Monday, June 2, 2008

Sir Richard Burton

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (March 19, 1821 – October 20, 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.


From The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton
by Isabel Burton (1896)

“The college teaching, for which one was obliged to pay, was of the most worthless description…

The worst of such teaching was, that it had no order and no system. Its philology was ridiculous, and it did nothing to work the reasoning powers. Learning foreign languages, as a child learns its own, is mostly work of pure memory, which acquires, after childhood, every artificial assistance possible. My system of learning a language in two months was purely my own invention, and thoroughly suited myself.

I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day. I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness. After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy bookwork (one of the Gospels is the most come-atable), and underlined every word that I wished to recollect, in order to read over my pencillings at least once a day. Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid.

If I came across a new sound, like the Arabic Ghayn, I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. I was delighted with the most difficult characters, Chinese and Cuneiform, because I felt that they impressed themselves more strongly upon the eye than the eternal Roman letters. This, by-and-by, made me resolutely stand aloof from the hundred schemes for transliterating Eastern languages, such as Arabic, Sanscrit, Hebrew and Syriac, into Latin letters, and whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation and emphasis.”

Copied and typed by hand directly from the book so apologies for any mistakes. Isabel is unfortunately mostly remembered for having burnt many of Sir Richard's papers after his death.

This passage was later edited by Thomas Wright and published in 1906 with many important details being left out. According to Wright, her book “is little better than a huge scrap-book filled with newspaper cuttings and citations from Sir Richard's and other books, hurriedly selected and even more hurriedly pieced together. It gives the impressions of Lady Burton alone, for those of Sir Richard's friends are ignored--so we see Burton from only one point of view. Amazing to say, it does not contain a single original anecdote… “It will be my duty to rectify Lady Burton's mistakes and mis-statements and to fill up the vast hiatuses that she has left.” Wright’s book is more often cited, it is certainly full of anecdotes and impressions that are dear to him but perhaps a language learner should look into Isabel Burton’s book just because it is a huge scrap-book filled with citations.

It makes perfect sense that a man like Burton who studied some very exotic languages would reach directly for a "real" book and make his own grammar notes (with the help of any available reference books etc.).