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!


  1. January First-of-May says:

    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?

    I agree that this is most likely what was meant, though at first reading I parsed “Romaic” as “Roma” (and wondered how did he manage to find any Roma speakers in the Vatican).

  2. Speaking of Thomas Coryat, the title page of his travel memoir Coryat’s Crudities is a lot of fun to look at, and online at

    And speaking of polyglot, “crudities” approximates crudités. To understand what that meant to Coryat, apply a magnifying glass to the picture labeled A.

  3. Reminds me of Mosaics of the Tsarist Russian bureaucratic jargon.

    Mosaics or people of the Mosaic (ie, written by Moses) Law was another politically correct term for Jews.

  4. 27 мая 1971 года в Лужниках состоялся прощальный матч футбольного вратаря Льва Яшина «сборная СССР — сборная мира»[1]. В сборную мира входили величайшие футбольные «звезды» того времени, говорившие на двадцати двух языках. Матч транслировался на множество стран, и в перерыве было решено взять интервью у всех участников матча. Для решения этой задачи привлекли Овсянникова, владевшего к этому моменту уже более тремя десятками языков[2]. С этого момента началась его карьера на Центральном телевидении: первым назначением была должность собственного корреспондента ЦТ в Японии, для которой требовалось владение в совершенстве японским языком, стенографирование и умение печатать на машинке с японскими иероглифами.

    В августе 1975 года Овсянников на Хельсинкском совещании обеспечивал общение генсека Леонида Брежнева с лидерами любого из 35 государств-участников.

    Овсянников, Анатолий Иванович

  5. mosaisch was and is also used in German for that purpose.

  6. For non-Russian-readers, juha’s quote is about a guy named Anatoly Ovsyannikov whose ability to translate a couple of dozen languages at a soccer match led to a career in television; he was sent first to Japan, where Central Television needed a correspondent who could not only speak Japanese but use a Japanese typewriter.

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