The Most Multilingual People Throughout History
How many languages can one human mind master? Here are some of the most famous polyglots in history.
Illustrations by Chaim Garcia
The medical doctor and linguist was fluent in Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German and French, having studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in school as well as the constructed language Volapük later in life. What distinguished him as a polyglot, however, was not his command of languages but his creation of one. Zamenhof is responsible for inventing Esperanto, the most successful constructed language in the world.
Zamenhof believed that forcing immigrants to learn a local language gave them an unfair disadvantage when competing with native speakers, forcing them to support cultural assumptions and privileges inherent to each idiom. A constructed language, on the other hand, could provide a suitable neutral ground for communication and level the playing field for all speakers.
Others have mastered more languages than Zamenhof, but his linguistic contribution is immeasurable by comparison.
The Virgin Queen is unique amongst monarchs not only for her elegant fashion sense (she allegedly possessed more than 2,000 pairs of gloves!), but also for her linguistic skills. She mastered French, Flemish, Italian, Spanish, English, Latin, Greek and Cornish during her lifetime.
What truly distinguishes her from other monarchs and linguists, however, is her legacy as a translator. She translated Cicero, Seneca and Calvin into English, and she translated Katherine Parr’s "Prayers or Meditations" — a religious work in English — into Latin, French and Italian when she was a mere adolescent. She then offered the Parr translations to her father as a New Year’s gift!
The German philosopher and businessman is best known for the critical work on capitalism he developed with Karl Marx, but he was also a well known linguist who mastered several languages: Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Irish Gaelic, Spanish, Polish, French, English, Milanese dialect, Gothic, Old Nordic and Old Saxon. He also studied Arabic and allegedly learned Persian in 3 weeks. Friends quipped that he stammered in 20 languages, but their joking didn’t deter him. And with 12+ languages to his credit, he certainly had the last laugh!
If the dead don’t inspire you as much as the living, you’ll be thrilled to know that there are people like Alexander Argüelles. He is a linguist who has mastered about three dozen languages, speaks most of them fluently and has studied many more. He started out unpromisingly, giving up French in his adolescence but picking up German at university and embracing it wholeheartedly. Latin, Greek and Sanskrit soon followed — and the list kept expanding.
His main motivation for learning German was literature. The polyglot was passionate about many German writers and was intent on reading the original works. He developed an intense method, studying 16 hours a day, transcribing languages and immersing himself in the sounds, structure and dynamic of his chosen tongue. He describes the moment where a language finally reveals itself as wax falling from his ears.
According to the prolific linguist, any educated person should strive to learn at least six languages. He prioritizes them according to cultural background:
a) the classical language(s) of your own civilization
b) the major living languages of the broader culture
c) English, the international language (or a semi-exotic if you’re a native English speaker)
- d) one exotic language of your choice
For instance, a Westerner should learn a) Latin and Greek, b) English and French, Spanish or German, c) Russian and d) Persian or Arabic or Sanskrit or Hindi or Chinese, etc.
If you feel like this is too much of a task, remember that you can cheat! Spanish and French are not that dissimilar, and they are major languages that will give you access to a lot of cultures and history!
When Kató Lomb died in 2003, she was almost 100 years old and had spent her life as a pioneer of languages. She was one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world and managed to learn 16 languages. How did she do it? Insatiable curiosity and no qualms about making mistakes! After having studied chemistry and physics, she plunged into English, intending to become an English teacher. She picked up books and a dictionary, read as much English as she could and basically learned by doing! (And yes, she did end up teaching the language, her knowledge of the language only two classes ahead of her teaching schedule!)
Her linguistic fearlessness allowed her to earn a living with 16 languages besides her native Hungarian: Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian, Danish, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Latin, Japanese and Chinese.
In her book This is How I Learn Languages, Lomb mentions walking straight into an advanced level class of Polish and telling the teacher she had no knowledge of the language whatsoever but was eager to learn it. The teacher was so impressed that she let Lomb join the class!
Kató Lomb mastered Russian, English, French, and German to a native degree and travelled the world, writing books about her experiences and being celebrated as a prodigious polyglot. Later in life she quipped to a young (!) friend in his fifties that he had a lot of time left to learn languages. For Kató, it was never too late to pick a challenge!
Tolkien is known for including constructed languages, like Elvish, in his fictional world of Middle Earth. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, you might assume these made-up languages are nothing but gibberish, but the truth is that many possess a grammar and semantics comparable to naturally evolved spoken tongues, even if their vocabularies are not as vast.
It all began with Tolkien’s mother, who taught him Latin, French and German from an early age. The young boy’s love of languages led him to study many more throughout his life. His favorite was allegedly Finnish, a passion triggered by discovering a book of Finnish grammar, an event he described as "entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before." Finnish inspired him to create Quenya, a High Elvish language. His love of Welsh influenced Sindarin, the second of his most complex and complete invented tongues.
His first forays into glossopoeia (the creation of languages) began in his teens, with Animalic and Nevbosh, the latter co-created with his cousin Mary Incledon. Tolkien’s linguistic creations include Noldorin, Naffarin, Common Eldarin, the aforementioned Quenya and Sindarin, Goldogrin, Noldorin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, Avarin, Rohirric, Ilkorin, Adunaic and Doriathrin. His grasp of naturally evolved languages included the aforementioned Welsh and Finnish, Latin, French and German, but also Greek, Middle English, Old English, Gothic, Italian, Old Norse and Spanish.
It wasn’t merely the phonics or grammar that fascinated Tolkien — the culture, history and development of a language sparked his curiosity and kept it alive. Tolkien didn’t believe one should learn a language for its practical or economic purpose, but rather for the pure love of it. Hence, his desire to understand the origins and development of a spoken tongue; an interest mirrored in his creations, and the product of a fictional historical development that gave rise to other fictional spoken tongues.
Tolkien studied comparative philology at Oxford and began his teaching career as a professor in the English department at Leeds University, moving to Oxford, his alma mater, in 1925 to teach mostly Old English, Middle English and the history of the English language. He remained a creature of habit and simple pleasures, rarely traveling outside of his mind and rarely using the languages he learned (and created!) to communicate with others in a real setting. He saw languages as valuable in themselves, serving no purpose other than to give pleasure to the speaker. It is a philosophy that contrasts sharply with Kató Lomb’s globetrotting social butterfly approach.
Today most of us support Lomb’s attitude about the value of learning a language, using it for whatever immediate professional or academic benefits it can provide. But Tolkien’s approach mirrors a gentler world, less concerned with achievements and compensation. Whatever approach suits you, never forget the pleasure a language can give you. In the end, love and fascination will keep you motivated!