October 28, 1902 - May 24, 1987
Ligeti was born at the North Hungarian city, Balassagyarmat.
After his secondary school years at Gyarmat, he gained admission
to the Budapest József Eötvös College of great fame and French
orientation. As a student of the Faculty of Arts in the
University of Budapest he studied classical philology, and
learned even more absorbedly Turkish philology and severe
judgement from Gyula Németh, with whom the undergraduate
dissected the works of great Vámbéry to false and true segment.
He learned etymology, a passion to search for the Turkish
elements of Hungarian language from Zoltán Gombocz. But he
realized that at home he could not arrive at the final source of
our relationship with, and beyond, the Turkish peoples, so after
he took a Ph. D. degree with honours - then rewarded with an iron
ring instead of the golden one of the pre-war time - he gladly
went to Paris to be instructed by the great masters of Sorbonne.
On a Hungarian scholarship, he studied Chinese subjects with
Henri Maspéro, Tibetan philology - in the wake of Csoma de Kőrös
- with Jacques Bacot, and first and foremost, the Mongolian and
related fields with highly versatile Paul Pelliot, his most
influential professor in Paris.
The metropolis urged him to stay, but he returned to Hungary,
into unemployment. Eventually he managed to raise support for an
expedition to China. In 1928-30 he visited the Mongols in the
north between theGreat Wall and the Gobi Desert. He lived in
lamaistic monasteries and studied the little known languages of
southern and eastern Mongolians: Chahar, Harchin Tumet and Dagur,
so important for its ancient pecularities. Most of his collection
was destroyed during the Second World War, but his invaluableold
Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese Manuscripts and books
survived, which he gave to the Library of the Hungarian Academy
as a gift. In his scholarly report (Rapport preliminaire...,
1933) he made mention of his inquiry into the 108-volume
Mongolian Buddhist canon, which he was the first to describe as
an immense source for linguistic, cultlral and historical
research (Catalogue du Kanjur mongol imprimé, 1942-1944). In the
autumn of 1936 he travelled to Afghanistan, where he sought out
the Moghols, a people believed to have already vanished, and
reported new data on their disappearing language. He also studied
the folklore of the Uzbeks in Afghanistan. In the meantime he
dicovered the correlation between the long vowels of old and
contemporary Turkish languages.
From 1936 he was elected corresponding member of the Hungarian
Academy of Sciences and an ordinary member from 1947. He was 37
when he became a professor of the Faculty of Arts in the
University of Budapest and a year later he was appointed to the
holder of the Chair of Inner Asia. He was the first to teach
there Mongolian and Tibetan language and culture, Inner Asian
history and Manchu, from the alphabet to many settled and
unsettled quetions and to various complex methods of
investigations. In addition to his own department, for twenty
years, he also held the Chair of the Far East, where he taught
the first generations of Hungarian sinologists. For several years
he was in the Chair of Turkish philologyas well. Among others, he
was also managing director of the Institute for Hungarian
He was the vice-president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
for two decades. He was the founder of Acta Orientalia Academiae
Scientiarum Hungaricae, so far the longest-lived of our journals
devoted to Oriental studies; he edited the monograph series
Bibliotheca Orientalis Hungarica in Europaean languages and that
of the Csoma de Krös Pocket Library in Hungarian; he reorganized
the Csoma de Krös Society, set up a research group under the
aegis of the Academy to constitute a workshop for tacking the
philological problems of Mongolian, Turkish, Manchu, Tungus and
Inner Asian subjects. He initiated the teaching of Altaic
subjects at Szeged University. He donated his private library of
several thousand volumes to the library of Szeged University.
After his tour of Japan at the onset of the Second World War,
from the late 40-s he travelled extensively, also to Mongolia and
again to China, though for shorter times. He devoted most of his
time left from his university and academy engagements to
research. He probed into the history of the Mongolian, Turkish,
Manchu, Tungus and Tibetan languages, literature and culture,
published and interpreted sources, edited the Collection of
Mongolian Written Monuments and the Mongolian Vocabulary of
Istanbul, dechipered the Mongolian material in the Yemen Polyglot
written in Arabic script, threw light on the principles and
dechipherment of the Jurchi "small characters" and searched for
the key to the Khitan language and writing.
He published in Hungarian and in foreign languages (first of
all in his favourite French); he wrote for the narrow circle of
connoisseurs and for all literate Hungarians in a wise, well-
refined style. He translated the Secret History of the Mongols,
the Tibetan Sa-skya pandita's Subhasitaratnanidhi into Hungarian.
His last greatest work, The Early Turkish Relations of the
Hungarian Language before the Conquest and during the rpád
Dynasty - published in Hungarian - is good reading for experts
and lay readers alike for all who are interested in the living
linguistic proof of our relationships reaching as far as the
easternmost corners of Inner Asia, and in the Hungarian
prehistory in general.
He was a member of several scholarly associations abroad.
Several Hungarian decorations and those of other countries
acknowledged his endeavours in education, research, organization
and the public life.
Kara György, Louis Ligeti, 1902-1987: AOH
41(1987) pp. 3-6.