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
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.