Imprecise Polyglots

There were five other linguists that I wanted to add to my previous two posts but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so because of a lack of information. I found multiple sources stating that the polyglots listed in my last two posts could actually speak those languages but these five only had partial information about the number or names of the languages that they knew. I would appreciate it if anyone with good information on these men could tell me which languages they spoke.

  1. Teseo Ambrosio (1469 – 1539). This man was the precursor and, who knows, perhaps even the inspiration behind Mezzofanti learning more than 70 languages. Ambrosio was also an Italian priest who studied many languages and promoted learning Middle Eastern languages.

  1. Sir John Bowring (1792 – 1872). Sir Bowring was a member of the British Parliament, a colonial governor and a diplomat. He also claimed to speak 100 languages and be familiar with another 100. The fact that he had a Chinese name, in addition to his true European one, and was often negotiating and speaking with foreign leaders from many places in Europe and Asia suggests that there may be some truth to this claim.

  1. Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807 – 1874). He was a German linguist and authority on the Manchu language. Although he did a lot for German linguistics and is considered on par with Mezzofanti I can’t find a list of how many or which languages he spoke.

  1. Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976). I was amazed to find out about this American singer and political activist. Amazed because I find him so impressive and yet this was the first that I’d heard of him. He was an accomplished singer of many genres, a true bass without an ounce of baritone in him, and an obviously well read and intelligent man. There are some cool videos of him on youtube. He also knew around 20 languages but I can’t find a comprehensive list of them.

  1. Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao (1921 – 2004). The tenth prime minister of India was fluent in over 13 languages. That must have been helpful in a country that is so linguistically diverse. What languages were they?

Polyglottery can be imprecise for other reasons. What does it mean to speak a language? At what point can you claim that you are fluent? Some people read these lists of polyglots and mistakenly think that these superlinguists know all of their languages as well as their native tongue. I believe this to be untrue because of my association with some of the “Polyglots of the Present” and because of my own linguistic experience. This, however, does not mean that it is worthless to learn a foreign language simply because it is unlikely to gain a mastery of it that is exactly equal to one’s own native language. I have full confidence that if some, or all, of these people were stranded in a country where they had to speak one of their weaker languages that they would be highly functional in a week and very fluent in a year. Isn’t that worth something?

2 Responses

  1. According to this site, Paul Robeson spoke and wrote more than 20 languages, including several African languages, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. This site mentions that he also spoke Gaelic and Spanish. This site says that Robeson was “conversant with 20 languages, fluent or near fluent in 12.” and this site adds Cantonese, Zulu, Yoruba and German to the language list.

  2. Thanks for the info!

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