Speaking Schliemann’s Language

"In the course of a year [1843] I was able to learn Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese with extraordinary facility, and it took me no more than six weeks in each case to speak and write these languages fluently," Schliemann wrote later in his life. On March 11th, LAASA, the association of Lady Ambassadors and Ambassadors’ Spouses in Athens, presented the results of their Schliemann Project in Cotsen Hall, the auditorium of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). The event, entitled Speaking Schliemann’s Language: Insights from Cataloguing Languages in Schliemann’s Travel Diaries, 1846-1890, included a number of eloquent, informative, and entertaining presentations about Heinrich Schliemann’s linguistic genius. The Schliemann Project was conceived after members of LAASA visited the Gennadius Library more than a year ago. During that visit they were shown the travel diaries of Heinrich Schliemann, which they found fascinating because of the many languages Schliemann wrote. I still remember our excitement when we discovered that there were entries in Urdu! The first LAASA visit was followed by a visit of the ambassador of Spain, Alfonso Lucini, and his wife and president of LAASA, Carmen Serrano de Haro. They were enthralled by Schliemann’s Spanish entries. After that visit we received an inquiry asking if LAASA members could study and catalog in a systematic fashion the languages in Schliemann’s travel diaries. We accepted the offer with enthusiasm. In the lingo of the archivist, this is called crowdsourcing, and members of LAASA, considering all the languages that they collectively command, was the perfect group to accomplish this difficult task. The program on March 11th began with welcomes delivered by James Wright, director of the American School, and Carmen Serrano de Haro. Guests included ambassadors and spouses from a host of embassies in Athens. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, the Archivist of the American School, then introduced the audience to Schliemann’s earlier life (before he moved to Greece), when he was a successful merchant, a worldwide traveler, and already a passionate linguist.  David Bates of England further elaborated on Schliemann’s linguistic abilities, especially his method for learning foreign languages fast (in six weeks).  Next came Khadija Lyakoubi-El Ansari of Morocco, who described Schliemann’s painstaking efforts to learn Arabic and the Arabic script, which he also used to write Turkish and Urdu, as Zeynep Saylan Uras of Turkey and Faiza Saaed of Pakistan were able to demonstrate. Christina de Mesquita Sampaio of Brazil transported us to Panama, a place that Schliemann visited in 1851 on his way to California. Schliemann was intrigued by the way the Spanish language was spoken by people of mixed descent (“these Creoles” he called them).  And we all had a hearty laugh when we heard Bärbel Geijsen of Holland translating from Dutch passages that concerned Schliemann’s troubles with his ears—and the two dead ants he found in them! Pakapat Thipayaprapai of Australia deserves full credit for the wonderful powerpoint that the speakers used. What a team! The presentation ended with the announcement of LAASA’s new Schliemann project. This time LAASA members plan to produce an interactive map that will record Schliemann’s worldwide travels. But the highlight of the evening came when the president of LAASA, Carmen Serrano de Haro, and all the members who participated in the project presented to Maria Georgopoulou, director of the Gennadius Library, a CD that documents all of LAASA’s meticulous and important work.     The enthusiasm of the LAASA members for Schliemann is such that I hear that Schliemann is about to become an honorary member of LAASA! I am sure that he would have been very pleased. 

Speaking Schliemann’s Language: Insights from Cataloguing Languages in Schliemann’s Travel Diaries, 1846-1890, from ASCSA on Vimeo.