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!)