9 Surprising Polyglots Throughout History

Cleopatra, James Joyce, Ho Chi Minh and other historical figures who added “polyglot” to their long list of accomplishments.
ancient egyptian carvings historical polyglots

There are many modern-day multilinguals we know and love — movie stars like Natalie Portman and Jack Black, athletes like Serena Williams, musicians like Shakira  — but what about famous historical figures who could speak multiple languages? The list of historical polyglots is pretty long, and includes some surprisingly high-profile people with individuals you probably didn’t know were language masters in their time. 

Perhaps these historical polyglots will inspire you to take on a language of your own. Either way, learning about them will make sure their hard work doesn’t go unrecognized. Here’s a list of nine of the most surprising historical polyglots.

9 Surprising Historical Polyglots

1. Cleopatra

It turns out the ancient Egyptian ruler, known for her political acumen and her relationships with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, was also a queen of languages. Cleopatra spoke at least nine languages, including her native Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Troglodyte, and the languages of the Armenians, Medes, Ethiopians, Syrians and Parthians. She potentially also spoke Arabic. Her language skills helped make her an effective leader, and she accomplished all of this before her death at age 39.

2. Ho Chi Minh

Former communist leader and president of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh is another surprising historical polyglot. He spent a number of years in exile, traveling around the world under various pseudonyms, and he learned several languages during this time. In addition to his native Vietnamese, he spoke fluently in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, French, English and Russian. He reportedly also spoke Esperanto.

3. Nikola Tesla

The Serbian-American engineer is famous for his inventions, including the alternating-current electric system in the late 19th century, which is the standard used for electricity to this day. But what many people don’t know is that Tesla had a knack for languages. He was apparently fluent in eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Latin.

4. James Joyce

Known for his novels Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Irish author was also a hyperpolyglot who could speak 17 languages. Joyce taught English at language schools around Europe and learned to speak Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Italian and many other languages. He also learned Norwegian so he could read playwright Henrik Ibsen’s works in their original language.

5. Vladimir Nabokov

Another author for the, Russia-born Vladimir Nabokov gained acclaim for his novel Lolita. He spoke English, French and Russian, and was known as the only Russian author who could write in English as well as he could write in his native language. Fun fact: he was also said to be the first person to suggest finding a way to graphically represent a smile in written language, mentioning it in an interview in 1969. The first text smiley (as in, a colon and a closed parenthesis) was used just over a decade later.

6. Queen Elizabeth I

This next polyglot queen came long after Cleopatra. Elizabeth I was the queen of England in the second half of the 16th century. She was known as a courageous leader, but she was a student of languages as well. Growing up, she learned the classical languages of Greek and Latin, and later she learned to speak French and Italian fluently.

7. Dr. Shuddhananda Bharati

Also known by the titles Kavi Yogi Maharishi, Dr. Shuddhananda Bharat was an Indian poet, philosopher and writer who lived during the 20th century. He could speak fluently and wrote books in Tamil and English, and is thought to also have spoken French, Hindi and Telugu, as well as conversational Sanskrit, Kannada, Malayalam and Urdu.

8. King Frederick II

Frederick II, or Frederick the Great, ruled Prussia — the kingdom including much of modern-day Germany and Poland — in the 1700s. Frederick the Great was a proponent of arts and culture — many historians believe he was both gay and an atheist — and so he drew a stark contrast to his abusive, militaristic father, King Frederick William I. Frederick II spoke German but didn’t like it much, and much preferred the French language and culture. He may also have learned Greek and Latin in his classical education.

9. Noah Webster

The American lexicographer is extremely well-known for his dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, which took him 28 years to create. But what you probably didn’t know was that in order to make the dictionary and correctly identify word etymologies, Webster learned 26 languages, including Old English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit.