Seventy Eight Languages

I read this fascinating article today about Cardinal Mezzofanti, a prodigious churchman of the 19th century who knew 78 languages. It was published in the excellent Italian journal Il Timone (“The Rudder”). I thought you would enjoy it also, so my translation follows.


by Andrea Galli

Loved by even the most secular scholars, venerated by both linguists and enthusiasts, but unfortunately forgotten in his own Catholic world: a strange fate, that of Cardinal Mezzofanti, the greatest polyglot of all time.

Born in Bologna in 1774 of parents of humble origins, Giuseppe Mezzofanti exhibited from his earliest years a prodigious memory, a rare musical ear, and a capacity for learning languages that remains even now an enigma. While frequenting the Piarist Schools of the city he met many Jesuit missionaries who were being hosted by the Papal States after the suppression of their order. He conversed with them and quickly absorbed, like a sponge, Swedish, German, Spanish, and various South American dialects, in addition to the dead languages that one works through at the school desk. After entering the seminary, he finished his studies in philosophy and theology much earlier than the minimum age for ordination. In the meantime, he dedicated himself to the study of oriental languages.

In 1797, at 23 years of age, he was assigned the Hebrew Chair at the University of Bologna and was ordained a priest. From 1799 to 1800 he attended to the foreigners in hospitals who had been wounded in clashes with the Napoleonic army, thus picking up various European languages and becoming also confessor to tourists and travelers who passed through the city.

His talents started to become more noticeable. Lord Byron, the English poet, who bumped into Mezzofanti in Bologna, wrote about having met “a language prodigy… who should have lived at the time of the Tower of Babel as a universal interpreter”. August Wilhelm Kephalides, a professor of the University of Wroclaw, in the account of his travels in Italy describes his encounter with a phenomenal polyglot in a cassock, who thrills the Bolognese intellectuals and “speaks German perfectly, without ever having set foot outside of Italy”. Even Matteo Pisani, interpreter of the Russian Embassy in Italy and among the greatest experts at the time of Slavic and Oriental languages, visited Mezzofanti to find out if his fame were merited or not – and he was stunned.

Described as a meek man, without particular ambitions other than that of dedicating himself to the care of souls, university teaching, and the daily study of languages (until late at night), in 1806 Mezzofanti refused Napoleon’s invitation to establish himself in Paris (after also refusing to swear the oath of fidelity to the Cisalpine Republic); in 1814 he also declined an invitation that arrived from Pope Pius VII. It was only in 1831 that he gave in, to Gregory XVI, who became his friend and protector. Gregory asked him to apply his talents to the service of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide).

Contact with the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Rome, amidst missionaries and scholars coming from every corner of the Catholic world, permitted Mezzofanti – who, in the meantime, received the cardinalatial hat – to learn numerous other languages with his usual agility. Only Chinese gave him a hard time: he was compelled to spend four months of study before he felt satisfied with the results. It was then that Father Umpierres, who had been a missionary in Macao and now taught languages at the Propaganda Fide College, conversed with him in Chinese, confirming “officially” Mezzofanti’s mastery of the Mandarin language.

Father Charles William Russell, an Irish academic and friend of John Henry Newman, also frequented the Cardinal-prodigy and was left impressed by his ability to express himself with finesse and without errors in Gaelic, English, and the principal dialects of Great Britain. After Mezzofanti’s death in 1849, Russell wrote the best biography of him, collecting documents and direct testimony therein. According to his account, Mezzofanti was able to write and speak almost perfectly in 38 languages, including Hebrew, Arab, Neo-Aramaic-Chaldean, Coptic, Ancient and Modern Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Albanian, Maltese, Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Swedish, English, Russian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Chinese, Syriac, Ge’ez, Amharic, Hindi, Gujarati, Basque, and Romanian. He knew another 40 languages with less certainty – besides an unknown number of dialects – for a total of 78 languages. Numbered among his regrets, however, were Sanskrit, Malaysian, Tibetan, Icelandic, Lappish, Ruthenian, Frisian, Latvian, Cornish, Quechua, Bambara: he was only able to read them, not speak them.

* * * * *

This entry was posted in Ad Hoc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.