Monday, March 13, 2017

Mezzofanti: A Master of Languages

Wednesday marks the date when Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti died. He was famous for being one of the world's most prolific polyglots, supposedly mastering dozens of languages during his lifetime.

Mezzofanti was born in Bologna on 19 September 1774. As a child he learnt Greek and Latin words he overheard from a priest's lessons. When the priest found out, he put Mezzofanti into a religious school and later exposure to Spanish-speaking priests helped him learn Spanish. During that time he managed to master his Greek and Latin as well as pick up Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and a few other languages.

Upon completing his studies, he became the professor of Arabic at Bologna University and was ordained as a priest. When he lost his job for not swearing his allegiance to the Cisalpine Republic, he started tutoring rich families.

When the Austrians arrived in Bologna to drive out Napoleon, Mezzofanti learnt Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Russian from the soldiers at the hospital where he worked.

Supposedly he taught himself a language overnight when he found out that two criminals needed confession. He continued to learn different languages and eventually spoke nearly 40 languages fluently. He was also familiar with many other languages.

While the rumour mill and hearsay may have exaggerated stories of Mezzofanti, any language learner should appreciate that he managed to learn a lot about foreign languages without ever leaving his country!