20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn't Know About
20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About

D.G. Hewitt - October 21, 2018

Right now, more than half the people in the world are bilingual. That is, alongside their own mother tongue, they are able to speak at least one other language fluently. And then, there are the polyglots. These talented few are capable of speaking not one or two but at least five different languages fluently. Some can even speak more than a dozen and are capable of mastering a new one in a matter of months, if not weeks. Such a skill is widely looked upon with fascination, if not envy. And this has always been the case. Throughout history, there are numerous examples of notable figures being fluent in many different languages, often using this skill to their advantage.

In some cases, these historical polyglots were straight-up geniuses. In other instances, however, they were required to knuckle down and study hard in order to get to grips with new languages and dialects. Maybe they needed different languages in order to rule over a disparate people, or to understand the latest scientific thinking or political arguments. Or in a few cases, they just loved languages and became polyglots through passion rather than necessity.

So, from the men of God who could ‘speak in tongues’ to the science geniuses whose language skills were just one of many talents, here we have 20 of the most notable polyglots in history:

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
The Queen of the Nile knew she needed to learn the language of her people in order to hold onto her power. YouTube.

20. Cleopatra was the first of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt to learn the local language, and it was just one of many languages the Queen of the Nile spoke

As almost everyone with an interest in history knows, Cleopatra was a remarkable woman. Descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, she was part of a dynasty that ruled over Egypt for more than three centuries. In fact, she was the last Ptolemaic ruler of the north African state, reigning for 21 years. She was shockingly ruthless, engineering the deaths of three of her own siblings so that she could rule alone, and she was famously very beautiful. But she was also highly intelligent, not least in her recognition that learning many languages could help her consolidate and then grow her power.

As with all the Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra spoke Greek as her native tongue. But while none of her predecessors bothered to learn the language of the people they ruled over, the Queen of the Nile was different. It’s likely she learned Egypt from birth, having been exposed to it by her nannies and servants. Either way, speaking the local tongue was what a modern-day politician would call an excellent PR exercise, keeping the populace on her side. And such a politics-first view was most probably the reason Cleopatra learned to speak at least another six languages.

As Plutarch noted in his history The Life of Anthony: “And her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with barbarians she very seldom had the need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself…whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Partians.” While claims that Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently may be over-the-top, there’s no doubt she was a skilled linguist, using her language skills to both make allies and threaten enemies.

Interestingly, Cleopatra didn’t speak Latin, however, as some contemporary Roman observers noted. This means that her legendary romances with Julius Caesar and then with Marc Anthony would have almost certainly been conducted in Ancient Greek, the dominant language of the Eastern Mediterranean region at the time. However, the language she used to give her final orders before taking her own life in 30BC at the age of just 39, will forever remain a mystery.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Cardinal Mezzofanti is often cited as the ultimate polyglot by language lovers. Wikipedia.

19. Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti spoke as many as 30 languages, and many argue the Italian Cardinal was the ultimate polyglot

To linguists, Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti is probably the ultimate polyglot. The Italian man of God was reportedly fluent in as many as 40 languages, plus he had a good working knowledge of an additional 30. His sharp brain and keen ambition to better himself meant that Mezzofanti not only excelled at languages but also rose up to the very top of the Catholic Church, becoming a Cardinal, one step away from Pope.

Mezzofanti was born in Bologna in 1774. His father was a struggling carpenter and his son was expected to follow him into the trade. The legend goes that, as a young boy, Mezzofanti would practice carving wood on the street, right outside a private school. He could hear the teacher give lessons in Latin and Greek and the young boy picked both languages up. Before long, that teacher found out about the remarkable youth outside the school walls and invited him to join the class. Mezzofanti’s parents, far from being dismayed their son wouldn’t have a trade, encouraged him to gain a full education.

After a few years, Mezzofanti moved schools. He went to a Catholic private school where he came into contact with missionaries from different countries. Through speaking with them, he learned Spanish, German and Swedish. He then added several more languages to his growing repertoire while studying for the priesthood. By the time he was ordained, he knew several Asian tongues, plus his later work as an ambassador placed him in contact with other European nationals, allowing him to learn even more. At the turn of the century, Mezzofanti was working as a librarian in Bologna. He then served as Professor of Oriental Languages and Greek at the city’s prestigious university, a position he would hold for more than 15 years until the Pope called him to the Vatican.

