Anatoly quoted my post from yesterday, singling out the quote beginning “It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written. The awful warning is Lord Acton…”; he finished his post by linking to this poem (in Russian), which the story reminded him of. I liked the poem so well I thought I’d try my hand at translating it, but I was stymied at the very beginning because I wasn’t sure how to render the title, Ментелли. It transliterates as Mentelli, but the problem was that the name in question was that of a Hungarian, and of course I wanted to know the original Hungarian spelling, so I started googling.
That sent me down one of those endless rabbit holes the internet is so full of, and I have just come up for air. When I googled Ментелли, I got his Russian Wikipedia article. Excellent! (I thought): it will link to a Hungarian Wikipedia article, and my problems will be over. Alas for premature rejoicing—there was no link to any other Wikipedia articles on him. Further, the next-to-last sentence of the article said that he was “described in the story ‘The Hungarian Diogenes from Paris’ by the Hungarian lawyer and writer István Ráth-Végh.” I immediately began to suspect that Ráth-Végh had invented him. I found the story in Russian translation (here; scroll down to ВЕНГЕРСКИЙ ДИОГЕН ИЗ ПАРИЖА, the last section), which did nothing to dispel my suspicion that it was an elaborate hoax (nor, of course, did it help me with the spelling issue). After much googling, I managed to find the original Hungarian in Google Books (A könyv komédiája, p. 83: “A párizsi magyar Diogenes”); unfortunately, not only was it the thrice-damned snippet view, but OCR rendered the crucial name as “Menteili.” More googling made it clear it was actually Mentelli, however, and I found what seems at the moment to be the original source of the story, Descuret’s La Médecine des passions, ou les passions considérées dans leurs rapports avec les maladies, les lois et la religion (Paris, [1841] 2nd ed. 1844). The story begins on page 717; by clicking on this clipped bit, you will be taken to the book, where you can read the whole thing, if you read French:

And if you don’t read French, there is a brief retelling in English in Théodule Ribot, The psychology of the emotions (New York, 1897), beginning:

and ending “Mentelli left no work behind him, in fact there remains no trace of his long researches.” There is also “Mentelli, the Hungarian Diogenes,” Notes and Queries (1913) s11-VIII: 350 (available here if you have a subscription, which I don’t). And Victor Hugo wrote this in his notebooks:

Mentelli était un grand savant. Il mourut.
On me demanda une épitaphe pour lui.
J’écrivis sur sa tombe cette ligne:
    – Il est allé savoir le reste.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to translating the poem, but now you know about Mentelli. If he existed at all, with his hundred languages and his ill-paid library work, he died in 1836; I still harbor a faint suspicion that Descuret made him up.


  1. marie-lucie says:

    Amazing man. How could anyone make him up?

  2. This ought to be the right volume of Notes and Queries, but it’s actually VII and what claims to be that one is incomplete.

  3. LH,
    How did you miss this?
    If that link is too long – Google books – “Past Celebrities I have known” by Cyrus Redding, 1866.
    Whole chapter on Mentelli, starting page 148.

  4. The Notes and Queries piece is:
    –During the latter part of his life this eccentric lived in the Paris Arsenal, and was accidentally drowned in the river about Christmas, 1836. An obituary of him was published in the Temps by Charles Nodier, the librarian of the Arsenal; and “an English traveller” published some particulars about him in The New Monthly Magazine in or before 1827. Could any reader kindly supply the reference to the latter?

  5. Avram – the “English traveller” may be Cyrus Redding, whom I referenced above. He mentions an earlier piece he had written on Mentelli, but I couldn’t find it.
    Henry Swinburne also mentions meeting a Mentelli twice in Paris in 1781 and again in 1796. He is described as a geographer and the author of “Cosmographie Elementaire” and “Geographie Comparee”. Perhaps not the same person, or perhaps Russian Wikipedia has his birthdate wrong.

  6. Sorry, Swinburne is clearly referring to Edme Mentelle (1730-1815), not “Mentelli”, just a spelling error on old Henry’s part.

  7. Avram – here is the link to the New Monthly Magazine article from 1826.
    Fairly sure it’s by Redding. Note that here he spells it “Mentelle”. Maybe he actually met the old geographer, and then just “elaborated” a little. It looks like Descuret cribbed a lot from this article – Descuret’s story about Mentelle’s desire to visit England, and then being disuaded from doing so because no one in England respects learning appears to be taken directly from this piece.

  8. What you need is Studiolum.
    Those clipped bits are new.

  9. Thanks, vanya, the Redding piece is a great read—here‘s the direct link. I guess he was a real person; apparently he only used the one name, and was not actually Hungarian (“I think he told me he was a Hungarian, only because he was born in Hungary”).

  10. Those clipped bits are new.
    Yes, I got the idea from R. Devraj.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    The first word must mean “Hungarian” and sound like “Vengerskij”. Does anyone know of the origin or derivation of “hungar” and “venger” (which look like they could have the same root)?

  12. david f. says:

    marie-lucie: The way its been explained to me is that the “hun” in “hungary” is from a cultural association of the magyars with the huns (wikipedia backs this up as well). Not sure about venger, but it seems plausible the “v” is the product of a different sound change to the “ungar/onogur” root.

