THE BOOKSHELF: BABEL NO MORE.

Back in 2009 I posted about Michael Erard’s Babel No More project (“a book about language superlearners and the upper limits of the human ability to learn and speak languages”); now the book is out (well, it’s not actually available until January), and since the publisher sent me a copy of the galleys, I’m able to report on it. (You can visit the book’s website for more.)
The bottom line is that if you’re interested in the topic of hyperpolyglots, you’ll want to read this book. Erard has scoured the world to find such people, present and past; the first one he talks about, and the presiding spirit of the book, is Cardinal Mezzofanti, whose archives in Bologna he excavates with contagious enthusiasm. (How many languages did Mezzofanti know? Well, lots, but the difficulty of giving a more precise answer is what the book’s about.) He discusses other polyglots, some of whom he meets and spends time with, and analyzes their motives and methods as best he can. (Most of them are resistant, understandably but frustratingly, to being tested on their competence in their various languages.) He discovers that there was a “Polyglot of Flanders” contest in 1987 and talks with the winner (one of the few of his polyglots whose abilities have been reliably tested). At the end he gives some tips for would-be polyglots based on what he learned from his researches. It’s fun and educational too!
It’s also, perhaps, a bit too long; an editor should have suggested he cut some of his day-to-day experiences in the course of his quest and his own momentary reactions (“Silence in the room. Maybe the rain was coming down, but I’d stopped hearing it….”). But in these days of first-person journalism, that’s par for the course, and it doesn’t detract from the inherent interest of the subject. Here, for example, is a passage from chapter 10 that starts with a quote from another LH favorite, Victor Mair (see here and here):

“Throughout Chinese history,” said Victor Mair, a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “practically the only Chinese who learned Sanskrit were a few monks who actually traveled to India and stayed there for an extended period of time. Merchants and others (e.g., some officials who traveled widely within China) learned several Sinitic languages (so-called ‘dialects’) in the various places where they went. There was no interest in learning other languages out of sheer intellectual or linguistic curiosity.” Steven Owen, a Harvard professor of Chinese literature, added that some of the Chinese population learned Manchu when the Qing ruled China (from 1644 to 1911), but that they were specialists working for the emperor.
“As an intellectual endeavor,” Owen said, “meaning learning languages that are not proximate or needed, with an attendant interest in the culture—I don’t know of any cases among the educated [Chinese] elite before modern times.”
One reason was most certainly cultural. In the West, polyglottery had its earliest roots in Christianity, which was, from the start, an evangelical religion with no single language [...] and whose central text was propagated in many languages. Polyglottery also stemmed from European exploration, colonization, and empire-building. By contrast, in China, the main pursuit of the intellectual class for thousands of years had been either trying to join or rise up in the civil service. This required such extensive literacy [...] that there was little time left to do much else. Moreover, the one writing system itself linked intellectual cultures across time and space in a way that, in the West, required fluency in many languages. Perhaps most significantly, the Chinese perceived themselves to be the center of the world, so they could hardly be expected to learn barbarian languages.

And on a more down-to-earth level, a quote from Zainab Bawa, “an urban studies graduate student who learns languages for her research by hanging out and being with families. ‘The best way to learn a language is to sit with four-year-olds,’ she said, because they don’t talk about very complicated things, and they don’t have high expectations of your time together.”

Comments

  1. I wonder what Mr Mair himself would say about the power of the “one writing system” that’s supposed to link cultures across languages in a way that never happened elsewhere. I think he’d be the first to point that the cultures in the Sinosphere didn’t write in an abstract, language-agnostic writing system that allowed communication between mutually-unintelligible monolinguals; rather, everyone was diglossic and learned Classical Chinese for writing, much in the same way as everyone learned Latin for writing during the Latin Middle Ages.
    I find the speculation about Christianity more believable; Christian culture was all about spreading, which required talking to the heathens in their own language; while the Chinese (like the Romans) were more about collecting and absorbing, about bringing to the Center. As long as you have a few specialists to translate the barbarous tongues, you’re ok; their cultural production is now part of The Empire.