He was made Cardinal and the Vatican’s chief librarian, both jobs in which his language skills were a huge asset. He lived happily at the Vatican right up until his death at the age of 74 in 1849. So, how many languages did Mezzofanti really speak? His biographer Charles William Russell noted that he spoke 30 languages “with rare excellence”, including Biblical Hebrew, Armenian, Maltese, Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese. Moreover, he had a basic knowledge of dozens more and kept on trying to learn and practice well into his old age.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
As a young girl, Queen Elizabeth I was taught the languages that would help her rule. Wikipedia.

18. Queen Elizabeth I faced many struggles being a woman in a man’s world, but her language skills helped her rule over her kingdom

Young princes and princesses have almost always benefited from the finest education possible – and the girl who would go on to become Queen Elizabeth I of England was no exception. However, while such tutoring was often wasted on young royals, Elizabeth thrived in such an environment. By all accounts, she was an extremely bright and diligent pupil, excelling in the arts, sciences and in culture. And, of course, Elizabeth was a keen linguist. In fact, it was claimed that the future queen was fluent in six languages by the age of 11.

The princess would have been expected to learn foreign languages once she reached five-years-old. By this point, however, she already knew English, her mother tongue, as well as Welsh, the language of her first governess. From this point on, she had daily lessons in French from Jean Belmain, a private tutor who also worked at the prestigious University of Cambridge. She also had daily lessons with Richard Cox. While he was the Provost of Eton, an all-boys school, he taught the princess both Greek and Latin on the side.

In all, Elizabeth spoke English, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Welsh and French, all fluently. It’s also believed that she had a good understanding of Flemish and Italian. According to Roger Ascham, the scholar who served as her final tutor, Elizabeth truly excelled at languages, was blessed with flawless recall and could speak in a range of different accents. She would put such skills to good use after she was crowned Queen of England and Ireland in November 1558. In particular, she used her knowledge of foreign languages to shape her foreign policy. Indeed, it might even be the case that her knowledge of their own language helped Elizabeth plot victory over the Spanish, most notably with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, still regarded as one of the finest and most significant military victories in all of English history.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Friedrich Engels realized he needed language skills to help spread the word of revolution. YouTube.

17. Friedrich Engels embraced foreign languages and used his polyglot skills to spread the message of socialism across Europe

As might be expected of a man whose mission was to try and educate the international working class about socialism and Marxist theory, Friedrich Engels was extremely adept at speaking different languages. In fact, the German philosopher and writer has widely been credited with being a ‘hyper-polyglot’, excelling in languages and able to speak and write like a native in around 10 of them. He used his abilities to share his ideas through speaking engagements as well as through countless letters to fellow believers around the world.

Since his father was a successful businessman with a factory in northern England, the young Friedrich grew up in comfort. Born in Germany in 1820, he fell out with his parents as a teen, thanks mainly to his growing atheism clashing with their strict protestant beliefs. He traveled through Belgium and then Switzerland before heading off to university in Berlin, where he met Karl Marx. Then, at the age of 22, he was sent to England to work at his parents’ factory. It was here where he started writing about the conditions of the working classes. He corresponded with Marx, sharing his thoughts and observations with the economist, and the foundations for Communism were created.

Engels remained in Manchester for several years before spending periods in Paris and then Brussels. Living in different countries, mixing with international workers and corresponding with co-conspirators and fellow believers in different countries, helped Engels hone his language skills. According to most accounts, he spoke English, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, as well as his native German and, interestingly, Irish Gaelic and even the Milanese dialect. Moreover, he could – and did – write fluently in all of these different languages.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Mithridates VI of Pontus was the scourge of Rome and spoke 22 languages flawlessly, Pinterest.

16. Mithridates VI of Pontus was the scourge of Rome and spoke the languages of all the 22 kingdoms he ruled over

The Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder credited Mithridates VI as the Empire’s most formidable of enemies. Under him, the Kingdom of Pontus – in modern-day Turkey – fought and defeated the late Roman Republic in several battles of the Mithridatic Wars. While the underdog eventually lost, Mithidrates reputation would only grow over the subsequent years and centuries. As well as being acclaimed as a fine military leader and visionary ruler, the finest king of Pontus is also widely regarded as one of the greatest polyglots who ever lived.

According to Pliny the Elder, Mithridates made a point of learning the languages of the peoples his vast kingdom ruled over. As the famous ancient historian noted in Volume 7 of his seminal work Natural History: “Mithridates, who was king of 22 nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue in all of them, without employing an interpreter.” What’s more, though his kingdom didn’t stretch that far, the king was also fluent in ancient Persian. Accounts from the time noted that he spoke the language with Persian prisoners – before he killed them, of course.

