LINGUIST List 14.2949

Wed Oct 29 2003

Disc: A "Gene" for Hyper-Polyglottism?

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Richard Sproat, Re: 14.2923, FYI: A "Gene" for Hyper-Polyglottism?

Message 1: Re: 14.2923, FYI: A "Gene" for Hyper-Polyglottism?

Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2003 14:22:53 -0600 (CST)
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Re: 14.2923, FYI: A "Gene" for Hyper-Polyglottism?

Following up on Dick Hudson's posting, I contacted Mr. Joseph
Mezzofante. I was curious to learn a little more about his
grandfather's linguistic experience, and where he had had contact with
the speakers of all those languages that he learned. I append his
reply below.

Clearly this should be pursued further. I can think of at least the
following questions that should be asked, and no doubt there are many
1) What records are there beyond his grandfather, his granddaughter
 (mentioned in Dick's posting) and of course the Cardinal. Joseph
 Mezzofante mentions that there is a hyperpolyglot in every three or
 four generations in his family. Are there other documented cases,
 even anecdotal cases?
2) Would it be possible to find out more about his granddaughter's
 abilities beyond what he mentioned before?
3) The only hyperpolyglot that I (and I suspect many others) knew was
 Ken Hale. Does anyone know if there was a similar predisposition to
 this in Ken's family?
- Richard Sproat
Richard Sproat 
Department of Linguistics
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Beckman Institute
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


[My Grandfather was born close to Anna Sicily to extremely poor family.
He only attended 1 or 2 years of school. His family traveled from
place to place in Sicily trying to scrape out a living. At age 20 he
worked his way over to the United States on a merchant ship. He lived
in New York and was able to find a job working for the railroad as a
Porter on the platforms. He then was given a job on the continental
train as an employee on sleeper cars. He use to say that if you can
speak the languages of the tourist you will receive bigger tips. He
later was transferred to Chicago where he was utilized as an
translator. He said he knew over 20 languages and he also taught
himself to read many of them by that time. He was finally able to
retire but by that time his wife was dead and all of his children were
married. He wanted to tour the world because of all the people he had
met and of all the cultures that he had wanted to see. He wanted my
father (his only son) to travel with him but my father couldn't go so
he took his only Grandson.
His entire life he was around people who spoke different languages so
I guess that over time he was able to pick up words and was able to
communicate with them. We traveled to Venezuela, Argentina, Norway,
UK, Portugal, Italy, Sicily, Greese, Turkey, Seria, Egypt, Libya,
Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia,
Australia, Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan. We tried entering China
but was turned away.
There is one language that he said was a requirement to learn was
Latin because where ever you go there are always Priests. I was not
aware of all the languages that he knew prior to the trip but I was
sure when we arrived to Thailand that he did not know any of the
language. Within two week he was arguing the prices at the market in
their own languages. I was assigned to Thailand in the late 60's for
18 months and to this day I believed that my grandfather had learned
their language better in 2 weeks than I had in 18 Months. Upon my
return from my assignment to Thailand I spoke Thai to my Grandfather
and he was able to communicate with me on a higher level than I knew.
He died before I returned from my Germany assignment.
There was a lot that my Grandfather did not know, which was
understandable with no formal education but he had this ability to learn
languages, an ability which I wish I had. He was able to carry on
conversations with people in languages which I only knew as foreign. The
worst part about it is that he could read and write in other languages but
not in Italian.
Mr. Joseph Mezzofante ]
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