  2. The point, I think, is that no matter how many dialects there were and how diglossic people were, the Chinese basically demanded literacy in only one tradition.
    But generalisations about China are as dangerous as those about Christendom. Chinese interest in Buddhism (and thus Buddhist texts and Nagari letters) is one obvious early exception, dating from at least the Han dynasty. A more interesting exception is presented by the Manchus, who as part of their empire-delimiting project were quite interested in collecting the languages of their major subject peoples. This is exemplified in the Wuti Qingwen Jian. From this site: “The Pentaglot, or Wuti Qingwen Jian in Chinese, compiled during the Qing Dynasty, is a famous multi-lingual dictionary. It comprises five languages: Manju, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Chinese, showing all five languages in parallel, arranged in semasiological order.”
    This would seem to set the Manchus apart from many earlier dynasties (except for the Mongols), which did not appear to give strong recognition to non-Han cultures. Obviously, there must have been people throughout Chinese history who had knowledge of vernaculars Sinitic and non-Sinitic and could serve as interpreters between peoples. Such knowledge would likely have been set apart from knowledge of the high culture as being 土 (‘earthy’), not having the prestige or permanence of the formal literary culture. The idea that written languages like Tibetan, Mongolian, or Uighur should be given even notional equal status with Chinese seems to have been a particular characteristic of the Qing.

  3. Indeed, the Nationalists called their new government 五族共和 wǔzú gōnghé ‘five peoples in union’, and symbolized them from 1912 to 1928 using a flag with five horizontal stripes: red for the Han, yellow for the Manchus, blue for the Mongols, white for the Hui (in this context, all Muslims, not merely the Muslim Han), and black for the Tibetans. (Sun Yat-Sen didn’t like it because it put the Han stripe on top.)
    The PRC currently recognizes 55 minorities of various sizes plus the Han.

  4. des von bladet says:

    Reliable testing, shmeliable shmesting – we have teh t00bs now.

  5. > The point, I think, is that no matter how many dialects there were and how diglossic people were, the Chinese basically demanded literacy in only one tradition.
    I agree, but I think this happened in Europe too. Distinctions like that earthly and high culture (could we call draw this binary as 土 and 士? :)) parallel the early attitude about “vulgar” romances and Classical Latin (before the onset of vernacular literature). I’ve heard that similar things happened with Sanskrit and Arabic in their spheres, though I’m not qualified to tell how much the parallel holds. In any case, the way I see it, the Chinese only did it… more. And longer.

  6. I fear these links are redundant to most LH readers, but for the benefit of future lurkers:
    • Christian effort to translate and spread the Word is still ongoing;
    • Earlier thread about a 10th-century Chinese-Sanskrit translation team.

  7. John Emerson says:

    When I was in Taiwan students were vague about the five 五族共和 peoples, specifically the Man. The five peoples are all ruling peoples of states and exclude the various so-called tribal peoples.
    The PRC flag has 5 stars, with one star far bigger than the rest.

  8. John Emerson says:

    The five color flag went out of use in 1929, and before that time had been used by two different governments, the Guomindang in the South and Yuan Shikai’s goverment in the North. The new flag features a 12-pointed star.

