Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy

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Silvestre de Sacy.

Antoine Isaac, Baron Silvestre de Sacy (French: [sasi]; 21 September 1758 – 21 February 1838), was a French linguist and orientalist. His son, Ustazade Silvestre de Sacy, became a journalist.

Life and works[edit]

Early life[edit]

Silvestre de Sacy was born in Paris to a notary named Jacques Abraham Silvestre, a Jansenist.[1] The additional name of de Sacy was taken by the younger son after a fashion then common with the Parisian bourgeoisie. Sacy's father died when he was seven years old, and he was educated in isolation by his mother.

Philological studies[edit]

In 1781 he was appointed councillor in the cour des monnaies, and was advanced in 1791 to be a commissary-general in the same department. Having successively studied Semitic languages, he began to make a name as an orientalist, and between 1787–91 worked on the Pahlavi inscriptions of the Sassanid kings. In 1792 he retired from public service, and lived in close seclusion in a cottage near Paris till in 1795 he became professor of Arabic in the newly founded school of living Eastern languages (École speciale des langues orientales vivantes).

During this interval Sacy studied the religion of the Druze, the subject of his last and unfinished work, the Exposé de la religion des Druzes (2 vols., 1838). He published the following Arabic textbooks:

  • Grammaire arabe (2 vols., 1st ed. 1810)
  • Chrestomathie arabe (3 vols., 1806)
  • Anthologie grammaticale (1829)

In 1806 he added the duties of Persian professor to his old chair, and from this time onwards his life was one of increasing honour and success, broken only by a brief period of retreat during the Hundred Days.

Public offices and memberships[edit]

He was perpetual secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions from 1832 onwards; in 1808 he had entered the corps législatif; he was made a baron in 1813; and in 1832, when quite an old man, be became a peer of France and was regular in the duties of the chamber. In 1815 he became rector of the University of Paris, and after the Second Restoration he was active on the commission of public instruction. With Abel Rémusat, he was joint founder of the Société asiatique, and was inspector of oriental types at the Imprimerie nationale. In 1821 he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society[2]

Egyptian hieroglyphics research[edit]

Silvestre de Sacy was the first Frenchman to attempt to read the Rosetta stone. He made some progress in identifying proper names in the demotic inscription.

From 1807 to 1809, de Sacy was also a teacher of Jean-François Champollion, whom he encouraged in his research.

But later on, the relationship between the master and student became chilly. In no small measure, Champollion's Napoleonic sympathies were problematic for Sacy. De Sacy was decidedly Royalist in his political sympathies.

In 1811, Étienne Marc Quatremère, also a student of Sacy, published his Mémoires géographiques et historiques sur l'Égypte… sur quelques contrées voisines.

There was some rivalry between Champollion and Quatremère. Champollion published a paper in 1814 that covered some of the same territory. The allegations then arose that Champollion had plagiarized the work of Quatremère. Silvestre de Sacy seemed to take the side of Quatremère according to Champollion.[3]

There was also considerable rivalry between Champollion and Thomas Young, an English Egyptology researcher active in hieroglyphic decipherment. At first they cooperated in their work, but later, from around 1815, a chill arose between them. Again, Sacy took the side of Young.

Young started to correspond with de Sacy, who advised Young not to share his work with Champollion, and described Champollion as a charlatan. Consequently, Young avoided all direct contact with Champollion.[4]

When Champollion submitted his Coptic grammar and dictionary for publication in 1815, de Sacy also opposed this.

Another student of de Sacy was Johan David Åkerblad. He was a Swedish scholar who also contributed significantly to the investigation of the Rosetta Stone. Early on, in 1802, he published his version of the Demotic (Egyptian) alphabet; sixteen of these letters proved to be correct, and were used by Champollion, as well as by Young. De Sacy felt that Akerblad was not getting enough credit for the good work that he was doing.

Thus, the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics was being hampered by political and personal considerations. There were also big political rivalries between England and France at that time that also stood in the way.

Nevertheless, when, in spite of all adversity, Champollion had made big progress in decipherment by 1822 – resulting in his Lettre à M. Dacier – de Sacy cast all politics aside and warmly welcomed the good work of his student.

Other scholarly works[edit]

Among his other works are his edition of Hariri (1822), with a selected Arabic commentary, and of the Alfiya (1833), and his Calila et Dimna (1816), the Arabic version of the Panchatantra which has been in various forms one of the most popular books of the world. Other works include a version of Abd-el-Latif, Relation arabe sur l'Egypte, essays on the history of the law of property in Egypt since the Arab conquest (1805–1818), and The Book of Wandering Stars, a translation of a history of the Ottoman Empire and its rule of Egypt, particularly its recounting of the various actions of and events under the Ottoman governors of Egypt. To biblical criticism he contributed a memoir on the Samaritan Arabic Pentateuch (Mém. Acad. des Inscr. vol. xlix), and editions of the Arabic and Syriac New Testaments for the British and Foreign Bible Society. His students include Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer.

Critical studies[edit]

Modern scholars like Edward Said and others have given critical attention to the theoretical foundations of "orientalism" in works like Chrestomathie arabe.[5]

Famous students[edit]

Silvestre de Sacy assisted the young composer Fromental Halévy in his early career, giving him a testimonial during his application for the Prix de Rome.

Sacy died in his native city of Paris, aged 79.

Selected works[edit]

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 1,000+ works in 1,000+ publications in 16 languages and 3,000+ library holdings.[7]


  1. ^ Silvestre de Sacy. Le projet européen d’une science orientaliste, éditions du Cerf, 2014
  2. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  3. ^ Adkins & Adkins 2000, p. 97–8.
  4. ^ Adkins & Adkins 2000, p. 129.
  5. ^ Spanos, William V. (2003). The Legacy of Edward W. Said, p. 101., p. 101, at Google Books
  6. ^ Carl Johan Tornberg (Swedish)
  7. ^ WorldCat Identities: Silvestre de Sacy, A. I. (Antoine Isaac) 1758-1838
  • Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-019439-1. 

External links[edit]