Mezzofanti’s Languages.

Back in 2011 I posted about Michael Erard’s book on hyperpolyglots, Babel No More, and briefly mentioned Cardinal Mezzofanti; now the Public Domain Review has a post, The Polyglot of Bologna, in which Erard describes his research on Mezzofanti:

Without a doubt, the most important book in English devoted to Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), the polyglot of Bologna, is The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, written by an Irish priest, Charles William Russell, and published in 1858. When I first began research on hyperpolyglots, I knew I was going to have to spend considerable time with Russell’s book, which contains a wealth of information about Mezzofanti, his time, and his language abilities, not to mention other famous language learners. I had discovered the book by chance in the collection of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The only way to get the required time to hunt through its treasures was to get some sort of research funding, I thought. Soon I discovered that the book, because it is in the public domain, had been scanned and republished in hardcopy, and was also available for free online. […]

Russell begins by devoting nearly a quarter of the book to describing a menagerie of polyglot scholars, monarchs, missionaries, explorers, and warriors who knew many languages. […] Part of the chapter discusses infant prodigies and unschooled polyglots, such as the British traveler Tom Coryat (1577-1617), who walked all over Europe and Eastern Mediterranean countries, accumulating Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Hindustani, and probably a dozen other languages he had no use for at home. He walked two thousand miles in the same pair of shoes, which he hung on the wall at his hometown church as an offering. […]

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.

Russell’s biography is also important as a counterpoint to three shorter, sharper papers delivered by Thomas Watts, who was said to know 50 languages himself, before London’s Philological Society in 1852, 1854, and 1860. His 1852 paper was the first time various accounts of Mezzofanti had been collected in English, the earliest from 1806. Over the next decade or so, Russell and Watts wrote about the other’s work with alternating praise and exasperation. While Russell’s biography “is not a blind and unreasoning admiration,” Watts writes, it “may still be suspected of being drawn with too courtly a pencil.” He then proceeds to take Russell to task for over-counting Mezzofanti’s languages, which he puts at “60 or 61.” Later Russell agreed with that figure, if one subtracted languages in which Mezzofanti had only a basic knowledge of the grammar and some vocabulary. […]

One day after a meeting in the Vatican, Russell heard Mezzofanti converse, “with every appearance of fluency and ease,” in seven languages: Romaic, Greek, German, Hungarian, French, Spanish, and English. Two years later, on another trip, he witnessed Mezzofanti’s performance at the annual gathering of students from all over the world at the Propaganda of the Faith. They got up and recited poems in 42 languages, many of which had apparently been looked at by Mezzofanti. (In the Mezzofanti archives in the Archiginnasio Public Library in Bologna, I found a great number of these poems written in Mezzofanti’s hand.) But the real performance came after, when students gathered around him and engaged him in their languages. Mobbed Mezzofanti spoke this language, then that, Chinese, Peguan, Russian, and others, “hardly ever hesitating, or ever confounding a word or interchanging a construction,” in a “linguistic fusilade.” Russell added, “I cannot, at this distance of time, say what was the exact number of the group which stood around him, nor can I assert that they all spoke different languages; but making every deduction, the number of speakers cannot have been less than ten or twelve; and I do not think that he once hesitated for a sentence or even for a word!”

(I’m not sure what is meant by the distinction between “Romaic” and “Greek”; perhaps the former is the modern language and the latter the ancient?) Obviously we’ll never be able to pin down Mezzofanti’s exact accomplishments, but he was clearly a remarkable man. Thanks, Trevor!


I’ve read the first two books of The Brothers Karamazov (there are twelve, plus an epilogue), and man, is it good! I remembered having been bowled over by it in college, but that was a long time ago; it’s only gotten better with more life experience (not to mention knowledge of Russian culture and literature) under my belt. The first thing I noticed this time around is how funny Dostoevsky can be; the narrator’s preface (“To the reader”) had me laughing already, and the book’s humor ranges from dry innuendo to slapstick (people literally slap each other). The second thing is the immediate impact of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the family (you could hardly call him a patriarch); he’s one of the great villains of world literature, and his complexity is outlined in the first paragraph (of the novel proper):

Constance Garnett:
[Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov …] was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else. […] At the same time, he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.