  9. I half-agree with Bathrobe: what the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Muslims had in common was that they each had a WRITTEN language (in the case of the last group two: Chaghatay and Arabic) associated with a distinctive (non-Chinese) ethnic/cultural tradition. And in this, let’s be fair, the Chinese literati were quite consistent: they did not recognize as significant any language without a standardized written form. Whether said language was sinitic or not was irrelevant.
    But I’m not sure the Manchus mark a real break in Chinese (lack of) interest in non-Chinese languages: in earlier, pre-Manchu times, the lack of interest in non-Chinese languages within China may have been due to the fact that Chinese itself was the only one with a written tradition.
    Not that such attitudes are unique to China: within the Roman Empire, for example, Greek was admired, and Punic and Etruscan enjoyed some degree of prestige. All were languages with a large body of written literature. Languages such as Gaulish, demographically and militarily important though its speakers were, enjoyed no such prestige because no large body of written literature existed.
    Leonardo Boiko: I agree, China seems to differ from Western Europe in that, whereas in the latter the monopoly of Latin as a written language was challenged (especially after the Renaissance), in the former Classical Chinese lasted unchallenged as the sole written medium for much longer.
    Sheldon Pollock, in his book THE SANSKRIT COSMOPOLIS, does point out that vernacular writing arose in South Asia and Western Europe at about the same time: as a result both Latin and Sanskrit lost ground before the vernaculars in a way Classical Chinese, before the modern era, never did. He tries to find (a) common denominator(s) between the two areas that might account for the parallel, and believes contact with the Muslim world might be the key.

  10. Not that such attitudes are unique to China: within the Roman Empire, for example, Greek was admired, and Punic and Etruscan enjoyed some degree of prestige. All were languages with a large body of written literature.
    Yes, and (educated) Romans learned those languages. Chinese other than translators did not learn those other written languages. That’s exactly the point. (The Manchu don’t count, since they were, not to put too fine a point on it, not Chinese.)

  11. Punic and Etruscan . . . were languages with a large body of written literature.
    May have been, but surely no more. We “know” Punic because it’s closely related to Canaanite and Hebrew, though very few texts are extant. We know very little about Etruscan because most of what’s left is inscriptions on tombs. It may have been a language isolate.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    contact with the Muslim world might be the key

    How?
    (Yes, I am asking for spoilers. :-) )

    Etruscan [...] may have been a language isolate.

    Or rather, it’s related to a few languages for which the beautiful term Rest- und Trümmersprachen* fits, notably Lemnian, which is known from, uh, one whole tombstone. The mini-family is clearly Nostratic, may in fact be the sister-group to Indo-European (handle with care), but… that’s it.
    * Languages known from “remain(der)s” and “fragments” only. Better yet, Trümmer doesn’t simply mean “fragments” but implies violent smashing.

  13. John Emerson says:

    Recent genetic evidence suggests that the Etruscans came originally from Turkey. (This casts no light on what their language was of course.) Both the people and the cattle of the present Etruscan area bear markers characteristic of an area of Turkey and uncharacteristic of the rest of Italy.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Herodotus 1 : 0 Diodorus Siculus or whoever it was.

    (This casts no light on what their language was of course.)

    Lemnos is right next to Turkey, though.

  15. Speaking of Etruscans, Lemnos and Anatolia, why do I find so little reference Vladimir I. Georgiev, q. v.?. Has he been discredited? I read his Introduction to the History of Indo-European Languages back in the ’80′s, then couldn’t find it again (no record) in my alma mater’s library in the ’90′s.

  16. David: as I recall Pollock speculated (it’s been a while since I read the book, so take all of this CUM GRANO SALIS) that the introduction of Islam, and hence of Arabic (+ Persian in South Asia) in Western Europe and India, broke the monopoly Latin and Sanskrit had earlier once held as “high” languages. This in turn opened the door to other languages, such as local vernaculars, being used for more prestigious/higher functions. And he saw this contact as one of many factors, so perhaps I should have written “a key” rather than “the key” above.
    Hat: as far as Punic is concerned we’ve no evidence that any significant number of Romans ever learned it because of its literature: those few who did, like those few who learned Gaulish or Germanic, did so for purely practical (commercial or military) reasons. My point is that the Romans clearly saw Punic as more “respectable”: Punic was never, as far as I know, called a “barbarian” language, unlike Gaulish or Germanic. Leaving aside Greek (and, before that, *possibly* Etruscan) educated Romans showed no intellectual interest whatsoever in any foreign language. In this, to repeat myself, they were very much like their Chinese counterparts.
    Paul Ogden: there is good evidence that there indeed existed Punic literature, and as I believe I once wrote on another thread here, I sometimes imagine a lost library in Punic being dug up somewhere in North Africa long after historical linguistics, including comparative semitic, has died out…

  17. John Emerson says:

    Charlemagne tried to preserve Frankish literature, but someone later got rid of it. Alcuin complained about novice monks still reciting heroic poetry about Ingeld.

