LINGUIST List 7.1129

Sun Aug 11 1996

Disc: Multilinguality

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • Dick Hudson, Multilinguality
  • Juergen Bohnemeyer, Re: 71105 Disc: Multilinguality
  • Antonio Mariscal, multilinguality/Mezzofanti
  • Robert Early, linguality

    Message 1: Multilinguality

    Date: Mon, 05 Aug 1996 12:51:45 BST
    From: Dick Hudson <>
    Subject: Multilinguality
    Vicki Fromkin writes (my underlining):

    >Glad that Karl Teeter talked of Paul Garvin's great talent for languages. >(And he could also speak various dialects of French, Italian etc.) And he >did of coruse speak Hungarian, a non IE language. What seems to me important ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ >to note is that it was a special talent -- which I think must be true of ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ >anyone who learns 2nd, 3rd, 4th...languages fluently after the critical age. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ >The rest of us without this talent (and I can't learn any language other >than my native one) fortunately do not need to be talented to learn a >language or more than one before the end of the critical period.

    This is very helpful because it focuses on the nature of the talent. What is its relationship to the mechanisms of `ordinary' L1 and L2 learning? We really ought to know. Imagine we were studying human physiology and concentrated on the achievements of typical western couch potatoes, without reference to people living in other kinds of society, or to people who win gold medals at the Olympic Games. Limited, eh? And yet that may be just what we're doing in studies of L2 acquisition. Stone-age people in Papua New Guinea (or people who live on the headwaters of the Amazon, or in various other parts of the world) are known to be good at learning languages, with five (fluent) languages as a fairly normal repertoire for everyone in the community. Do we know how they do it? Do we know whether they can go on doing it after the `critical age'? Similarly for the gold-medalists. Several people on the list know brilliant polyglots, whose skills they vouch for; some of these reports have come to me with requests to keep them confidential for fear of embarrassing the people concerned. But again do we know how they do it, or how well they do it, or whether the result is distinguishable from the result of L1 acquisition?

    I find it quite surprising that no-one has quoted any research evidence at all in this discussion. It looks to me like a pretty big gap. 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 m

    Message 2: Re: 71105 Disc: Multilinguality

    Date: Mon, 05 Aug 1996 14:49:40 PDT
    From: Juergen Bohnemeyer <>
    Subject: Re: 71105 Disc: Multilinguality
    I'd like to suggest some distinctions that strike me useful for this discussion.

    First of all, to learn a language at school or the like, using grammar books and vocabulary lists, is certainly the most inefficient way of learning languages. I believe virtually anybody can learn a language (multiple at a time even) in just a couple of months, provided she's living with the speech community day by day and interacting with the speakers constantly in the language (which calls for an outgoing character, not least). She will then be considered fluent in the language, and yet she will hardly be taken for a native speaker. It may not take more than half a year to acquire fluent command in a language, but a lifetime may not be enough to get rid of an accent.

    As for fluency, I would suggest to distinguish between competence of the language system (lexicon, grammar, pragmatics) in the sense of Chomsky (and traditional grammar) and something like communicative competence. The latter can only be defined with respect to the particular communcative needs of the individual learner. In this sense, you will very probably be considered fluent long before you've mastered each and every construction of the language, let alone the whole lexicon.Is this a sensible criterion at all? Is there any living being that has full active command of, say, all the different structures mentioned in Quirk's et al. English Grammar? `Systematic competence' is a scientific construct, isn't it? (Besides, a lack of 'systematic competence', where the latter exceeds 'communicative competence', will not be noticed, anyway, unless you become some linguist's subject.)

    Turning now to the "champions", it seems that the real challenge consists not so much in acquiring a twenty-odd languages in a lifetime, but rather to maintain all of them. As Victoria Fromkin indicated in her recent posting, proficieny in a language tends to become inhibited if it hasn't been used for a certain while. If the fabulously multilingual are gifted in any sense, it must be in this sense, I assume. (I do not think brain storage can become a serious problem. It doesn't seem likely anybody could reach their limits in a life's span. I'm not an expert on this, but isn't it said that we're using only a mild percentage of the cortex, anyway?)

    Finally, allow me to add another aspect to this discussion. I believe cultures differ strongly in their attitude towards foreign languages and multilinguality. People who have been raised in countries with considerable economical and political power and who speak languages that received standardization, mass media and literary tradition, and perhaps especially those among them who have not been in touch with multilinguality in their childhood, generally seem to develop much less flexibility towards non-native languages than do people for whome such conditions do not hold.