David Magarshack:
…he was a strange sort of individual, yet one that is met with pretty frequently, the sort of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well—one of those muddleheaded people who still handle their own little business deals quite skillfully, if nothing else. […] And at the same time he continued all his life to be one of the most muddle-headed and preposterous fellows of our district, I repeat: it was not stupidity, for most of these preposterous fellows are rather clever and cunning, but sheer muddle-headedness, and of a special national kind at that.

…это был странный тип, довольно часто, однако, встречающийся, именно тип человека не только дрянного и развратного, но вместе с тем и бестолкового, — но из таких, однако, бестолковых, которые умеют отлично обделывать свои имущественные делишки, и только, кажется, одни эти. […] И в то же время он все-таки всю жизнь свою продолжал быть одним из бестолковейших сумасбродов по всему нашему уезду. Повторю еще: тут не глупость; большинство этих сумасбродов довольно умно и хитро, — а именно бестолковость, да еще какая-то особенная, национальная.

Fyodor Pavlovich is a buffoon (one of the chapters is titled Старый шут, ‘The Old Clown’), but lest we think him nothing but a provincial ignoramus, in an early conversation with his son Alexei (Alyosha), he quotes Voltaire (“Il faudrait les inventer”) and the Perrault brothers’ parody of the Aeneid (“J’ai vu l’ombre d’un cocher, qui avec l’ombre d’une brosse frottait l’ombre d’une carrosse” [I have seen the shade of a coachman who was brushing the shade of a carriage with the shade of a brush]), and he quotes them in French.
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Baby Talk.

Lauren Vinopal reports for Fatherly about a recent study, “The ecology of prelinguistic vocal learning: parents simplify the structure of their speech in response to babbling,” by Steven L. Elmlinger, Jennifer A. Schwade, and Michael H. Goldstein (Journal of Child Language 46.5, September 2019 , pp. 998-1011):

“Infants are actually shaping their own learning environments in ways that make learning easier to do,” study co-author Steven Elmlinger, a psychology graduate student at Cornell University, said in a statement. […]

“We know that parents’ speech influences how infants learn — that makes sense — and that infants’ own motivations also change how they learn,” Elmlinger said. “But what hasn’t been studied is the link between how infants can change the parents, or just change the learning environment as a whole. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

To get a better idea of the purpose of babies babbling, Elmlinger and his team observed 30 infant-mother pairs in a play space for two 30 minute increments, two days in a row. Nine and 10-month-old infant participants were free to roam and play with toys and animal posters, which were in the room, and their speech was recorded with a hidden wireless microphone in their overalls. Mothers had microphones as well and the sessions were recorded on video. Researchers measured parents’ syntax and vocabulary, as well as changes in how babies babbled from the first to the second day.

Data indicated that when babies babbled, moms tended to respond with less complex words, more single word sentences, and shorter words all around. The more parents did this, the faster the infants picked up new speech sounds during the second play session. The results also showed that single word utterances might have the biggest impact on babies and their ability to learn language, so that may be exactly what they’re asking for with all the babbling. Elmlinger suspects that they are likely telling mom and dad to do something and that may be it.

The research is still preliminary, further studies are needed, you know the drill.


A three-minute video describes (and illustrates) a made-up language that turned out useful for a film; in their summary:

Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, and Nadsat: there are plenty of invented languages used in movies. But one of them, Interslavic, has the potential to be useful to hundreds of millions of people. The language just made its movie debut in a wartime drama, The Painted Bird, and its creator says it could be used by Slavic speakers from Siberia to Slovenia.

Via Trevor Joyce, who also sent this short and hilarious video, “When Irish People Cant Speak Irish,” which shows that it doesn’t pay to exaggerate your linguistic attainments. Thanks, Trevor!