  18. IIRC Pollock admitted the problem cases in his theory (or his focusing of Pirenne’s theories): English and Tamil, which unlike Southern Europe and Sindh, didn’t have any particular contact with Islam.

  19. Leaving aside Greek (and, before that, *possibly* Etruscan) educated Romans showed no intellectual interest whatsoever in any foreign language. In this, to repeat myself, they were very much like their Chinese counterparts.
    In other words, if you ignore the differences, they were very much alike. I don’t quite follow your reasoning. The whole point is that (to quote Owen): “As an intellectual endeavor, meaning learning languages that are not proximate or needed, with an attendant interest in the culture—I don’t know of any cases among the educated [Chinese] elite before modern times.” That’s quite striking, and very unlike the case in the West—unless, of course, you set aside all the people who did learn foreign languages.

  20. To put it another way: many Romans knew Greek, to the point that Greek was a huge presence in Roman culture; similarly, French was a huge presence in English, Persian in Turkish (and Georgian, Armenian, etc.), Sanskrit/Pali in the languages and cultures of Southeast Asia, and so on. There is nothing remotely similar in China. This is not a trivial difference.

  21. Well, of course Classical Chinese is the Greek/French/Persian/Sanskrit of China.

  22. Exactly.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    Or of the far east in general. It’s an important presence in Japanese, Korean. Vietnamese, languages with long literary and intellectual traditions of their own.

  24. I certainly don’t disagree with Etienne. As I deliberately pointed out, the languages the Manchus respected were all written languages. The Manchus attempted to bolster and maintain their status and identity by ensuring that all official documents were in both Manchu (a language that had a very short history of writing, based on the Mongolian script) and Chinese. It appears that this situation only gradually gave way to a dominant role for Chinese towards the end of the dynasty, presumably because Manchu itself was becoming semi-extinct as a spoken language. As rulers, the Manchus were (as I said) interested in using language to delimit and consolidate the major segments of their empire rather than getting the Chinese themselves to become literate in other languages or traditions. The Manchus encouraged the publishing of books, but cross-fertilisation was limited. It appears that the Chinese works were solidly related to the Chinese tradition, while Mongolian books were particularly devoted to Buddhism. (There is an article on this that I haven’t been able to relocate since I found it some years ago.)
    Historically speaking, it was a very long time before the ancient Chinese would have encountered any literate tradition that would have commanded their respect. The only written language in their part of their world for several millennia would have been Sanskrit/Prakrit, and they did absorb parts of that tradition, mainly in the form of Buddhism. Languages in the Arabic alphabet presumably came next. Neighbouring nations all borrowed the Chinese script and culture, or invented scripts that were based on Chinese. These were thus regarded as derivative and not worthy of study or emulation.
    So it may be true that historical factors allowed the Chinese tradition to continue without being forced to take notice of anyone else, unlike the situation in Europe and the Middle East. The northern nomads no doubt inspired great fear, but it is doubtful that they commanded great respect as a source of learning or literature.
    As for the rise of vernacular Chinese, this appears to have started at the end of the Han dynasty (according to Wikipedia). Vernacular baihua eventually became an important vehicle for prose literature, without displacing Literary Chinese.
    While Leonardo (citing our old friend Victor Mair) throws cold water on the role of the writing system in maintaining this situation, my feeling is that this is precisely what happened. Even if it was a diglossic situation, the “logographic” nature of the writing system certainly provided a bridge between the spoken dialects and the literary language that facilitated the survival of Literary Chinese among the literati. Even when the vernaculars were written down, they continued to use those marvellous characters that obscured phonological change and blurred the linguistic transition. This was quite unlike the languages of Europe or India.

