LINGUIST List 7.881

Wed Jun 12 1996

Sum: Linguality

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Dick Hudson, world record for linguality

Message 1: world record for linguality

Date: Wed, 12 Jun 1996 17:52:37 BST
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: world record for linguality
A few days ago I asked who held the all-time world record for `speaking'
lots of languages, and (as an extra question) which community had the
largest community-wide repertoire. I've had very few replies so I may as
well summarise back now. Thanks to Tom McClive, Paul Fallon and Deborah
Ruus. The first two both told me about Cardinal Mezzofanti, with the
following fascinating details provided by Paul Fallon:

>In Parade Magazine (a Sunday American newspaper insert), there was a
>"Significata" column on 21 June 1981. In it, they discussed Giuseppe
>Caspar Mezzofanti (c.1774-1849), a polyglot who spoke about 88
>languages! I can't vouch for the information other than cite the source,
>but I will give you an idea of the article.
>At age 12, Mezzofanti spoke his native Italian, German, Greek, Latin, and
>at lest 5 others. He became a priest, headed the Vatican Library in 1833
>and ultimately became a cardinal. He was known as the "confessor of
>foreigners" because he spoke so many languages. Perhaps this is
>apocryphal, but on learning two foreign criminals were to be executed the
>next morning, "overnight he learned their [unnamed] language and at
>sunrise spoke with them in their mother tongue."
>Although he never left Italy, he supposedly spoke 38 languages
>"perfectly" at the time of his death at age 75. THese included Hebrew,
>Arabic, Armenian (ancient and modern), Russian, Geez, Algonquin, Chinese
>"which took him longest to master--four months", Hindi, Old English,
>Syriac, Magyari, Wallacian, Basque and Maltese. He is said to have
>spoken at least 30 more languages fairly well inclkuding Serbian,
>Kurdish, Welsh, and Angolese, plus 50 dialects. He could also understand
>20 more languages including Tibetan, Lappish, Old Icelandic and Chippewa.
>I'm not sure how Mezzofanti could have found native speakers for some
>languages like Old English, nor am I sure whether one could truly master
>any language in 4 months or less, but perhaps Mezzofanti is the
>record-holder for polyglottism.

Tom McClive also offered Sir Richard Burton as a candidate:

>Another, more realistic person to check out would be Sir
>Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) who, according to one biographer
>(Edward Rice) spoke 29 languages and a few dialects. There are many books
>and sources on Burton.

Since posting my query I've found a passage on p. 362 of David Crystal's
Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language where he mentions Mezzofanti (see above)
and also a Victorian diplomat, Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), who "was said
to have spoken 100 languages and read another 100."

Deborah (Kela) Ruuskanen's offering was much more recent:

>The man I know who spoke a phenominal number of languages was the Army
>Colonel who was Eisenhower's interpreter and who worked with my Father
>in Brazil - he had it down in the record that he spoke 32 languages,
>i.e. spoke well enough to interpret them. I've forgotten his name, but
>if he gets the record, I'll ask my Mom if she remembers - or maybe it
>will come to me. While we were in Brazil he picked up a few Brazilian
>Indian languages and the polyglot patois spoken in the favelas, just to
>keep him occupied - don't know how well he spoke them, he used to
>entertain us telling us a few sentences - but they would bring his total
>up to about 36. His service record is undoubtedly available for
>verification somewhere in Army records.

Several colleagues very kindly pointed out to me that my question was a bit
simplistic - what do I mean by `speak'? What level of profinciency do I have
in mind? In a sense, I don't care. I assume that all the above reports refer
to levels of proficiency which we would all accept as `speaking' or
`writing' the languages concerned, though clearly not native-level fluency.
All I wanted was some idea of where the boundaries of the possible lie.
However, I'm a bit surprised that no-one offered any examples of living
prodigies who could be tested. I know about Neil Smith's idiot savant
Christopher with his 20+ languages; I've heard that some of our
field-working colleagues have prodigious capacities (one name that I've
heard mentioned in this connection is Ken Hale; another is Claude Hage`ge).
And I've also heard that people who live in Papua New Guinea are the world's
best language-learners. But it's all anecdote, and short of actual figures.
In short, is it credible that someone could speak 100 languages and write
another 100? Do we know?

No-one offered me any information at all on the community-wide repertoire size.
Richard Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone +171 419 3152; work fax +171 383 4108
email; web-site
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