It wasn’t just the ancients who admired the great king’s language skills. During the Enlightenment, his name became synonymous with the term ‘polyglot’. Several pioneering studies into the phenomenon of speaking many different languages fluently cited Mithridates as the ultimate example of just how much knowledge the human mind is capable of holding. Furthermore, all polyglots who came after were compared to him – speaking more languages than Mithridates himself was regarded as an outstanding, almost superhuman accomplishment.

These days, however, the king is probably best known for his ability to handle poison rather than his ability to master a new dialect. Famously, the paranoid ruler learned everything there was to know about poisons and their antidotes. He even took small doses of each so as to build up his natural defenses. The tactic worked – after being defeated by the Romans, Mithridates chose to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Despite taking the strongest poison he could lay his hands on, he endured a slow and painful death, his immunity was just so strong.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Thanks to his language skills, Emil Krebs became a top German diplomat of his age. Wikipedia.

15. Emil Krebs was fluent in 12 languages by the age of 17, and his unique skills helped him become a top German diplomat

For the residents of Freiburg, a small city in Silesia, Germany (though now in Poland), the sight of Emil Krebs walking around talking to himself was nothing unusual. In fact, it was a daily occurrence. Even as a young boy in the 1870s, the carpenter’s son would regularly walk through the town with a book under his arm muttering to himself. Far from being crazy, however, he was actually mastering his foreign language skills. And the method obviously worked: when, in 1887, he enrolled at the University of Breslau at the age of 17, Krebs was already fluent in 12 languages – and he was just getting started.

Within a year, Krebs had ditched his plans to study law and instead focused his entire attention on learning new languages. He mastered Chinese and then Turkish before starting a career as a diplomat. Inevitably, the German government put his language skills to good use and Krebs was sent to China. Before long, he was the chief interpreter between the Germans and the Chinese, though he didn’t really care about his job. Instead, he just wanted to learn more languages. While the First World War raged, Krebs taught himself Mongolian, Manchurian and Tibetan, among other tongues.

Krebs’ method was simple but effective. He would forego all pleasures and social events and spend his evenings and nights learning languages (even if this meant sleeping on the job during the day). He learned several at a time, dedicating a different day of the week to each one. According to some contemporary accounts, Krebs could go from no knowledge of a language to native-speaker level in just nine weeks. Sadly for him, when the war ended, relations between China and Germany broke down and he was sent back to Berlin.

From 1918 onwards, Krebs worked in the Foreign Office. Again, however, his passion remained languages. In all, he is said to have mastered an incredible 68 languages and had a knowledge of 111 more. When he died in 1930, at home, in bed and in the middle of translating something, his brain was removed and taken away for research. It remains in the collection of the Vogt institute for Brain research to this day.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Foreign study and enforced exile helped the Vietnamese leader hone his language skills. Wikipedia.

14. Ho Chi Minh picked up his language skills through his years studying and working abroad – as well as through the years he spent in exile

Ho Chi Minh is best remembered for his revolutionary activities. And rightly so. As the Chairman and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam, he helped found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also known as North Vietnam). He would then lead the North Vietnam Army during the Vietnam War, a conflict which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians, including women and children. But Ho Chi Minh was also a polyglot, with the years he spent outside of his native country allowing him to pick up several foreign languages.

Of course, as well as his native Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh mastered French from an early age. Vietnam was, after all, controlled by the French during his formative years, while he also spent some time in Paris in the years leading up to the First World War. Alongside these two languages, Ho Chi Minh learned English through living in first the United States and then the United Kingdom between 1908 and 1913. All of these languages would help him as he grew to power in the post-war years.

It wasn’t just Western languages that Ho Chi Minh could speak fluently. As a young boy, his academic father taught his son how to read, write and speak Classical Chinese. He even wrote poetry in the language, once reserved for the imperial family only. Later in life, he learned Mandarin Chinese too. Furthermore, Ho Chi Minh also learned to master Russian, again another language that would come in useful when North Vietnam called on Communist Russia to help in its fight against the South. Ho Chi Minh died in September 1969, before the end of the Vietnam War. In 1998, Time magazine named him one of the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’. His legacy stretched far and wide, thanks in no small part to his own linguistic abilities.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Tesla could speak many different languages – he just preferred not to. Wikipedia.

