Polyglots of the Past

Language learning, along with most things in life, seems most often to be born out of necessity rather than desire. Therefore, it is no surprise that the world’s earliest polyglots were usually traders or scribes. The traders found that they could be much more prosperous selling certain goods that were absent or uncommon in foreign communities or countries than competing with the market at home. In order to do that they needed to at least have some knowledge of other languages or dialects. The scribes satisfied a similar need between sovereigns. We have records of kings sending young boys to live in foreign lands until a certain age when they would return home to act as interpreters and translators for the court, in addition to their clerical duties. Sometimes the process worked in reverse and a conquering country would take educated boys from the conquered nations and finish their education in the imperial capital so that they could perform the same function.

Having a monolingual upbringing myself, I find it fascinating and surprising that multilingualism, or polyglotery, is not only quite common but has been common for a very long time. Bilingualism is very common in most parts of the world, and therefore not always voluntary, but I think that competency in four languages or more has to be the result of an intentional effort. I find this effort to be commendable. As a part of this commendation I have compiled a very incomplete list of past polyglots.

Cleopatra VII (51 B.C. – 12 B.C.). I have recently heard that the famous Ptolemy Queen of Egypt was not very physically attractive, in spite of what playwrights and movie makers may have written. Many historians feel that both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony used her mainly to keep the local Egyptians from raising insurgences. She was, however, probably the first of the ruling Greek Ptolemy family of Egypt to bother to learn Egyptian. Plutarch wrote that, in addition to Greek and Egyptian, she spoke Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Median and Parthian.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1212 – 1250). Frederick II spoke fluent Italian, Latin, German, French, Greek and Arabic. This remarkable ability must have aided him in his numerous wars with people who spoke those languages. His hostilities and personal indiscretions were so overt that Pope Gregory IX called him the Antichrist. In addition to being somewhat of a warlord and ladies man Frederick II was also a patron of the arts and science.

Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635). This baroque playwright from Madrid is considered second in Spanish literature only to his contemporary Miguel Cervantes. De Vega once wrote five full comedies in two weeks. Other than writing plays and poetry, his genius extended to a mastery of languages: he could read both Latin and Spanish by the time he was five years old and also learned Greek, Italian, Portuguese and French.

Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774 –1849). This man is the favorite polyglot of the website how-to-learn-any-language.com. Perhaps the most advanced polyglot in known history, Mezzofanti knew 72 languages and many dialects. As a Catholic Cardinal he had as much access to education as anyone would in the 16th and 17th centuries. The incredible part of this is that, aside from knowing 72+ languages, he never left Italy and, therefore, couldn’t have learned them from language immersion. Here is a list of his languages:

Algonquin, Angolese (probably a Bantu language of the indigenous people of that region), Arabic (several dialects), Aramaic (several dialects), Armenian (ancient and modern), Basque (several dialects), Bimbarra (?), Bulgarian, Burgundian, Burmese, Californian (probably a language of one of the indigenous people living in the region), Catalan, Chinese (Kiang-Si, Hu-quam and Tonquinese, a dialect of Hànyŭ or Mandarin), Chippewa, Coptic (Egyptian), Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Flemish, French, Frisian, Ge’ez, Georgian, German (several dialects), Gipsy/Romani, Greek (ancient and modern/Romaic), Gujarati, Hebrew (Samaritan and Rabbinical), Hindustani, Hungarian (several dialects), Icelandic, Illyrian, Irish Gaelic, Italian (several dialects), Japanese, Koodish (?), Lappish, Latin, Latvian, Lenape, Majorcan, Malay, Maltese, Mapundungu, Mexican (probably Mayan or Nahuatl), Oceanica (?), Peguan, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Provençal, Quechua, Romanian (two dialects), Russian, Ruthenian, Sanscrit, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Sinhala, Spanish, Swedish, Tibetan, Turkish, Valencian, Vietnamese and Welsh.

Here is some information about how well he knew these languages and here is some information about the ambiguity of the languages. His legend seems too great to be believed and yet there is enough evidence to prove that he was well versed in certain languages, such as Arabic, Greek and Latin, and enough stories to suggest that this lengthy list may indeed be more accurate than not.

T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935). This man was an archaeologist, a translator, an author, a soldier and black operations agent in WWI, a diplomat and the main character of several movies. He was also a polyglot who knew English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Arabic and some Turkish and Assyrian (this last language could refer to Syriac/Aramaic or an Arabic dialect).

Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993). Burgess was a British novelist, critic and composer. He was also a librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist. He knew Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Persian and Swedish and spoke English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Malay and Welsh fluently.

List of Celebrity Polyglots of the Past

Ingrid Bergman – Swedish, German, English, Italian and French.

Audrey Hepburn – English, French, Italian, English, Dutch and Spanish.

Jackie Kennedy/Onasis – English, Spanish, Italian and French.

4 Responses

  1. Ryan,

    You should consider adding Heinrich Schliemann, the person who unearthed Troy. He was supposed to be conversant in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, and his native German.

    Here’s one link that talks about his methods, which shows the extent to which he used memorization:

    http://wiki.anomalytv.com/tavi/index.php?page=LanguageMethods

    Also, from the recent past, you might consider Kato Lomb, a well-known Hungarian self-taught polyglot (and simultaneous translator), who was still learning languages in her 80s. She knew about 17 languages. Here’s a link to a paper that discusses her methods:

    http://www.english-learning.co.uk/lomb.alkire.html

  2. Mitch,

    I’ve been thinking about updating both of my lists of polyglots. Thanks a lot for the lists, I will definitely take a look.

  3. You should include in your list the late Colombian intellectual and philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila. He spoke 16 languages, and his personal library numbered over 30,000 volumes, ranging from classical Greek and Latin to Sanskrit.

  4. Juan: Thanks a lot for the recommendation. I’ll definitely read up on Mr. Gomez.

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