A foundational work of comparative linguistics, never published: Heinrich Julius Klaproth's "Nouveau Mithridates"

Klaproth, Heinrich Julius, oriental scholar (1783-1835). Draft publisher's announcement of "Nouveau Mithridates". Autograph manuscript signed.

No place, [1828].

Folio. French manuscript on paper. 3½ pp. on bifolium.


Historically important draft of an announcement for Klaproth's "Nouveau Mithridates", a projected large-scale comparative study of all known languages of the world that was ultimately never to see print.

Klaproth's statement in the present manuscript that 22 years had elapsed since the publication of "Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachkunde" by Johann Christoph Adelung and Johann Severin Vater dates the document to 1828, which agrees with a letter of Klaproth's to his publisher Cotta on 22 February 1829, asking, "Shall I now print and distribute the Mithridates prospectus?" At this point, however, the project (which had enjoyed the support of Alexander von Humboldt) was already more or less admitted to have fallen through, and it is never mentioned again in Klaproth's and Cotta's ensuing correspondence. The principal reason for the failure must have been the immense costs which the publication would have incurred. Apart from a comparative dictionary of all languages, the "Nouveau Mithridates" was supposed to include an atlas comprising a "complete collection of the alphabets and scripts of the various peoples of the world", for which the requisite typefaces would have to be obtained or produced. Klaproth insisted on entrusting the work to the Imprimerie Royale in Paris, equipped with one of the largest troves of non-Latin founts, but Cotta disagreed. The appearance of the first volume of Adriano Balbis "Atlas ethnographique" in 1826 must have struck another blow to Klaproth's bold plan.

In this fascinating announcement, Klaproth sketches out a history of his young field of study and discusses the importance of his intended publication. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, he writes, had been the first to observe that "nothing could be more apt than a comparison of all languages among each other to demonstrate the kinship of all the world's peoples and to classify them properly according to the natural links that by necessity connect them" (transl.). Earlier attempts such as Georg August von Breitenbach's "Vorstellung der vornehmsten Völkerschaften der Welt nach ihrer Abstammung, Ausbreitung und Sprachen" (1786) and Peter Simon Pallas's never-completed comparative dictionary of all languages, commissioned by Empress Catharine II of Russia, had failed (according to Klaproth) for a want of good sample data.

Klaproth points out the powerful network of scholars that he has at his disposal throughout Europe, Asia, and America, permitting him to undertake such a task, and gives a precise description of the publication as he envisages it: "The author limits himself to a systematic classification of peoples and languages, entirely excluding the question of the origins of language in general - a question of great importance which has recently been raised anew and which is currently being investigated with much zeal by several scholars. Within the treatment of each and every idiom, Klaproth will provide an historical overview of the people speaking it, as well as a general grammar in tabular form, accompanied by a bibliographical account of the principal works which discuss it. This is followed by a carefully selected original text, accompanied by an interlinear translation and a grammatical analysis. Only in the event of an inescapable dearth of other sources will the Lord's Prayer be drawn upon [...]".

A tiny tear to the fold, but generally well preserved.


See U. Tintemann, Julius Klaproths Mithridates-Projekt: Alexander von Humboldt und das Verlagshaus Cotta, in: HiN (Alexander von Humboldt im Netz) XV (2014), 29 (Potsdam 2014), pp. 99-107.

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