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

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 surrounded 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 passion 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 never 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 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 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.