Sir Richard Francis Burton, Cardinal Mezzofanti, and other eminent polyglots

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

sirrichardfburton.jpgI've recently been enjoying Edward Rice's wonderful biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer, soldier, diplomat, linguist, translator, and self-described "amateur barbarian," who became one of the first non-Muslims to make the Hajj to Mecca.

Burton was a sponge for languages, and by the time of his death he was said to be fluent in 29 of them–plus at least a dozen dialects.

This got me wondering whether he might have been the most multilingual person in history.

Far from it, it seems.

Wikipedia has compiled a list of the world's most prodigious polyglots, including Sir John Bowring, who supposedly knew 200 languages (but only spoke 100), and the Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak 38 tongues, despite having never left Italy.

I was led to Charles William Russel's 1863 biography of Mezzofanti, which excerpts an incredible run-in between the cardinal and Lord Byron, as described in Byron's memoirs:

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.

mezzofantilinguist.jpgRussell then adds (with a note of skepticism) a postscript describing a comical swear-off between Mezzofanti and Byron:

When Byron had exhausted 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!"

What a great scene!

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell [HTML book]

An Introductory Memoir of Eminent Linguists, Ancient and Modern (preface to Russell's biography of Mezzofanti)