Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Master Of Many Languages

Language & Learning

Some persons can speak two or three languages; and others a few more. Then, there are the few exceptional individuals who can speak more than a dozen languages, polyglots. And chief of them is Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), the polyglot of Bologna, who reportedly could speak more than 70 languages, making him a hyperpolyglot, writes Michael Erard in an article in The Public Domain Review of a book The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, which Charles William Russell, an Irish priest, published in 1858:
Russell’s book is full of singular details like this, or the one in his capsule portrait of the American, Elihu Burritt (1810-1879), who “rose early in the winter mornings, and, while the mistress of the house was preparing breakfast by lamplight, he would stand by the mantel-piece with his Hebrew Bible on the shelf, and his lexicon in his hand, thus studying while he ate.” Dropping in mundane details don’t humanize as much they amplify the miraculous nature of the personage. It’s a stylistic trope from the hagiography that Russell borrowed.
In the same way, he sets Mezzofanti’s monumentalism against the gifts of all those lesser saints. “Cardinal Mezzofanti will be found to stand so immeasurably above even the highest of these names,…that, at least for the purposes of comparison with him, its minor celebrities can possess little claim for consideration,” he wrote. Over and over, he states that his goal is to assess the claims made for Mezzofanti’s language abilities and to measure, once and for all, the cardinal’s abilities. He resists the urge to recount anecdotes about him (though a few are too good to resist, such as the time that Lord Byron and Mezzofanti had a swearing match; after Byron’s stock was exhausted, Mezzofanti asked, “Is that all?”), opting instead to collate first-hand reports from native speakers who witnessed Mezzofanti using languages. It’s as if Russell wanted to singlehandedly rescue him from the cabinet of curiosities where he had been abandoned by science. (Even though Mezzofanti lived at the height of phrenology in Europe, his skull was apparently never an object of fascination, not while he was alive, anyway.) Russell scours the literature and solicits accounts from Mezzofanti’s contemporaries. Collecting them, he concludes that Mezzofanti spoke 72 languages to varying degrees.
Cardinal Mezzofanti is one of those rare and gifted individuals who fascinate those of us who hold lesser linguistic abilities. If the Cardinal of Bologna were alive today, scientists would find it hard to resist the need, the temptation if you will, to scan his brain and poke around in it, chiefly to see if there were any scientific explanations for his astounding abilities. I sense that science would be disappointed; there might be none that science could measure.

You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain]


  1. What do we mean by "speak"? There are people who can learn pronounce any sound in any language with relative ease. There are people who can learn the grammatical rules of different languages rather well. The big problem is vocabulary. Did Cardinal Mezzofanti acquire enough words in 70 languages to be able to converse naturally in all of them? I doubt it.

    1. I am not sure but I sense "speak" in this case is carrying on a simple conversation or having a functional ability to converse. I doubt that Cardinal Mezzofanti could speak all languages equally and at a high level.

  2. Perry, thanks for the blog post about my piece. All these questions are answered in my book about hyperpolyglots, Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Languages, which came out last January.


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