13. Nikola Tesla was not just an engineering genius but a polyglot who traveled the world, learning languages as he went

Nikola Tesla is often cited as one of the brightest minds of recent history. Small wonder, then, that the engineering genius was also a polyglot. Or, more accurately, he was a hyper-polyglot, having mastered more than five languages. While it was only to be expected that he spoke several languages and dialects – after all, he was born and raised in 19th century Europe, where national boundaries were blurred and contested – he pushed himself to master even more tongues, even when there was no real need for them in his everyday life.

Tesla was born in 1856 in the town of Smijan. While that was then part of the Austrian Empire, it is today part of Croatia. As a result, the young Nikla grew up speaking not only German but also Serbo-Croatian. What’s more, French was also part of the formal education for bright boys back then. So, by the time he reached the age of just 10, he was fluent in three languages and well on his way to mastering a fourth. After school, he moved to Budapest to work for the city’s Telephone Exchange. According to some of his biographers, he learned Hungarian here, before heading to Paris a year later, giving him the chance to hone his engineering skills at the Continental Edison Company while also perfecting his schoolboy French.

In 1884, Tesla decided to move to the United States, the country he would call home for the rest of his life. Settling down in New York City, he quickly learned English and was soon speaking and writing the language fluently. It was here that he also made a name, as well as a fortune, for himself. However, though he was obviously blessed with excellent language skills, the brilliant engineer was largely reclusive, preferring to spend up to 84 hours at a time in his office or workshop. Famously, he never had time for love or romance, so it’s doubtful he had much chance to use his foreign language skills either. He died in New York City, alone, largely forgotten and in considerable debt, in 1960.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Sir Christopher Lee was a polyglot man of action as well as an acting superstar. The Telegraph.

12. Sir Christopher Lee used his awesome language skills to fight Nazis before he went on to become a Hollywood superstar

Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was far more than just a Hollywood superstar. The actor, who enjoyed a career spanning six decades, was an accomplished singer, an author and had enjoyed a distinguished career in the British Army. He was also a polyglot. Indeed, Lee spoke five languages fluently, plus he had an excellent understanding of three more. Such an ability undoubtedly came in useful during his time first as a special forces secret agent and then as a globe-trotting actor.

Born in London in 1922, Lee’s mother was an Italian countess. Naturally, then, he grew up bilingual. When young Christopher was still a young boy, his parents separated and he went with his mother to Switzerland. Here, he started his private schooling and picked up the French and German languages – as well as the acting bug after a starring role in a school production of Rumpelstiltskin. After a few years, he returned to England and studied the Classics, becoming adept in Greek and Latin.

During the Second World War, Lee served in South Africa, in Egypt and then in Italy. In later life, he revealed that he was part of the fledgling SAS, taking part in ultra-secret commando raids behind enemy lines. Once the war was over, his fluent French and German meant he was selected to help track down and then interrogate Nazi war criminals. Then, not wanting to stay in the armed forces or work in an office, Lee decided to go into acting. He spent ten years as a jobbing actor before finding fame in the Hammer Horror genre. After a decade of playing fantasy villains and monsters, he moved on to James Bond and from there to Hollywood, most notably in the Lord of the Rings movies.

In all, Lee spoke fluent French, German, Italian and Spanish, alongside his native English. He was also proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek. Notably, when he was at his height in Hollywood, he was just one of several notable polyglots in LA. Dolph Lundgren also speaks six languages fluently, while Viggo Mortensen is fluent in Danish, English, Swedish, Norwegian and Spanish.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
John Milton was an acclaimed man of words, adept not just in his native language but in others too. Wikipedia.

11. John Milton not only re imagined his own language, he also wrote acclaimed literary works in other languages too

Unlike many of his peers, John Milton’s genius was recognized within his own lifetime. In 17th century England, he was widely-acknowledged as one of the country’s leading minds. As well as being a popular and acclaimed writer, he was also known for his proficiency in foreign languages. Not only could he speak in tongues other than his native English, he also wrote literary works of merit in then, too. What’s more, he continued to write in multiple languages long after he had gone blind.

Milton was born in London in 1608 to a relatively wealthy and certainly cultured family. His father was rich enough to pay for a decent private tutor for his son and so he leaned Latin and Greek from an early age. As a young man, he attended the University of Cambridge, picking up Latin, and then, upon graduation he set off on something of a ‘gap year’. Between 1638 and 1639, Milton spent time in France and then in Italy. Upon returning to England, then, he had also become fluent in French and Italian. But already, his eyesight was fading.

