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Out of the confusion of tongues:Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (1813-1891)

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, the comparative linguist and dialectologist, was born in England by chance. In 1810 his father, Lucien, was detained at sea by the British when on his way into exile in America following the breakdown of his relations with his brother, Napoléon I. 

Interned in England, Lucien was permitted to buy Thorngrove, a house near Worcester, and it was there that Louis-Lucien was born on 4 January 1813. The family's stay in England was brief, however, for they returned to their Italian estate in 1814. Louis-Lucien grew up in Italy. He attended the Jesuit college at Urbino before devoting himself to the study of mineralogy and chemistry. In 1832 he married Maria Anna Cecchi, the daughter of a Florentine sculptor, but the marriage was to be an unhappy one and the couple lived apart. He participated in the first Riunione degli Scienziati Italiani at Pisa and his earliest works, all on scientific subjects, were published in Italy. 

His first work on the languages of Europe, the Specimen lexici comparativi, was also published in Italy, at Florence in 1847. The explanation of this change of direction is not obvious, but Bonaparte was far from being the only scholar of his age who, educated in another discipline, became interested in modern languages. Indeed, the study of modern, as distinct from ancient, languages was scarcely known in the university curriculum in the mid-19th century.

After the fall of King Louis-Philippe in 1848, Louis-Lucien had a brief political career in France. He had been elected to represent Corsica in the Assemblée Constituante, but the election was annulled. He was then returned to the Assemblée Législative as member for the Department of the Seine in 1849. Following the declaration of the Second Empire, he was appointed Senator in 1852 and his cousin, Louis-Napoléon, permitted him to use the titles of 'Prince' and 'Highness'. His interest in public office was, however, strictly limited. He moved to London in the early 1850s, setting up home at 6-8 Norfolk Terrace which became his principal residence for the rest of his life. There he amassed a library comprising books in, or about, an astonishing number of the world's languages, as Victor Collins's catalogue of 1894 shows.

Settled in London, Louis-Lucien put down social and professional roots. He counted Gladstone as a friend, and he particularly valued his relationship with Queen Victoria with whom he dined at Windsor on occasions. However, the majority of Louis-Lucien's acquaintances and correspondents shared his linguistic interests. He was active in several learned societies including the Philological Society and a frequent contributor to their publications. He was elected a member of the Athenaeum in 1866. He corresponded and collaborated with, among others, Alexander J. Ellis, the phonologist and champion of spelling reform, and James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The latter, whose standards were notoriously exacting, was not uncritical of Louis-Lucien's methods of dialect research. 

Bonaparte also maintained a steady stream of correspondence with the many Bible translators whose works were printed at his expense. He was honoured in this country by the award of an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Oxford in 1854, and in 1883 he received a Civil List pension in recognition of his work on English dialects.

In 1891, following the death of his first wife, Louis-Lucien married Clémence Richard, with whom he was living and who was the mother of his son, Louis Clovis. Shortly after, however, Louis-Lucien died in Italy, at Fano near Urbino, on 3 November. His body was brought back to England and he is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic cemetery at Kensal Green in north-west London.

Bonaparte's work on languages

Bonaparte's linguistic enterprises fall into two categories. First, there are his own works, which largely comprise studies in comparative philology or in dialectology. Secondly, he had printed at this own expense the works of others, notably versions of Biblical texts in a variety of European languages and dialects. These translations also assisted his own philological research, as well as preserving records of unfamiliar or disappearing tongues. He himself was able to speak and write fluently in Italian, French, Spanish, English and Basque, although Julien Vinson, the French Basque scholar, noted that he spoke French with a marked English accent. Like many linguists of his day, however, he also possessed a reading knowledge of many other languages. This broad comparativist tendency is evident in his Specimen lexici comparativi, and in the later journal articles devoted to the names of reptiles and words associated with the vine. Bonaparte's particular interest, however, lay in minority languages, notably Basque, and in the regional speech of Italy and England. These he subjected to the closer scrutiny of the dialectologist.

