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In the John England's book titled "The Works of Reverend John England, Volume 6" (page 172) I read:

Reverend Joseph Mezzofanti, first keeper of the Vatican library, of whom Lord Byron had so high an opinion; probably one of the first linguist in exisestence: he speak with facility thirty-four living languages, and several of the dead tongues.

I'm skeptical of this claim for some reasons, even if it is quite common on Internet. For example, recently I read it in The Huffington Post in an article by Stacie Nevadomski Berdan titled "Learning Two or Twenty Languages: Is There a Secret?", where the author claims

The colorful characters past and present are quirky, interesting and make one gasp with their abilities to master 20 to 50 languages, sometimes in just a manner of weeks. These superlearners are dubbed hyperpolyglots, such as the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, who was said to speak more than 38 languages, and who learned Ukranian in two weeks once challenged.

Did Reverend Mezzofanti speak with facility thirty-four languages? What is the truth?

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Sorry, for some reasons I cannot give the link to that book. I hope somebody help me! –  Carlo Alterego Dec 17 '12 at 21:09
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Thanks @Jozzas :-) –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Dec 18 '12 at 0:41
    
@Carlo, I have to thank you for the opportunity to earn a 50 rep bounty for an existing question, plus at least 10 rep for the upvotes for bringing people's attention to it. But, I gotta ask: why the bounty? Are you unhappy with my answer? 230 views, 9 upvotes and a solid answer for a question about a minor historical figure who lived a couple of centuries ago is already a pretty good response. What are you hoping for? –  Oddthinking Jan 17 '13 at 11:21
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I'm highly skeptical of what catholic church calls "fluently speaking", given how poorly the pope speaks some of the languages in which he is allegedly "fluent". –  vartec Jan 17 '13 at 17:08
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It generally becomes easier to learn languages when you know more languages because many languages have the same roots. –  Timo Huovinen Jul 19 '13 at 18:54

1 Answer 1

up vote 16 down vote accepted

A biography of Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti was written in 1858.

In a chapter starting on page 457, Russell attempts to skeptically evaluate the claims.

He finds several challenges including:

  • How many words do you need to know in order to claim knowledge of a language?
  • When are two dialects considered two languages?
  • All the reports were indirect. Mezzofanti did not produce a list himself, as he planned, before his death. (i.e. someone said that he said in 1846 that he knew 78 languages, his nephew computed 114 by going through his papers.)

Russell lists some 94 "languages" produced from a list made by Mezzofanti's nephew. He also lists 30 languages that Mezzofanti was "frequently tested and spoken with rare excellence".

I don't think I can sum up the evidence and the difficulty of counting the languages spoken by an historical figure (given only second-hand reports, no clear definition of fluency and no clear definition of where one language stops and another begins) any better than Russell himself:

Summing up, therefore, all the authentic accounts of him as yet made public ; discarding the loose statements of superficial marvel-mongers, and divesting the genuine reports, as far as possible, of the vagueness by which many of them have been characterized, it appears that, in addition to a large number of (more than thirty) minor dialects, Mezzofanti was acquainted in various degrees with seventy-two languages, popularly, if not scientifically, regarded as distinct :— almost the exact number which F. Bresciani ascribes to him ; that of these he spoke with freedom, and with a purity of accent, of vocabulary, and of idiom, rarely attained by foreigners, no fewer than thirty ; that he was intimately acquainted with all the leading dialects of these ; that he spoke less perfectly, (or rather is not shown to have possessed the same mastery of) nine others, in all of which, however, his pronunciation, at least, is described as quite perfect; that he could, (and occasionally did,) converse in eleven other languages, but with what degree of accuracy it is difficult to say ; that he could at least initiate a conversation, and exchange certain conversational forms in eight others ; and that he had studied the structure and the elementary vocabularies of fourteen others. As regards the languages included in the latter categories, it is quite possible that he may also have spoken in a certain way some at least among them. So far as I have learned, there is no evidence that he actually did speak any of them : but with him there was little perceptible interval between knowledge of the elementary structure and vocabulary of a language, and the power of conversing in it.

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