  25. The article is “Qing Publishing in Non-Han Languages” by Evelyn Rawski, in Printing & Book Culture in Late Imperial China (edited by Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-Wing Chow, University of California Press, 2005), viewable through Google books.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Speaking of Etruscans, Lemnos and Anatolia, why do I find so little reference Vladimir I. Georgiev, q. v.?. Has he been discredited?

    It’s of course possible that the Anatolian languages exchanged some words or features with Etruscan & friends (“Tyrsenian”, “Aegean”), but Etruscan is clearly not Indo-European.

    Punic was never, as far as I know, called a “barbarian” language, unlike Gaulish or Germanic.

    That’s because the culture that came with it was similar enough to the Greek one.

    Well, of course Classical Chinese is [essentially] the Greek/French/Persian/Sanskrit of China.

    Fixed it for you. *broad grin*

    those marvellous characters that obscured phonological change and blurred the linguistic transition

    (The English spelling system has been doing much the same for 600 years now.)

  27. With all this discussion of Latin, Persian, etc., I think that the linguistic world of ancient Greece is even more fascinating. Greece was quite aware of the even more ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. How much linguistic (as opposed to cultural) interaction was there back in those days?

  28. Bathrobe: actually, come to think of it, the Ancient Greeks may win the prize for “most extreme linguistic ethnocentricity”. Whereas the Early Chinese were the creators of the first (and for a long time the dominant) written tradition in East Asia (which explains their lack of interest in other neighboring languages, once writing had become established as the marker of High status for a language), the Ancient Greeks were in close contact with several literate cultures (Egyptian, Hebrew…).
    Despite this contact, and despite their acquiring their writing system from their Phoenician neighbors, they seem to have consistently shown zero intellectual interest in ANY non-Greek language. Even under Roman rule, the learning of Latin by Greek speakers seems to have been a matter of purely practical concern (even the language of a culture which had shown itself to be superior in one practical respect, namely the battlefield, was still unworthy of serious study as an intellectual endeavor)
    Indeed, the contrast between Ancient Greek inquisitiveness on so many artistic and scientific matters and their utter indifference to foreign languages is, in and of itself, odd. Does anyone have any thoughts on the topic?

  29. John Emerson says:

    I’ve seen it argued that the Ionian Greeks under Persian rule were Persianized, and that the Persian traces in Greek culture have been far underestimated.
    This is especially notable with Heraclitus. The argument looks good to me, but Kahn poo-poos it as I remember. There is definitely a tendency of some ethnocentric contemporary scholars to minimize “non-Western”* influences on Western culture.
    * I mean, if Greece is Western, how can Andalucia not be Western?
    For example, Hispanic scholars tend to stress the Muslim influence on the West, whereas in my experience British and American scholars (especially of the Christian Humanist Gentleman persuasion) tend to minimize it, usually at the same time minimizing the influence of the Spanish fascist bastards themselves on the rest of Europe.

  30. Indeed, the contrast between Ancient Greek inquisitiveness on so many artistic and scientific matters and their utter indifference to foreign languages is, in and of itself, odd. Does anyone have any thoughts on the topic?
    No useful thoughts, but this has struck me too as odd. You’d think they’d have been impressed enough by the high civilization of Egypt to have learned Egyptian, but no. Even when they were ruling the place, they didn’t bother; Cleopatra was (as far as I know) unique among the Ptolemies in learning the local language.

  31. Cleopatra’s wig is for sale. $11,000.

  32. Etienne: Nicholas Ostler says this is a feature of Greek civilization throughout its three millennia of existence so far: there are Greeks, there are barbarians who have learned Greek (who may be worth listening to on some occasions) and there are bar-bar barbarians, end of story. It doesn’t seem to matter if the Greeks are basically confined to Greece (as in the beginning and at present) or have an empire spanning most of the known world.
    Of course there must have been individual and grouop exceptions: plenty of Greek mercenaries served under the Great King both before and after the Persian Wars, and the officers must have known court Persian, as the men must have had talking dictionaries.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    It has been remarked that all Ancient Greek thought about language was about the Greek language and completely ignored the very existence of anything else. That’s all the more surprising given the dialect diversity of Ancient Greek and the existence of borderline cases (are the Macedonians Greeks or barbarians? Does that depend on whether they rule you…?)

    especially of the Christian Humanist Gentleman persuasion

    Culture shock alert: do such people still exist?

    a feature of Greek civilization throughout its three millennia of existence so far

    Nowadays, plenty of Greeks are happy to speak English (pers. obs.). But all over the world the last 20 years have been profoundly unlike any other time.