Bonaparte's dialect studies draw upon both written texts and the results of field work, which consisted of the direct interrogation of native speakers. The written versions were generally produced by collaborators who had been expressly instructed to record only those forms that were contemporary, not deliberate archaisms, and those that were native to their region. The published translations were not only permanent records of individual dialects at a specific moment in time, but were also of intrinsic interest, particularly in the case of Basque, as examples of standard literary forms. Thus, the unpublished manuscript entitled 'Les temps basques anciens et modernes' lists verb forms found in the writings of Leizarraga, while the eleven dialects in which the 'Song of the Three Children' was printed include written versions alongside representations of the spoken language.

Bonaparte and the Basque language

Bonaparte's lasting claim to fame is indeed his work on Basque. This language is outside the Indo-European group and it cannot be related satisfactorily to any one known language or group of languages, living or dead. Indeed, its prehistory is as shrouded in mystery as that of the Basques themselves whose present-day descendants live on both the Spanish and French sides of the western Pyrenees. Bonaparte's major works on Basque are the dialect map, Carte des sept provinces basques, and Le Verbe basque en tableaux, both published in 1869. Rather than concentrating upon the relationship of Basque to other languages or its origins, he focused his attention on the differences between its major dialects. He undertook field work in the course of five visits to the Basque-speaking areas of both France and Spain during the years 1856-1869. His findings were bases on the forms used by native speakers which he took down 'from the very mouths of the local people'. His mapping of the eight major dialects, together with their sub-dialects, has stood the test of time and has not been substantially modified. The tables of Le Verbe basque constitute a major aspect of the theoretical underpinning of the map and are a formidable work of reference.

The explanation for Louis-Lucien's attraction to Basque is not known. It is possibly noteworthy that in the Specimen lexici comparativi Basque occupies a prominent position, standing alone at the head of the list of 52 European languages. More tangible is Bonaparte's considerable impact on the study of Basque. His enthusiasm and his own endeavours served as a focus for the work of others and his inspiration contributed greatly to the achievements of his more notable collaborators, Duvoisin, Uriarte and Echenique.

Bonaparte's studies of English dialects were not conducted on the scale of his researches into Basque, although the methodology employed was similar. The texts in dialect whose printing he financed were not so central to the study of the English language as were the Basque dialect texts to the study of Basque. In the mid-nineteenth century precious few works in Basque were printed.

Publishing activities

The pattern of Louis-Lucien's printing and publishing activities was affected by changed in his economic circumstances. In receipt of 130,000 francs annually during the Second Empire, he was able to set up a printing press in his Bayswater house in order to facilitate the printing of his own works and those of others. He employed a printer by the day to produce the many Bible translations that he commissioned. Two men were involved: W.H. and E. Billing, who were members of a well-established family of London printers. After 1858 he employed outside printers, notably George Barclay, of Leicester Square, who was succeeded by Strangeways & Walden. However, with the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 Louis-Lucien's major source of income from France dried up and he lived for a while in straitened circumstances. His period of patronage was over and his publishing activity centred upon that of his own works, which appeared in the pages of prominent learned journals.

Bonaparte's financial position was eased by the granting of the Civil List pension in 1883 and he was to enjoy a brief period of relative wealth toward the end of his life when he received a substantial inheritance from a nephew he had never known. His sister, Christine, had married Lord Dudley Stuart, and their son, having led the life of a recluse and with no next of kin, left Louis-Lucien all his property.

Louis-Lucien evidently took great care over the production of the books that he had printed, as good quality paper was invariably used. Indeed, the British Library's copies of his books are in fine condition, certainly when measured against the rate of deterioration suffered by the average book printed in the mid-nineteenth century. In face Bonaparte applied his chemical knowledge to aspects of book making, experimenting with different techniques in the production of both ink and paper. It is appropriate that the chemist, bibliophile and linguist should come together in this way.

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