the Fourth Week of Lent
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
French philologist and brother of James Darmesteter; born at Château-Salins Jan. 5, 1846; died at Paris Nov. 16, 1888. Darmesteter, who came as a little boy to Paris, went first to a primary school, but learned much from the books in the workshop of his father, who was a bookbinder. At the age of twelve he went to the Talmud Torah school, where, in addition to religious subjects, he studied French, Latin, and Greek. It was in this school that he determined to solve the problem of the Old French words in the text of Rashi. At the age of sixteen he presented himself for the baccalaureate. His father had intended him to become a rabbi; but criticism of the New Testament had led him to criticize the Old; his religious orthodoxy had been shaken, and, although he continued his Hebrew studies, his warm religious faith had given place to scientific interests. Science was destined, he thought, to transform and to unite humanity.
For a year he was a pupil at the Séminaire Israélite under Zadoc Kahn; the next year he worked at the Collége Ste. Barbe to qualify for his licentiate, which he obtained in 1864. He studied Latin epigraphy under Léon Renier. In 1865-66 he began to study Old French at the Ecole des Chartes. It was about this time that he wrote the remarkable essay on the Talmud which he had finished just when the similar article by Emmanuel Deutsch had appeared. The article was afterward revised by Darmesteter and published posthumously in his "Reliques Scientifiques."
In 1867 Darmesteter became a pupil of Gaston Paris, the great Romance scholar, who quickly recognized his powers. In 1869, at the request of Paris, the minister of public instruction sent Darmesteter to study the French glosses in the manuscripts of Rashi at Oxford and Cambridge, and in the British Museum. In six weeks, working from twelve to fourteen hours a day, he went through fifty-nine manuscripts. His object was to elucidate the phonetics and structure of Old French by means of the forms preserved in Hebrew characters. The first results of his investigations were published in "Romania" in 1872, in which year he was nominated "répétiteur" (lecturer) in Romance languages at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes. He finished in the same year his first large work, "Traité sur les Mots Composés" (published in 1874), in which he showed his powers as a philologist on ground which he had made his own.
To Darmesteter a language was essentially living; he was not content with a mastery of the bare facts of phonetics and morphology; the problem which above all attracted him was that of the creation of new words, and the development of new senses from old words. The "Mots Composés," in which some 12,000 words are dealt with, has become a classic. In 1871 Darmesteter had already begun, jointly with Adolphe Hatzfeld, a dictionary of the French language, expecting to complete it in three years. Its publication, however, did not begin until after Darmesteter's death. Hatzfeld, a man with singularly fine logical and literary perceptions, struck by the lack of order in the classification of the meanings of words given in Littré's great work, proposed to reduce them in each case to one or two fundamental meanings. Darmesteter saw that the problem of each word could only be solved by the history of the word. Hatzfeld and Darmesteter worked together for seventeen years. When Darmesteter died the first draft of the manuscript was complete and the printing was begun. The revision of the etymological part, and the great treatise on the formation of words which he had planned and, in part, written, as a preface, were completed by his former pupils A. Thomas and L. Sudre. The work was awarded a grand prix at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and the prix Jean Reynaud, of 10,000 francs, by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, the highest honor in its power to bestow.
The dictionary was far from absorbing Darmesteter's energies. In 1874 he deciphered the difficult and beautiful French elegy, preserved in the Vatican, on the burning of the thirteen Jewish martyrs at Troyes in 1288. In the same year heexamined in Parma and Turin fifty-five other manuscripts of Rashi. In 1876 he discovered the important phonetic law of the protonic, known since as "Darmesteter's law." He obtained in 1877 his doctor's degree from the Sorbonne, presenting two dissertations: "De Floovante" and "De la Création Actuelle des Mots Nouveaux dans la Langue Française." On June 16, 1877, he was nominated "maître des conférences" in Medieval French at the Faculté des Lettres of Paris.
"The Life of Words."
In 1878 he published, in collaboration with Hatzfeld, "Le Seizième Siècle," a book on the language and literature of the sixteenth century in France, which is used as a text-book in the universities of Germany and of England as well as of France. In 1880 he gave much of his time to the foundation of the Societé des Etudes Juives, and especially to the "Revue" issued by it, in which he published a number of papers dealing with ancient and medieval Jewish history. He was also for some time professor of French at the Paris Rabbinical Seminary. In 1881 he became lecturer at the Ecole Normale Supérieure des Filles at Sèvres. His lectures, delivered to audiences of women students training as teachers in secondary schools, became the "Cours de Grammaire Française" (4 vols.), published posthumously, and translated into English by Alphonse Hartog. The French Academy awarded it the Saintour prize in 1897. In 1883 he was appointed at the Sorbonne titular professor of Medieval French literature and of the history of the French language. In 1886 he published "The Life of Words," which appeared first in an English translation, and then in the French original under the title "La Vie des Mots," a series of lectures on the changes of meaning in words, in which certain theories, originally published in 1876 in the "Revue Philosophique," were extended and developed. Most of Darmesteter's papers were collected in two volumes, "Reliques Scientifiques" (Paris, 1890), by his brother James. The first volume contains a biography, a bibliography, and Jewish and Franco-Jewish studies; the second, the purely French studies. The book was intended for the public, and has gone through many editions in France; it throws a new light on linguistic development. In 1885 heart-disease, unsuspected but of long standing, probably aggravated by the accidental death of his mother and by periods of almost superhuman intellectual effort, declared itself. On Nov. 7, 1888, he acted as examiner at the Sorbonne in a room without a fire; the chill brought on endocarditis, and he died on Nov. 16, 1888.
A second edition of the "Mots Composés," edited by Gaston Paris, and with an index of 12,000 words compiled by Darmesteter's wife, was published in 1894. An essay on the Celtic element in French was published in the "Revue Celtique" for 1901.
The notes on the "La'azim" of Rashi are still unpublished.
- Arsène Darmesteter, Reliques Scientifiques;
- The Athenæum, Nov. 24, 1888;
- The Academy, Dec. 1, 1888;
- Paul Meyer, in Revue Critique, Dec. 3, 1888;
- Théodore Reinach, in La République Française, Nov. 18, 1888:
- A. G. van Hamel, in De Nederlandsche Spectator, 1889, No. 7;
- Revue Internationale de l'Enseiqnement, May 15, 1889;
- Petit de Julleville, Arsène Darmesteter.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Darmesteter, Arsène'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/darmesteter-arsne.html. 1901.