During the 1640s, Milton really started making a name for himself as a writer. He wrote poetry in English, Latin, Greek and Italian. What’s more, he even invented new words and phrases – in fact, around 600 such words and terms in modern-day English can be attributed to Milton. In 1667, by that point almost totally blind, Milton produced his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. The epic poem cemented his status as the greatest English writer of his time. To this day, the work is credited with being one of the most important pieces of literature in the history of the English language. At the same time, his essays and poems in Latin and English, most notably 1644’s Areopagitica continues to be celebrated and influential to this day.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
William James Sidis was definitely a polyglot, but was he the smartest man who ever lived? Wikipedia.

10. William James Sidis may or may not have been ‘the smartest person who ever lived’, but the boy genius was definitely capable of speaking 25 languages

Some people say he was the ‘smartest human being who ever lived’. While this may be an exaggeration – and certainly impossible to prove either way – William James Sidis was undoubtedly an intelligent chap. A very intelligent chap indeed. He was a child prodigy who grew up to become a math genius. And, what’s more, he was a talented linguist, mastering foreign languages as effortlessly as he mastered math and physics.

Born in downtown New York City in 1898, William was the son of the psychologist Boris Sidis. From birth, the father wished his boy to be not just intelligent, but a genius. As such, he challenged the infant to push himself, trying to instill a ‘love of knowledge’ in the boy before he could even walk. While highly controversial, the ‘precocious’ style of parenting seemed to work. According to his father, Sidis was reading the local newspaper by 18 months. What’s more, by the age of just eight, he was fluent in eight languages, including Russian, German, Hebrew and Armenian. As if that wasn’t enough, Sidis also invented a language of his own, which he called ‘Verdergood’.

After his home schooling, Sidis went off to Harvard at the age of just 11. He focused on physics and wrote a pioneering work on dark matter and the origins of life when he was 21. Gradually, however, he became better known for his eccentric ways than for his genius. He eventually retired from first public and then academic life. When he did publish anything in the 1930s and 40s, it was usually under a pseudonym. He died in 1944 at the age of just 46. In the end, it was his powerful brain that killed him, as he suffered from a cerebral haemorrhage, just as his father had done a decade before.

Exactly how smart Sidis was is open to debate. Some biographers claim he had a record-breaking IQ. Similarly, the number of languages he spoke is not completely clear. According to most accounts, he could hold a conversation in as many as 25 languages and dialects. Sadly, since Sidis was a recluse for most of his life, there was never any chance to put his language skills to the test.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Sir William Jones had a lifelong love of languages, both dead and alive. Wikipedia.

9. Sir William Jones was a British lawyer, diplomat and polyglot who turned our understanding of world languages on its head

As a young boy in London, William Jones was a language-learning prodigy. Born in 1746, he was home-schooled and then went to the prestigious private Harrow school, where he excelled at languages. By the time he arrived at Oxford University in his teens, he was not only proficient in Latin and Greek (as were most well-bred young gentlemen of the time) but also in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian. Upon graduation, he was determined to make a living from his love of languages and dialects.

Sadly for Jones, translating work and scholarship did not pay so well in late-18th-century England. As such, he switched to law, a field in which he also excelled himself. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on his true passion. While working as a successful lawyer in London, he published his book Grammar of the Persian Language. It was a ground-breaking work of the time and is still regarded as a classic work in the area of linguistics. And then, like many of is peers, he was swiftly knighted and then given a plum posting in India.

Whilst in Calcutta, he established the Asiatic Society of Bengal and busied himself learning Sanskrit so that he could read up on Muslim and Hindu law. Notably, his formidable language skills and wide reading led him to propose that Latin, Greek and Sanskrit all shared the same common ancestry, a truly revolutionary idea for the time. His research and theories helped lay the foundations for modern linguistics, as well as establishing his own reputation as one of the finest scholars of his time.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Tolkien’s mastery of foreign languages helped him create his own Elvish dialects. BBC.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien famously made up his own languages, including Elvish, basing them on the many real languages he was fluent in

Not only was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (better known by his pen-name J.R.R. Tolkien) an accomplished polyglot in both ancient and modern languages, he also made up several languages of his own. Indeed, several of them are still spoken and studied by science fiction fans to this day. Tolkien was a true Renaissance man, excelling in a number of fields during his eventful life. However, he will forever be known as the father of modern fantasy fiction, and above all for his much-loved Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series of books.

Since he was born and raised in South Africa to German immigrants, Tolkien was surrounding by numerous different languages from the very start of his life. He revealed he learned Latin, French and German from his mother and then, while at school, he also picked up Greek, Italian and Spanish, as well as Welsh. But that wasn’t enough for the language-loving young man. At university, he specialized in Old Norse, plus he also taught himself a number of other rare, near-extinct old tongues, including Old Icelandic and Medieval Welsh. Unsurprisingly, a career in academia beckoned for Tolkien.

