From Vienna to Vardøhus 1768-1770

Report from Per Pippin Aspaas, University of Tromsø.
Project 200300843-2

Financial support to the project:
Maximilian Hell and Joannes Sajnovics, from Vienna to Vardøhus 1768-1770. Two Jesuit Scientists Exploring the Far North.

During the years of 1768-1770, two astronomers from Austria-Hungary travelled from Vienna to Vardø in Lapland to observe a Venus transit, i.e. the very rare phenomenon of this planet crossing the face of the sun. They were invited, and heavily sponsored, by the Danish-Norwegian crown to make these observations.

However, the leader of the expedition had more ambitious plans: Early on, he decided to explore various aspects of life and nature in the North, the Sámi population’s language and culture being of prime interest. This population was not merely exotic for the Hungarian-Austrian mind: Lately, there had been rumours of a possible linguistic link between the Hungarian and Sámi vernaculars. Maximilian Hell wanted to explore this possibility, and engaged the native Hungarian Joannes Sajnovics as an assistant, giving him specific orders to study the Sámi language thoroughly. During their roughly ten months’ stay in the Sámi regions of Northern Norway, he interviewed many native Sámis as well as local priests who had some knowledge of their culture and language.

Sajnovics found many similarities between Hungarian and Sámi. Indeed, he went as far as announcing, in a lecture held at the Royal Academy of Copenhagen, that the two languages were identical: Beviis at Ungarernes og Lappernes Sprog er det samme, or Demonstratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse (1770). In his introduction, he specified what he meant by “the same language”: According to him, this did not necessarily imply that natives from the two nationalities could communicate with each other easily. His monograph was thus the first scientific proof of the kinship between these two languages as members of the same group.

From Centre for Sámi Studies I applied for funding to travel to Vienna and collect material from this expedition. I received a grant of NOK 10 000 and spent two weeks in Vienna this July. There, I found several hundred pages written by the two priests, both during their journey and upon their return home. Especially a Latin diary written by Sajnovics, never published before in an unabridged version, contains many notes on the Sámi scribbled down on the spot. There is also ample material from the pen of Hell, in the form of letters, sketches, and the start of a monograph containing his historical explanation for the linguistic similarities.

The material was photographed with a digital camera and is preserved on CD. I am now in the process of systematizing the material and translating parts of it. An article on the journey, partly concerned with the Sámi interests of Maximilian Hell, is to be published in the next “Ottar”, scheduled for publication in February. I am very grateful for the support from the Centre making the collection of this material possible.

Tromsø, 5th of November 2003

Per Pippin Aspaas

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