Because Internet.

That’s the title of a new book by Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist I’ve posted about a number of times (first, I think, here), and The Walrus has a lengthy excerpt that’s full of interesting stuff, for example:

Remember how you learned about swearing? It was probably from a kid around your age, maybe an older sibling, and not from an educator or authority figure. And you were probably in early adolescence: the stage when linguistic influence tends to shift from caregivers to peers. Linguistic innovation follows a similar pattern, and the linguist who first noticed it was Henrietta Cedergren. She was doing a study in Panama City, where younger people had begun pronouncing “ch” as “sh”—saying chica (girl) as shica. When she drew a graph of which ages were using the new “sh” pronunciation, Cedergren noticed that sixteen-year-olds were the most likely to use the new version—more likely than the twelve-year-olds were. So did that mean that “sh” wasn’t the trendy new linguistic innovation after all, since the youngest age group wasn’t really adopting it?

Cedergren returned to Panama a decade later to find out. The formerly un-trendy twelve-year-olds had grown up into hyperinnovative twenty-two-year-olds. They now had the new “sh” pronunciation at even higher levels than the original trendy cohort of sixteen-year-olds, now twenty-six-year-olds, who sounded the same as they had a decade earlier. What’s more, the new group of sixteen-year-olds was even further advanced, and the new twelve-year-olds still looked a bit behind. Cedergren figured out that twelve-year-olds still have some linguistic growth to do: they keep imitating and building on the linguistic habits of their slightly older, cooler peers as they go through their teens, and then plateau in their twenties.

* * *
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Stopwatch Novels.

Sometimes, when I’m lying awake at night, I play a parlor game (in the parlor of my sleepless brain) that consists of trying to list the novels an average English-speaking reader of fiction (say, one who reads book reviews and cares about who gets the Nobel — not a specialist) would name if you held up a stopwatch and said “You have thirty seconds to name [name of nation] novels: go!” For French novels it might be Gargantua and Pantagruel (though the person being quizzed might simply say “Rabelais”), Dangerous Liaisons (too recherché?), Madame Bovary, Les Misérables, In Search of Lost Time (probably “Proust”), and maybe Nausea (is Sartre still on the tip of the average reader’s tongue?); for German, The Sorrows of Young Werther (?), Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, All Quiet on The Western Front (?), Berlin Alexanderplatz (?), and The Tin Drum; for English, Tom Jones, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Heart of Darkness, and Mrs Dalloway (while everyone agrees that Austen, Dickens, and Hardy are great, they wrote too many novels for any single one to come to everyone’s mind). For Russian, I’d say the obvious picks are Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Brothers Karamazov. Of course, a lot of people would name Doctor Zhivago, but I’m ruling that hors concours because they are thinking of the Nobel scandal and/or the movie, not of the novel itself. (You may say I am ruling it out because I thought it was lousy, and I won’t argue.) Of course, the lists would be different for non-English-speakers, who grew up with different mental maps of world literature, and it would be interesting to compare.

At any rate, all this is a prologue to saying that I have finally started The Brothers Karamazov, which has been the goal of my years-long march through Russian literature (2012: “I suddenly decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature…. There were several motives coalescing in this decision, but probably the most basic was a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later”). I am taking it slow and enjoying it thoroughly (people forget how funny Dostoevsky can be), and I will doubtless be posting about it over the next couple of months. I stand at the shore of the Black Sea and cry “Таласса! Таласса!”

I Tip My Hat.

A reader wrote to ask: “I said to a Quebecker, an army vet, in English ‘I tip my hat to you’ or ‘I lift my hat to you’… in respect he found this hilarious, as apparently it means something rude in French… do you know what that might be?” I didn’t, so I thought I’d put it out there. Anybody know?

The Provenance of Province.