After serving in the First World War, he took up a position as the youngest professor in the languages department of the University of Leeds. Here, he taught English, but also brushed up on some other languages he had some knowledge of, including Norwegian, Russian, Dutch, Danish and Swedish. Then, it was off to his beloved University of Oxford. It was here, while working as a professor and private tutor, that he wrote his famous books. Alongside writing fiction, he also created a number of constructed languages, including the Elvish languages that would feature in his stories. Tolkien’s own languages were influenced by the old languages he loved, as well as by Welsh and Finnish.

After his father’s death in 1973, Tolkien’s son published a number of works by the great man. These included guides to his invented languages, meaning future readers and scholars could learn them too. While the exact number of languages Tolkien could read, write and speak is unclear – he himself struggled to put a number on it – he is remembered for being the quintessential polyglot, both for his skills and his passionate for languages.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Sir John Bowring claimed to speak 100 languages, though in reality he probably only knew 20. Royal Albert Museum.

7. Sir John Bowring liked to show off and exaggerate, but the British diplomat almost certainly had an understanding of at least a dozen languages

The fourth British Governor of Hong Kong was many things, a language lover and a boaster among them. As such, his claims to have been able to speak 100 languages and read 100 more, were undoubtedly significantly exaggerated. Nevertheless, Bowring was a genuine polyglot. His language skills helped him become one of the leading literary translators, writers and travelers of his time, plus they helped him land one of the best jobs in the British Empire.

Born in 1792, Bowring soon grew out of childhood ambitions to join the Church. Instead, as a young man, he went into business and headed off to Spain to cash in as a trader during the Peninsular War in Spain. Here, he picked up not only Spanish, but also French and a number of other languages. Above all, he was fascinated by the languages of Eastern Europe. So, while his peers tried to become novelists or poets, he spent his time learning these.

With a failed business behind him, Bowring spent the 1820s traveling through the Netherlands and then Denmark, adding to his language skills along the way. He also spent the decade making a name for himself as a political economist before he moved into politics. He quickly learned, however, that life as a Member of Parliament didn’t pay so well, so became a diplomat instead. In 1849, he was sent to Hong Kong, where his language skills allowed him to keep relations between Britain and China as smooth as possible. Finally, he spent his final years in Italy, working as an ambassador to the newly-unified country.

So, how many languages could Bowring speak? It was definitely not the 100 he boasted of. His biographers generally agree that by the time of his death, Bowring could speak eight languages fluently. He could also read and write a further seven, plus he had a solid understanding of 25 more. By anyone’s measure, though he was a show-off with a bad habit of exaggerating the truth, Sir John Bowring and undeniably a skilled polyglot.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Thanks to his language skills, Nabokov published hit books in Russian and English. Wikipedia.

6. Vladimir Nabokov boasted he could write world-class literature in three languages, even if he thought in images rather than words

Twentieth-century literary titan Vladimir Nabokov may have had Russian as his mother tongue, but he became a worldwide sensation writing in English. His most-famous novel Lolita caused a huge scandal when it was published in 1955. And, thanks to its controversial topic, it continues to provoke to this day. But Lolita was far from Nabokov’s only work of note. He published dozens of works over a 40-year career, making full use of his language skills to craft fine prose for a global audience.

Nabokov was born just before the turn of the century, in Saint Petersburg in 1899. Due to his family’s social status, they were forced to flee Russia with the 1917 Revolution, moving to the Crimea and then to England. It was here that Nabokov enrolled at the prestigious University of Cambridge to read Slavic and Romance languages. In the 1920s, the family moved again, this time to Germany. In Berlin, Nabokov spent much of his time within the Russian exile community. He learned little German but did begin writing and before long was making a name for himself.

Rising anti-Semitism during the 1930s forced Nabokov and his family to move to the United States. Here, he started writing in English after more than a decade penning novels and essays in Russian. The great man of letters himself boasted that he was ‘trilingual’, able to speak and write in English, French and Russia. This was alongside his ability to speak some German, as well as Czech and Ukrainian. However, despite his language skills, Nabokov once revealed that he nevee actually thought in words anyway. Rather, he claimed to always think in images, and he believed that this was reflected in his writing.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Champollion was the first modern man to understand the written language of the pharaohs. Wikipedia.