    Juergen Bohnemeyer

    - ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Juergen Bohnemeyer CLS Tilburg/Nijmegen:

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    Message 3: multilinguality/Mezzofanti

    Date: Tue, 06 Aug 1996 14:14:54 PDT
    From: Antonio Mariscal <>
    Subject: multilinguality/Mezzofanti
    I previously gave some information on Mezzofanti from memory, having read works on him fifteen years ago, I have just been able to get again part of those materials and would like to supplement my previous statements:

    1) Some people asked me about specific bibliographical details on Mezzofanti. Some of the works on him are:

    a)Manavit, Augustin Esquisse historique sur le cardinal Mezzofanti Paris, Sagnier et Bray, 1853 191p

    b)Mitterrutzner, Johannes Chrysostomus Joseph Cardinal Mezzofanti der grosse Polyglott Brixen, 1855 46p

    c)Russell, Charles William The life of Cardinal Mezzofanti; with an introductory memoir of eminent linguists, ancient and modern London, Longmann, 1858 502p

    2) The references to Mezzofanti by Lord Byron are to be found in his:

    Life and Works, IV., p 262-3

    In Russell's biography half of what Byron says is transcribed:

    " general I do not draw well with literary men; -not that I dislike the; but I never knew what to say to them, after I have praised their last publication. There are several exceptions, to be sure,..., but your literary every-day man and I never met well in company,...,I don't remember a man amongst them I ever wished to see twice, except perhaps Mezzofanti, who is a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more; - who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter. He is, indeed, a marvel -unassuming also. I tried him in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, post-houses, post, everything; and egad! he astounded me -even to my English".

    Russell adds in reference to English, an anecdote judged by him to be a mere exaggeration of the real story in which "when Byron had exhauted his vocabulary of English slang, Mezzofanti quietly asked: 'And is that all?' 'I can go no further', replied the noble poet, 'unless I coin words for the purpose' 'Pardon me, my Lord', rejoined Mezzofanti; and proceeded to repeat for him a variety of the refinements of London slang, till then unknown to his visitor's rich vocabulary!"

    3) In the memoir of eminent linguists of Russell, the following people are refered to have known 20 or more languages:

    a)Mithridates, king of Pontus. "was throughly coversant.." in 22 to 25 languages.

    b)Jonadab Alhanar, a Jew of Morocco (xvi cent.). Duret, in his "Tresor des Langues" says thet Jonadab spoke and wrote 28 different languages.

    c)Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. "At the age of eighteen he had the reputation of knowing no fewer than twenty two languages"

    d)Job Ludolf (b. 1624). "He is said to have been master of 25 languages"

    e)Berthold George Niebuhr (b.1776). He knew 20 languages: German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Danish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Slavonic, Polish, Bohemian, Illyrian and Low German. He understood and wrote in most of them.

    f)Rask (1787-1832). He was said at the age of 35 to know 25 languages.

    g)Paul de Lagarde (xix cent.). "He has the reputation of knowing above twenty languages"

    h)James Crichton (b. 1561). "...when he was but sixteen years old, he spoke ten languages,.., at he age of twenty, the number of languages of which he was a master exactly equalled the number of his years. But the most tangible data which we possess are drawn from his celebrated thesis in the University of Paris, in which he undertook to dispute in any of twelve languages -Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Flemish and Slavonic".

    i)Sir William Jones (b. 1741). He was acquainted with 28 languages.

    j)John Leyden. "professed to know but 70 languages!"

    k)Sir John Bowring. In a memoir published in 1856 (Illustrated London News, Feb. 10, 1856 and in the "Lives of Reformers" among other sources) is said that he had learned Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Russian, Servian, Bohemian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Lettish, Finnish, Basque, Arabic, Turkish, Chinese and English. He published translations in thirty languages.

    4)Just to be fair it is important to mention that there is also a section in Russell's memoir dedicated to Lady-Linguists: Elena Cornaro Piscopia, with 7 languages; Gaetana Agnesi who also mastered 7 languages and several others.

    5)Two more anecdotes on Mezzofanti:

    Dr. F. Forster in his "Annales d'un Physicien Voyageur", (May 14, 1834), writes:

    "I visited Signor Mezzofanti,.., we talked a great deal about philology, and he told me many interesting anecdotes of his maner of learning diffrent languages. As I was myself acquainted with ten languages, I wished to test the ability of this eminent linguist; and therefore proposed that we should leave Italian for the moment, and amuse ourselves by speaking different other languages. Having spoken in French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch, I said at last:-

    'My friend, I have almost run out my stock of modern languages, except some which you probably do not know' 'Well', said he, 'the dead languages, Latin and Greek, are matters which every one learns, and which every educated man is familiar with. We shall not mind them. But pray tell me what others you speak' 'I speak a little Welsh', I replied. 'Good', said he, 'I also know Welsh'. And he began to talk to me at once, like a Welsh peasant. He knew also the other varieties of Celtic, Gaelic, Irish and Bas-Breton".