I have previously praised A Thing About Words, the M-W Unabridged blog, by calling it “reliably interesting,” and so it is — but it is far more important for such a would-be scholarly venue to be accurate than interesting, and I regret to have to report a serious lapse in that regard. The recent post The Provenance of ‘Providence’ opens thus:

Provenance and provenience share the meaning of “origin” or “source,” with provenance also referring to the history of ownership of a work of art. Providence refers to divine guidance or care or the quality of being frugal or prudent.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, words rooted in Latin vidēre, meaning “to see,” began to emerge in English […]

There follow examples like provision, purvey, and provide. This is all well and good, but then we get:

The nouns province and providence are from Latin provincia and providentia, respectively, and they enter Middle English in the 14th century. Their base root (like provision, purvey, and provide) is providēre—a combination of the prefix pro-, meaning “before,” “prior to,” or “earlier than,” and vidēre.

Unless they know something nobody else does, including the OED, AHD, and their own dictionary (“Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin provincia”), the Latin word provincia cannot be traced back any further; it does not have any relation to vidēre. If that misinformation were purveyed in any random blog, it would irritate me, but to see it in the official Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, representing the most esteemed name in American lexicography, is infuriating. They should correct it forthwith, and whoever wrote and approved it should feel ashamed. It’s hard enough getting people to distinguish reliable sources of language information from uninformed blather without having lexicographers letting down the side.


I recently had occasion to look up the verb daven ‘to recite the Jewish liturgy; to pray’ and was surprised to discover the murkiness of its origin. That Wiktionary article says it’s from Yiddish דאַוונען‎ (davnen), itself from “Middle Dutch *daven, further etymology uncertain. May be related to Old Saxon dovon, Old High German tobēn, but the vowel a is irregular in this case.” The Wikipedia article is more expansive (but doesn’t even mention the proposed German origin!):

Daven is the originally exclusively Eastern Yiddish verb meaning “pray”; it is widely used by Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews. In Yinglish, this has become the Anglicised davening.

The origin of the word is obscure, but is thought by some to have come from Arabic (from diwan, a collection of poems or prayers), French (from devoner, ‘to devote’ or ‘dedicate’ or possibly from the French ‘devant‘- ‘in front of’ with the idea that the person praying is mindful of before whom they stand), Latin (from divin, ‘divine’) or even English (from dawn). Others believe that it derives from a Slavic word meaning “to give” (Russian: давать, romanized: davat’). Some claim that it originates from an Aramaic word, de’avuhon or d’avinun, meaning ‘of their/our forefathers’, as the three prayers are said to have been invented by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Another Aramaic derivation, proposed by Avigdor Chaikin, cites the Talmudic phrase, “ka davai lamizrach“, ‘gazing wistfully to the east’ (Shab. 35a). Kevin A. Brook, cites Zeiden’s suggestion that the word daven comes from the Turkish root tabun– meaning ‘to pray’, and that in Kipchak Turkish, the initial t morphs into d.

Most of those ideas are absurd on their face, but their very proliferation suggests the need people have to know where words come from. I regret to report that the OED, in a 2005 entry, limits itself to “< Yiddish daven to pray.” Cowards!


Before I settled on the Beckett quote for yesterday’s post, I was trying out other possibilities, including this passage from Pound’s Pisan Cantos (the very long Canto LXXX — it’s on page 510 in my old New Directions hardcover):

    Nancy where art thou?
Whither go all the vair and the cisclatons
and the wave pattern runs in the stone
on the high parapet (Excideuil)
Mt Segur and the city of Dioce
Que tous les mois avons nouvelle lune
What the deuce has Herbiet (Christian)
    done with his painting?
Fritz still roaring at treize rue Gay de Lussac
with his stone head still on the balcony?
Orage, Fordie, Crevel too quickly taken

I’ve read it who knows how many times, but never focused on the odd word “cisclatons” before (there are so many oddities and mysteries in the Cantos!); this time I did, and googling produced only this Occitan word, which seemed unlikely as an immediate source. After further wrangling, I discovered that the OED has it s.v. ciclatoun (the entry hasn’t been updated since 1889):
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