5. Jean-Francois Champollion mastered ancient languages from a young age and had discovered how to translate the hieroglyphics of Egypt before he hit 40

Jean-Francois Champollion was just 41-years-old when he died of a stroke in Paris in 1832. However, he had managed to accomplish more in his four decades on Earth than most men could hope to achieve in two lifetimes. The one-time child genius grew up to become an expert linguist and philologist. Champollion was fluent in a number of languages, both modern and ancient and was a true polyglot. Despite these notable skills, however, the Frenchman will forever be remembered for being the ‘Founder and Father of Egyptology’.

At the age of 16, the precocious Champollion was already fluent in Coptic and Arabic and was giving presentations on the possibility of deciphering Demotic, the written language of ancient Egypt. While he loved the challenge of learning languages, he loved the challenge of cracking the ancient code even more. And when the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the Napoleonic campaigns in North Africa, he was almost on his own in believing that this meant hieroglyphics could finally be translated and understood.

At the age of 18, Champollion was a university teacher. He had also added Sanskrit, Pahlevi, Persian Ethiopic to his repertoire of languages, establishing himself as a true polyglot before the age of 21. However, his greatest achievement came in the 1820s. Building on the work of several other philologists, Champollion published a ground-breaking paper showing how the ancient Egyptian system of writing could be translated. In 1829, he traveled to Egypt to put his theory to the test. To the amazement of his contemporaries, he was able to read hieroglyphics. Champollion was the first person in more than 2,000 years to have understood what was written on the walls of the tombs buried in the Valley of the Kings.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Brazilian Emperor Pedro II took solace in learning languages as an unhappy young boy. Pinterest.

4. Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, endured a tough and lonely childhood as a boy king, though he found solace in learning, and in learning many different languages in particular

Dom Pedro was just five-years-old when his father, Pedro I of Brazil, abdicated and left him on the throne. The boy emperor was forced to grow up fast. He had to study hard and widely in preparation for taking on the full responsibilities of his elevated position. By all accounts, it was a sad and lonely childhood. However, Pedro did develop a love of learning, above all for languages. He also developed a keen sense of duty and responsibility, which would influence his long rule – not for nothing is he remembered as Pedro ‘the Magnanimous’.

Pedro II is widely credited with stabilizing Brazil domestically and also raising its profile internationally. Before he came to the throne in 1831, Brazil was on the brink of collapse. When he was removed in 1889, the country was lauded for its peace and prosperity. Not only was it enjoying notable economic growth, it was also a haven of civil rights and press freedom – in stark contrast to its Spanish-speaking neighbors. Much of this was down to Pedro himself. It was he who almost single-handedly pushed through anti-slavery laws. His staunch opposition to slavery was hardly surprising, however, given how learned and cultured the Emperor was.

Over the course of his life. Pedro mastered around a dozen languages. As well as his native Portuguese, he could speak English, French, German and Spanish, in addition to Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, Occitan and Tupi. His love of foreign languages and other cultures also led him to establish the Brazil Historic and Geographic Institute. Understandably, Pedro II is remembered fondly in his own country. Indeed, many Brazilians still lament the fall of the country’s monarchy, especially given the numerous corrupt civilian and military regimes that have followed it.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Athanasius Kircher was the Wikipedia of his age, known for his knowledge and language skills. Wikipedia.

3. Athanasius Kircher was regarded as the smartest man of his age, not least because the Jesuit priest could speak in 20 languages and even translate ancient symbols

In his day, Athanasius Kircher was seen by many as a human encyclopedia. According to some contemporary observers, the Jesuit priest had an understanding of all human knowledge. True or not, he was undoubtedly a remarkable man. Born in 1602, he was forced to flee war-torn Germany at an early age and survived an accident-prone childhood to become a leading man of letters. Above all, Kircher was known for his unique language skills. He could, it was said, speak 20 languages, both living and dead, and was also heralded as the man who could translate ancient symbols.

As a young boy in central Germany, Kircher was taught Hebrew by a local rabbi, alongside his native German and schoolboy Latin. Then as a teen, he was forced to leave his home country due to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. He made it to Rome, via Austria and France, and found work at the Vatican. Here, he devoted himself to his studies, and he taught Oriental languages as well as math and physics in the city. For more than 30 years, Kircher published widely and regularly on a huge range of topics, making a name for himself as perhaps the most learned man of the age.