    - -------------------------------------------------------------------

    One evening about 1836, Dr. Wiseman (Cardinal), meeting Mezzofanti in the Piazza di Spagna, inquired where he was going.

    "To the Propaganda", he replied; "I have to give a lesson there" "In what language? asked Dr. Wiseman "In Californian", said Mezzofanti. "I am teaching it to the Californian youths whom we have there". "Californian!" exclaimed his friend, "From whom can you possibly have learned that out-of-the-way tongue?" "From themselves", replied Mezzofanti: "and now I am teaching it to them grammatically".

    6)Last but not least, there are several accounts on the exact number of languages Mezzofanti was able to speak:

    (Russell says that): "In 1805, according to Father Caronni, "he was commonly reported to be master of more than 24 languages". Stewart Rose, in 1817, speaks of him as "reading 20 languages and conversing in 18". Baron von Zach, in 1820, brings the number of the languages spoken by him up to 32. Lady Morgan states, that by the public report of Bologna he was reputed to be master of 40. He himself, in 1836, stated to M. Mazzinghi that he knew 45 and before 1839, he used to say that he knew "fifty, and Bolognese"

    In reply to the request of M. Mouravieff, a little later, that he would give him a list of the languages that he knew, he sent him a sheet containing the name of God in 56 languages. In the year 1846, he told Father Bresciani that he knew 78 languages and dialects and a list compiled by his nephew, Dr. Gaetano Minarelli of his deceased uncle's books and papers reaches the astounding total of 114"

    Trying to be as much impartial as possible and on the basis that the "proof of his familiarity with any particular language, in order to be satisfactory, ought to be specific, and ought to rest on the testimony either of a native, or al least of one whose skill in the language was beyond suspicion",...and along his 500 pages biography Russell gives scores of testimonies finishing with the following list:

    a)Languages frequently tested and spoken with rare excellence:

    1.- Hebrew 2.- Rabbinical 3.- Arabic 4.- Chaldee 5.- Coptic 6.- Ancient Armenian 7.- Modern Armenian 8.- Persian 9.- Turkish 10.- Albanese 11.- Maltese 12.- Greek 13.- Romaic 14.- Latin 15.- Italian 16.- Spanish 17.- Portuguese 18.- French 19.- German 20.- Swedish 21.- Danish 22.- Dutch 23.- Flemish 24.- English 25.- Illyrian 26.- Russian 27.- Polish 28.- Czechish or Bohemian 29.- Magyar 30.- Chinese

    b) Stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested:

    1.- Syriac 2.- Geez 3.- Amarinna 4.- Hindostani 5.- Guzarattee 6.- Basque 7.- Wallachian 8.- Californian 9.- Algonquin

    The rest of the list I will summarize:

    c) Spoken rarely and less perfectly: 11 languages d) Spoke imperfectly;- a few sentences and conversational forms: 8 e) Studies from books, but not known to have been spoken: 14 d) Dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood: al least 39


    Antonio Ruiz Mariscal

    Message 4: linguality

    Date: Fri, 09 Aug 1996 13:44:13 +0700
    From: Robert Early <>
    Subject: linguality
    I believe I have read most of the postings on multilingual proficiency/prodigy lately, but don't think I have seen anyone mention the name of Professor Stephen Wurm yet. Apologies if this has already been done and I have missed it.

    I quote from Stephen Wurm: A linguistic migration by D.C. Laycock, in Laycock and Winter (eds), 1987, _A world of language: papers presented to Professor Stephen Wurm on his 65th birthday_, Pacific Linguistics, C-100.

    Page 3: "With native control of perhaps a dozen languages, and fluency in several dozen others....

    Footnote 1: Linguists, more than any other group, know how hard it is to decide when one can claim to speak a language, and at what level. Stephen himself has claimed command of some 30 to 40 languages, on various occasions; over the years I have know him, I have heard him carrying on conversations in some 17 different languages, and am prepared to take perhaps as many more on trust. in the world record class, and a rare feat among linguists... (end of quotes)

    Prof. Wurm is still very much alive and leading an extremely active retirement, based in Canberra, Australia. No doubt many of his friends and colleagues and former students, in many locations around the world, could add personal anecdotes and testimony to the linguistic accomplishments of this remarkable man.

    * Robert Early * * Pacific Languages Unit work phone : +678 22748 * * University of the South Pacific work fax : +678 22633 * * PO Box 12, Vila, VANUATU home phone : +678 26574