Monday, February 15, 2021

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell

Sizing up the world’s greatest polyglot
During his lifetime, Cardinal Joseph (or Giuseppe) Mezzofanti (1774-1849) had the reputation of being the greatest polyglot (multilinguist) in the history of the world, or at least the Western World. Born in Bologna, Italy, Mezzofanti was a librarian and professor of oriental languages at the University of Bologna before being promoted to service in the Vatican, where he taught clergymen from all over the world at the College of the Propaganda. Despite having never traveled outside of Italy, Mezzofanti is said to have spoken at least thirty languages fluently enough that he was often mistaken for a native speaker. In addition, he had varying degrees of familiarity and reading skills with dozens of other languages and dialects. Mezzofanti seems to have possessed a photographic memory, or at least its auditory equivalent, and was able to switch effortlessly from one language to another in mid-conversation without missing a beat. In his 1858 book The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, Irish clergyman and scholar Charles William Russell provides a biography of this hyperpolyglot and scrutinizes eyewitness reports of his multilingual prowess.

Before Russell can properly assess Mezzofanti’s remarkable linguistic abilities, he first feels the need to establish a baseline of comparison. For this reason, the first quarter of the book is not about Mezzofanti at all, but rather an “Introductory Memoir of Eminent Linguists, Ancient and Modern.” Russell outlines a history of multilingualism from ancient times to the present, highlighting exceptional linguists and polyglots of Europe and the Middle East. Though Russell crams a great deal of arcane history into this brief overview, it is quite interesting and easy to read. Russell establishes that no one prior to Mezzofanti had been recorded to have linguistic abilities approaching his. This is a valuable summary; it’s only fault being that it ends around 1850. Since then, several polyglots have arisen to challenge Mezzofanti’s reputed achievements, including Harold Williams, Emil Krebs, Kenneth L. Hale, and Georg Sauerwein among others.

Russell’s main purpose in charting the life of Mezzofanti is to ascertain as closely as possible what languages Mezzofanti knew and how well he knew him. Since Mezzofanti himself was modest about his abilities and published almost nothing in the field of linguistics, this makes for a difficult task. Since the book was published shortly after Mezzofanti’s death, Russell is able to rely on the testimony of many witnesses and acquaintances of the polyglot cardinal. (Russell himself met Mezzofanti on more than one occasion.) Not all the statements are positive. Some of Mezzofanti’s contemporaries claimed his skills were overhyped and that he was little more than a glorified human parrot. Those affirming Mezzofanti’s legendary powers, however, far outnumber his detractors. By comparing numerous accounts, Russell is able to compile a tentative list of Mezzofanti’s languages and his reputed degree of knowledge in each (see below).

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti is not a conventional biography. Because of Russell’s investigative focus into Mezzofanti’s specific abilities, the subject’s life story gets the short shrift. The book often reads more like a box of assorted letters than a biography. Russell’s text can get boring and repetitive at times, and the book also includes copious footnotes that veer off into all manner of digressions. Nevertheless, the remarkable accounts of Mezzofanti’s abilities will fascinate any reader interested in languages. Those who don’t want to commit to the long haul can simply read Chapter XVII: Recapitulation, which summarizes Russell’s findings quite adequately and succinctly.

Mezzofanti’s languages
Though there is no definitive list of the languages that Mezzofanti knew, author C. W. Russell draws from the accounts of many who knew, met, and conversed with Mezzofanti. In the conclusion to The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, Russell sums up his findings on Mezzofanti’s linguistic abilities as follows [my notes in brackets]:

I. Languages frequently tested, and spoken with rare excellence:

  1. Hebrew
  2. Rabbinical Hebrew
  3. Arabic
  4. Chaldee [a.k.a. Chaldean or Aramaic]
  5. Coptic
  6. Ancient Armenian
  7. Modern Armenian
  8. Persian
  9. Turkish
  10. Albanese [Albanian]
  11. Maltese
  12. Greek
  13. Romaic [Byzantine Greek]
  14. Latin
  15. Italian
  16. Spanish
  17. Portuguese
  18. French
  19. German
  20. Swedish
  21. Danish
  22. Dutch
  23. Flemish
  24. English
  25. Illyrian [a language of the Balkans]
  26. Russian
  27. Polish
  28. Czechish or Bohemian
  29. Magyar [Hungarian]
  30. Chinese
II. Stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested:
  1. Syriac
  2. Geez [a.k.a. Classical Ethiopic]
  3. Amarinna [possibly Amarhic, an Ethio-Semitic language]
  4. Hindustani
  5. Guzarattee [Gujarati, of India]
  6. Basque
  7. Wallachian [a dialect of Romanian]
  8. Californian [a Native American language, possibly of Baja California]
  9. Algonquin
III. Spoken rarely, and less perfectly:
  1. Koordish [Kurdish]
  2. Georgian
  3. Serbian
  4. Bulgarian
  5. Gypsy language [a.k.a. Romani]
  6. Peguan [a.k.a. Mon, a language of Myanmar and Thailand]
  7. Welsh
  8. Angolese [presumably one of the native languages of Angola]
  9. Mexican [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
  10. Chilean [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
  11. Peruvian [Spanish dialect, or a Native American language?]
IV. Spoken imperfectly; a few sentences and conversational forms:
  1. Cinagalese [a language of Ceylon, a.k.a. Sri Lanka]
  2. Birmese [Burmese]
  3. Japanese
  4. Irish
  5. Gaelic
  6. Chippewa Indian
  7. Delaware
  8. Some of the languages of Oceanica
V. Studied from books, but not known to have been spoken:
  1. Sanscrit [Sanskrit]
  2. Malay
  3. Tonquinese [a Vietnamese language]
  4. Cochin-Chinese [a Vietnamese language?]
  5. Tibetan
  6. Japanese
  7. Icelandic
  8. Lappish [language of the Sami, or Lapps, in Northern Scandinavia]
  9. Ruthenian [a Slavic language of Lithuania]
  10. Frisian [a Germanic language of the Netherlands]
  11. Lettish [a.k.a. Latvian]
  12. Cornish (old British of Cornwall)
  13. Quichua (ancient Peruvian)
  14. Bimbarra (Central African)
VI. Dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood:
    1. Hebrew
    2. Arabic
            Syrian dialect (fluently)
            Egyptian dialect
    3. Chinese
            Kiang-Si dialect
            Hu-quam dialect
    4. Italian
    5. Spanish
    6. Basque
    7. Magyar
    8. German
            Ancient Gothic
            Rhetian (Grisons)
            Sette Communi dialect
            Dialects of Northern and Southern Germany
    9. French
            Bas Breton
    1o. English
            Somersetshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire dialects
            Lowland Scotch

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