  13. hun is man, human, gar is arm, hand in my language and Khunnus are considered our ancestors, nuu – migrate, move
    so Hungarians are considered like our distant kin, though we call them majaar
    similarly and closer, Jungaria -zuun (left), gar – arm

  14. which look like they could have the same root
    Yes, they do. The Russian name is borrowed from Polish Węgry, węgier (the Old Russian native form is угринъ, pl. угре), from Common Slavic *ǫgrinъ; compare Medieval Latin Ungari, Ungri (and the equivalent Byzantine Greek form). Our Hungary comes from a form Hungari that’s presumably influenced by Hunni ‘Huns.’ Vasmer says the origin is the Turkic ethnonym rendered by the Greeks Onogouroi (cf. Medieval Latin Hunuguri, Onoguria terra); cf. оn ogur, оn oguz ‘ten Oghuz tribes.’

  15. Names something like “Hun” are seen over a millenium or more in various languages in various places from Manchuria to the Black Sea. I don’t think that there’s been a decision as to its origin, but it’s associated with the steppe. Ten years ago, when I least read about it, there was a consensus that the Huns were not closely related to the Xiungnu (sometimes called Huns), the Kidarite Huns, or the Hephthalite Huns, but it was just a generic name being applied to similar peoples and drifting from language to language.
    But recently I’ve seen evidence that that’s no longer the consensus. During that smae period people were also changing the ways they defined nations, peoples, and ethnicities, rather than as simply racial and language groups.
    As far I know, these questions are now a total can of worms. There seems to be little doubt about there being a pan-steppe way of life from 700 BC onwards, though, with nations rising and falling without changing the culture much.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, LH and JE.

  17. Han and hun are “he” and “she” in Norwegian. Don’t know if there’s any connection.

  18. Little-known fact: all true Huns were female.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    In Hebrew, all “hi”s (pronounced like “he”) are shes.

  20. In Middle English the pronouns seemed to change every hundred years or every hundred miles. I only learned enough ME to follow poems with the help of a translation and a dictionary, but I remember thinking that if I got serious the pronouns would be brutal to learn.

  21. mollymooly says:

    The English she of course derives from the Irish .

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Does it really? I seem to recall that in Old English the feminine pronoun started with an h, as in “her” (“heo” ?), so it probably got too close to “he” for comfort, or at least precision. But borrowed from across the Irish Sea? Could it be a survival from the pre-Anglo-Saxon British language?

  23. No, I think that was another joke. The OED says “Of difficult etymology; but prob. an altered form of the OE. fem. dem. pron. sío, séo, síe” (AHD agrees: “probably alteration of Old English sēo, feminine demonstrative pron.”); M-W says “Middle English, probably alteration of hye, alteration of Old English hēo she.”

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, LH. I remember encountering the s- forms now. There are many examples among the languages of the world of personal pronouns deriving from demonstratives (a word meaning “that one” evolving into a pronoun he, she, etc). The M-W suggestion is less plausible, as the sound h does not evolve into s in the history of English.
    But the Old English and Old Irish s- forms could have a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European, or at least a branch of it.

  25. The M-W suggestion is less plausible, as the sound h does not evolve into s in the history of English.
    The OED says:

    Some scholars have maintained that she and its dialectal variants descend directly from the pronunciations (hje:, hjo:) of HEO (referred to above); the contention being that (hj) might naturally develop into (sh). This development has occurred in some Norwegian dialects, and it is illustrated by the proper names Shetland and Shapinshay from ON. Hjaltland and Hjalpandisøy. There is slight support for this view in the existence of north. dialect forms such as SHOOP representing OE héope HIP n.2 Other views are that (sh) was substituted for the un-English sound (ç), developed from (hj), and that it arose from the sequence -s + j- in such contexts as was hió.

    the Old English and Old Irish s- forms could have a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European
    Thurneysen says (p. 283): “The nom. sg. (h)é, sí, (h)ed corresponds to Goth. is, si, ita ; cp. Lat. is, id.

  26. Wow, there’s a big chunk of Thurneysen online here (the bit I quote is from section 450).

  27. Mentelli’s modern “biographer” István Ráth-Végh was a quite knowledgeable and amusing author with dozens of books written on bibliophile curiosities, and I guess he was much more fond of revealing than to fabricate hoaxes.
    Mentelli (pronounce like in Italian) in fact did exist and was even visited by the Hungarian academician Ferenc Tessedik some ten years before Mentelli’s death, who also published a detailed report on their encounter in 1827. A summary of his report as well as the translation of the complete article of Charles Nodier, referred to by Avram, can be found here, from the 1854/1 edition of Vasárnapi Ujság, and a transcription of Tessedik’s report here.
    Tessedik reported that Mentelli had called himself Ignác and that by that time, in lack of practice, he had already forgot most of his Hungarian, although “in his childhood he only spoke this language”. He also told that his original name was Mandely which was assimilated to Mentelli only in Paris. This name does not really sound Hungarian but rather German or Yiddish (although Mentelli told of having always been a Catholic). He also mentioned that his having fallen from a roof in his childhood had canceled all his early memories. I don’t regard it as impossible that his eccentric way of life was partly attributable to that accident.

  28. See now Stan Carey’s thorough discussion of the etymology of she.

  29. Thank you for the link, and for the earlier discussion on this. My post is far from thorough, but might serve at least to summarise the main hypotheses and to highlight the possibility of an Irish origin (or an Irish part in a multiple etymology).

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, they do. The Russian name is borrowed from Polish Węgry, węgier

    I thought so! 🙂

    (the Old Russian native form is угринъ, pl. угре)

    Alternations between Polish [vɛ̃] and Russian [u] exist elsewhere: węgiel, уголь “coal”.

    cf. оn ogur, оn oguz ‘ten Oghuz tribes.’

    That is fascinating! Especially because of the r (West Turkic, like Chuvash – Hungarian has lots of loans from such a language) as opposed to z (East Turkic, including the Oğuz family itself).

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