, he was well prepared. And in contrast to most of his foreign colleagues – including Toderini and Sestini – he soon spoke the local languages, to the extent that he was able to travel in disguise. We have many testimonies to Åkerblad’s exceptional fluency in Arabic, Turkish, and Modern Greek.
[…]

Åkerblad’s main interest was languages. He wrote in a large number of languages and scripts. A tentative count exceeds twenty: Albanian, Aramaic, Arabic (various dialects), Coptic, Dutch, English, Ethiopic (Ge’ez and Amharic), Etruscan, French, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Kurdish, Persian, Phoenician, Portuguese, Spanish, Syriac, Swedish, Samaritan, Tatar, Turkish, and so on. While living in Rome in the 1810s, anyone interested in Oriental languages would visit him: “I also became acquainted with Signior Akerblad at Rome, who is another of these extraordinary linguists – his knowledge [of languages] is confined to twenty-three.” Åkerblad approached new languages with an initial period of intense studies; he wrote to a female friend about his newly found obsession with Aramaic: “since a month, goodbye Greek, antiquities, Coptic, society, amusements, I am not occupied with anything but Chaldean [Aramaic]. I well know it is a great folly, but what do you want, I have been carried away, and one does not become wise when one wants.” A year later it was Ethiopic’s turn, including both the ancient Ge’ez – still used in liturgy – and the living Amharic: “I have for the past few months plunged myself into certain barbarous investigations; an Ethiopian priest comes home to me everyday to teach me the cursed cries of his language.” He also taught several languages throughout his life and his methods appear quite modern.

Anyone wanting to know more can investigate Thomasson’s The Life of J. D. Åkerblad: Egyptian Decipherment and Orientalism in Revolutionary Times, if their local library has it or they have a spare $139-$179 to throw around. (Thanks, Bruce!)

Comments

  1. Michael Eochaidh says:

    He spoke Etruscan? I’m impressed.

    Could that be an alternate name for the Tuscan dialect of Italian?

  2. It doesn’t say he spoke it, it says he wrote in it. Which is still unlikely, unless it’s taken very literally (as in “he copied down a few inscriptions”), but one has to allow for a certain amount of vague overstatement in these lists designed to overawe.

  3. Jim (another one) says:

    What is “Samaritan”?

  4. Good question; could be Samaritan Hebrew, Samaritan Aramaic, or Samaritan Arabic.

  5. I’m wondering if wrote is just an error for read or wrote, or simply read.

  6. Could be; that would make more sense.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    The lengthy catalog of languages has various other inconsistencies, like treating “Aramaic” and “Syriac” as clean different things but Ge’ez and Amharic as variations on a single theme. I expect people here have spent more time thinking about it than the writer (plus whatever copy editor may have been involved) did before it went to press.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    he wrote Etruscan

    If he copied inscriptions, people seeing him or his notes would have seen him writing, or recognized Etruscan writing among his notes, therefore “he could write Etruscan”, and similarly the other languages listed above, such as “Phoenician”. No doubt he could speak more languages than most people, but for some of the ancient languages it is more likely that his knowledge was passive, even if he was able to “write” them.

  9. Note that it’s “languages and scripts”. Syriac and Aramaic are distinct as scripts even though they are different historical periods of the same language, whereas Ge’ez and Amharic share a script, though Ge’ez is not a direct ancestor of Amharic. I suspect that except for Latin script, the scripts were more important to the cataloguer than the languages.

  10. If he copied inscriptions, people seeing him or his notes would have seen him writing, or recognized Etruscan writing among his notes, therefore “he could write Etruscan”,

    That reminds me about a fascinating anecdote of John Littlewood, English mathematician, from his Miscellany. I am writing from memory, sorry if something is amiss. Littlewood wrote a paper for a French journal and someone else translated it into French. At the end of the article Littlewood added “I am grateful to Mr. X for translating this paper”, which was duly translated by the same Mr. X. After that Littlewood wrote “I am also grateful to Mr. X for translating the previous sentence.” Which, you’ve guessed it, was also translated into French by Mr. X. And then French-translated phrase “I am also grateful to Mr. X for translating the previous sentence.” appeared in the paper one more time…

    Littlewood explained that however little French he knew, he was able to copy a French phrase.

  11. January First-of-May says:

    Note that it’s “languages and scripts”. Syriac and Aramaic are distinct as scripts even though they are different historical periods of the same language, whereas Ge’ez and Amharic share a script, though Ge’ez is not a direct ancestor of Amharic. I suspect that except for Latin script, the scripts were more important to the cataloguer than the languages.

    That’s what I thought too: Syriac and Aramaic might be similar but have different scripts (very different – Syriac almost looks like angular Arabic, while Aramaic is only slightly different from later Hebrew), while, to the best of my knowledge, Ge’ez and Amharic share the same script.

    A similar situation exists today with Farsi and Tajik – anyone who could speak Tajik could pretty much also speak Farsi, and vice versa, but reading them is little related to each other. Similarly (though to a lesser extent, as they are more different) for Hindi and Urdu.

    That also neatly explains Etruscan (it has its own script, a variety of Greek, which was pretty much entirely deciphered a good while ago – though I don’t know if that was already done by the 1810s).

  12. I suspect that except for Latin script, the scripts were more important to the cataloguer than the languages.

    Excellent point.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    The notion that the list is script-focused makes sense, although that does leave the loose end of it listing Ancient Greek and Modern Greek separately … (although at least they’re adjacent because both alphabetized under G?).

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