Believed that the source of modern human civilization should be traced back to Ancient Egypt rather than to Ancient Greece. As such, if only he learned how to read Coptic, the written languages of the pharaohs, he would be able to understand the original language of God and thus reveal all the world’s secrets. Sadly for Kircher, the Rosetta Stone wouldn’t be discovered for another 100 years. Despite his best efforts, he never was able to accurately translate the hieroglyphics of Egypt. After his death in 1680 at the age of 78, many of his theories were discredited. However, his argument that hieroglyphics could be linked to the Coptic languages did turn out to be valid – so much so, in fact, that some regard Kircher as the original founder of Egyptology.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
John von Neumann was a polyglot by the time he arrived in America to make his name as a polymath. Wikipedia.

2. John von Neumann was the finest mathematician of his time, working on quantum physics to nuclear weapons, and he was also a genius at learning new languages

He was hailed as the greatest mathematician of his generation. While this was certainly true, John von Neumann was so much more than this. The man was a true genius and a veritable polymath. He excelled in a number of fields. He was a pioneering researcher in algebra, quantum physics and economics. He even made an invaluable contribution to the development of nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project and played a part in the development of the modern computer. Unsurprisingly, von Neumann was also a polyglot, capable of speaking multiple languages as well as translating from one to another instantaneously.

Born in Budapest in 1903, Von Neumann was the ultimate child prodigy. As well as showing an aptitude for math, he also learned languages at an astonishing rate. By the age of six, he could speak in fluent Ancient Greek as well as his native Hungarian. Alongside this, his father ordered that his children learn English, French, German and Italian – all before they went to school at the age of 10. Later, after his formal schooling, he attended university in Budapest and then in Berlin. He was then offered a lifetime professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in New Jersey at the age of just 30. He accepted and moved to the United States.

It was in America where von Neumann carried out almost all of his most important work. He remained at the IAS until his death in 1957. Ever since, he has been regarded as one of the finest minds of the 20th century, and his work is still highly relevant and influential to this day. As to his language skills, Von Neumann was fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, English and Yiddish, in addition to his native Hungarian. Contemporaries would recall with wonder how he could switch effortlessly between two or more languages, the sign of a true polyglot.

20 Amazing Polyglots in History That Most People Didn’t Know About
Screen icon Audrey Hepburn was a polyglot at an early age. Wikipedia.

1. Audrey Hepburn surprised many people with her knowledge of different languages, but such a skill was hardly surprising given her childhood and family background

Audrey Hepburn regularly tops lists of the most beautiful Hollywood actresses of all time. But the icon was far more than just a pretty face. She was well-read, well-traveled and highly intelligent. What’s more, thanks to her family background, she was a polyglot. According to most accounts, Hepburn was fluent in six languages, namely English, Dutch, French, Spanish, German and Italian, even if she most definitely used some far more than others.

The star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was born in Belgium to a British businessman and a Dutch baroness. As a child, she grew up bilingual, learning to master Dutch and English before she even started school. As befitted a young girl of her social standing, she was sent to a private school in Belgium, allowing her to pick up French as well. Hepburn and her mother returned to the Netherlands during the Second World War. The actress once recalled how she spoke Dutch rather than English on the streets of her home city so as to avoid any unwanted attention from the German occupiers.

In later life, Hepburn got married for a second time to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. The couple were together for 13 years (even if both parties enjoyed affairs) and had a child together. This relationship allowed her to spend many summers in Italy. Since she was adept at learning languages, and had a strength in Romance languages, she was able to learn her husband’s native tongue relatively easily. Even if some critics argue that her abilities in Spanish and German may have been exaggerated over the years – indeed, there’s relatively little evidence to suggest she was fluent in the former tongue – Hepburn was undoubtedly a skilled linguist as well as being one of the greatest Hollywood icons of her generation.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Timeline of the Life of Cleopatra.” San Jose State University

“Hyperglot! Meet Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti.” ESL Languages Blog.

“The Education of Queen Elizabeth I.” The Elizabethan Era.

“The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages.” New Yorker, September 2018.

“Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontos.” BBC History, February 2011.

“The linguistic marvel Emil Krebs.” Deutschland.de

“The Genius Nicola Tesla and Mathematics.” Mathematics Magazine.

“Christopher Lee obituary.” The Guardian, June 2015.

“William James Sidis, 1898-1944.” Geni.Com

“Sir William Jones.” New World Encyclopaedia.

“How did Tolkien come up with the languages for Middle Earth?” The Guardian, December 2003.

“Why writing in English was a good career move for Nabokov, Conrad – and now Chirovici.” The Daily Telegraph, December 2013.

“Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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