cheeni: (cheeni)

I've lately followed with interest the life and times of "Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg", the first Protestant missionary in India. BZ was an interesting man, among other things he learned the Tamil language and script in less than 6 months at the age of 24. Considering this was in 1706, and that very few Indians spoke the European tongue (Portugese, not English back then), this is just amazing.

He went on to write his version of the New Testament in Tamil and printed copies on a printing press skillfully manoeuvered to his use from a passing ship. This was the among the first instances of printing in India. His contribution is nothing short of brilliant - Tamil is a diglossic language that uses diacritics which make printing especially difficult. So much so, the 1975 government of MGR made changes to the Tamil alphabet to make it more amenable to printing.

I copy here a few details on his life in his words from elsewhere on the Internet.

Of his attempts at understanding the idiomatic usage of Tamil and his fear of Catholics:
"Then the Commandant recommended to us a grammar in the Portuguese language, written by a missionary of the King of France. We obtained a number of books in the Malabar (Tamil) language, prepared by Catholics, which almost led us into dangerous heresies but not into an understanding of the language or a Christian style of writing. We had no means of knowing with what words and expressions we should explain spiritual matters in order not to give them a heathen flavour." (Lehmann 1956: 24)

Of his rigorous schedule:
Ziegenbalg reported that during the first three years of his stay in India, he hardly read any books in German or Latin. He gave the following schedule of his language lessons: "from 7-8 a.m. he would repeat the vocabularies and phrases which he had previously learnt and written down; from 8-12 he read only Malabar (Tamil) books which he had not previously read. This he did in the presence of an old poet (Tamil Pandit) and a writer who immediately wrote down all new words and expressions. The poet had to explain the text and in the case of linguistically complicated poetry put what had been read into colloquial language. At first he had also used the translator Aleppa,whom he later gave up to one of his colleagues. Even while eating he had someone read to him and from 3-5 he read some more Tamil books. In the evening from 7-8 he had someone read to him from Tamil literature in order to save his own eyes. He preferred authors whose style he could imitate in his own speaking and writing. 'Thus it has happenedthat I sometimes the read the same author a hundred times, so that there was no world or expression in him which I did not know or imitate. Such practice in this language has given a sureness and certainty'" (Lehmann 1956:24).

He died at the age of 37 in Tranquebar.

See Also, The First Protestant Missionary to India : Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg 1683-1719


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April 2009

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