  34. And plenty of Greeks spoke Turkish under the Ottomans. I don’t think the observation holds after the fall of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

  35. John Emerson says:

    Do such people still exist?
    They were dominant in American Englsih departments when I was young (1960s), though their domination may have been slipping, and more dominant in medieval studies.
    I don’t have an overview, since my experience was narrowly bounded, but their influence was pretty strong. Eliot, CS Lewis, Tolkein, Auden, and worse people than them.

  36. True that Greeks spoke Turkish under the Turkocracy, or at least could understand it. But did they care about anything said or written in it that wasn’t backed by force and/or authority?

  37. resistant, understandably but frustratingly, to being tested on their competence
    That would be a significant problem, particularly regarding alleged historical hyperglots. There’s a mythologizing of monarchs – for instance, Henry VIII – as linguistic superheroes; but who’d have the nerve to tell Henry VIII, the Baron Harkonnen of English kings, that his grasp of Latin or Ancient Greek was crap?

  38. But did they care about anything said or written in it that wasn’t backed by force and/or authority?
    They borrowed a shitload of words along with the cuisine, music, etc. I have no idea what the situation of the cultured/literate Greeks of Constantinople was with respect to Turkish; I’m thinking of the popular level.

  39. John Emerson says:

    Greeks who accepted Turkish culture probably became Muslims and maybe even Turks.

  40. The entire country accepted Turkish culture; they just rebranded it as Greek once they achieved independence. (Don’t ask for “Turkish coffee” in Athens!) Listen to rembetika sometime; it’s basically late-Ottoman popular music with Greek text. Similarly, the Vietnamese accepted Chinese culture lock, stock, and barrel (or Confucius, chopsticks, and characters) even while fighting for their independence from China (which took a millennium). The Vietnamese national epic is set in China.

  41. John Emerson says:

    According to genetic studies, something like 80-90% of the ancestors of contemporary Turkish Turks were resident in Anatolia before the Turks arrives — Armenians, Greeks, Cappadocians, and whatever the other pre-Turkish peoples were.

  42. Not all “ethnicities” define themselves in genetic terms. Perhaps it is one of the great strengths of the Chinese that Chineseness is traditionally defined in cultural terms, and less in genealogical terms (although Asiatic looks are probably a prerequisite). The ideology of Zhonghua minzu is predicated, I suspect, on the assumption that Tibetans and the rest can be converted into Chinese in the end.
    The problem with the Greeks, I suspect (again) is that they are a ‘beleaguered’ nationality that is fighting back to reestablish itself after being subsumed into other people’s empires. This leads to a very narrow and intolerant version of ethnic nationalism. The Mongolians of Mongolia are a similarly beleaguered nationality, and they are also narrowly nationalistic. Their ethnically exclusiveness includes a distinct tendency to reject the ‘Mongolness’ of Mongols not living in the Mongolian state. It is a culturally depauperating posture, and one that can be quite pernicious once it takes root.

  43. Frenchness is likewise non-ethnic: you are a French citizen (and implicitly a francophone), a francophone who is not a French citizen, or a non-francophone, period.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    Don’t ask for “Turkish coffee” in Athens!

    Nowadays, I’m told, don’t ask for it in Serbia either. *facepalm*

    Frenchness is likewise non-ethnic:

    Traditionally, yes, but… two words: Front National.
    The same job applications have a much higher chance of being accepted when you slap traditional French instead of Arabic names on them.

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