List of polyglots

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A polyglot is a person who uses multiple languages. A polyglot may also be called a multilingual person; the label "multilingual" is used for communities as well as individual speakers.

Richard Hudson, professor emeritus of linguistics at University College London, coined the term "hyperpolyglot" for a person who can speak six or more languages fluently.[1][2] Other scholars apply the label to speakers of even more languages – twelve, sixteen, or in the most extreme cases even fifty or more.[3]

It is difficult to judge which individuals are polyglots, as there is no uncontroversial definition for what it means to "master" a language, and because it is not always clear where to distinguish a dialect from a language.

This list consists of people who have been noted in news media, historical texts, or academic work as speaking six or more languages fluently. For general discussion of the phenomenon, including discussion of polyglot savants, see polyglotism.

Notable living polyglots[edit]

The 2012 book Babel No More[4] by Michael Erard highlights some polyglots around the globe, including Alexander Argüelles. Canada's Global TV also brought out a piece on hyperpolyglots on their 16x9 show, entitled "Word Play",[5] featuring Canadian polyglots Axel Van Hout, Alexandre Coutu, Steve Kaufmann, James Chang and Keith Swayne. Tim Doner (US) and Richard Simcott (UK) also appear in the programme to describe their experiences speaking multiple languages.

Africa[edit]

  • Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, a Ghanaian cardinal of the Catholic Church is able to speak English, Fante, French, Italian, German, and Hebrew, in addition to understanding Latin and Greek.[6]
  • Dikembe Mutombo, a former NBA player, is able to speak English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Tshiluba, Swahili, Lingala, and two other central African languages.[7]

The Americas[edit]

  • Alexander Argüelles, an American linguist. He speaks perhaps a dozen languages and has a reading knowledge of many more. He was profiled in Michael Erard's Babel No More.[8]
  • Timothy Doner, then a sixteen-year-old New York student, was featured in the New York Times for his ability to speak over twenty languages to various levels, including English, French, Hausa, Wolof, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Pashto, Persian, Mandarin, Italian, Turkish, Indonesian, Dutch, Xhosa, Swahili, Hindi and Ojibwe.[9] In June 2012, Doner published a 15-minute video of himself speaking twenty languages on his YouTube channel "PolyglotPal".[10]
  • Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire, a Brazilian scholar, linguist, and translator who has publicly stated that he has studied over 100 languages,[11] is considered one of the greatest scholars of the 21st century by the University of Cambridge. He has translated sixty languages into Portuguese and is engaged in a project that is more than forty years old to study two new languages every year.[12]

Asia[edit]

  • Swami Rambhadracharya, a Hindu religious leader and Sanskrit scholar based in Chitrakoot, India, can speak twenty-two languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi, English, French, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Oriya, Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Magadhi, Awadhi, and Braj. Rambhadracharya has been blind since the age of two months and received no formal education until the age of seventeen. He has never used braille, or any other aid, to learn or compose his works and has authored more than 100 books.[13][14][15]
  • George Fernandes, an Indian politician who is well-versed in ten languages: Konkani, English, Hindi, Tulu, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam and Latin. As of April 2013, Fernandes is suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.[16]
  • Ali Manikfan, is an Indian marine researcher, ecologist, shipbuilder, and a polyglot.[17][18] Besides his mother tongue Divehi (Mahl), he learned English, Hindi and Malayalam, Arabic, Latin, French, Russian, German, Sinhalese, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu. His other areas of interest are marine biology, marine research, geography, astronomy, social science, traditional shipbuilding, education, fisheries, agriculture and horticulture.
  • Mickey Curtis, a Japanese actor, singer, and television celebrity born to Japanese-English parents. He speaks Japanese, English, French, German, Italian and Thai.[19]

Europe[edit]

Others[edit]

  • Ziad Fazah, known for his claim of being able to speak, read, and understand 59 languages.

Notable deceased reputed polyglots[edit]

The following list consists of deceased individuals who are associated with claims of polyglotism, by year of birth.

  • Mithridates VI of Pontus (134–63 BC) could supposedly speak the languages of all 22 nations within his kingdom.[31]
  • Cleopatra VII (69–30 BC), the last ruling Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, could, according to the Roman biographer Plutarch, speak nine languages and was the only member of her dynasty who could speak Egyptian as well as her native Greek.[32]
  • al-Farabi (872-950/951), a Persian polymath who mastered over 70 languages.[33]
  • Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera (1408 - 1491)[34] was a Buddhist monk and an eminent scholar,[35] who lived in the 15th century in Sri Lanka.[36] He was a multi-linguist who was given the title "Shad Bhasha Parameshwara" due to his mastery in six oriental languages which prevailed in the Indian subcontinent.[37]
  • Athanasius Kircher (1601?–1680), German Jesuit polymath and scholar. Claimed knowledge of 12 languages; among them: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, as well as several modern languages. He also pioneered the study of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Classical Chinese characters.[citation needed]
  • John Milton (1608–1674), an English poet who is famous for the epic work Paradise Lost, could speak English, Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic, Syriac, and Old English. Milton coined 630 terms in the English language.[38]
  • Adam František Kollár (1718–1783), a Slovak writer, spoke Slovak, Czech, Serbian, Polish, Rusin, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Italian, Romanian, French, Dutch, and English.[39]
  • Noah Webster (1758–1843), a lexicographer, English spelling reformer, and author, mastered 23 languages.[citation needed]
  • Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774–1849), an Italian Cardinal, spoke the following 39 languages fluently:[40] Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, Ancient Armenian, Modern Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Albanian, Maltese, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, English, Illyrian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Chinese, Syriac, Ge'ez, Hindustani, Amharic, Gujarati, Basque, Romanian, and Algonquin.
  • Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), a French classical scholar, philologist, and orientalist, was the first to decipher the inscription on the Rosetta Stone, an achievement that facilitated the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs—the titles "Father of Egyptology"[41] and "the founder of scientific Egyptology" have since been bestowed upon Champollion.[42] He specialized in Oriental languages while he was a student at the College de France between 1807 and 1809, and his linguistic repertoire eventually consisted of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Zend, and his native French.[41][42][43]
  • Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), a German-English industrialist, social scientist, and cofounder of Marxist theory alongside Karl Marx, mastered over 20 languages.[44]
  • James Augustus Henry Murray (1837–1915), was a Scottish lexicographer, instrumental in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and its primary editor from 1879 until his death. In an application letter written to the British Museum Library in November 1866, he claimed abilities in Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, and Latin, and "in a less degree" Portuguese, Provençal, Dutch, German, Flemish, and Danish. The letter also referred to Murray's study of Celtic, Russian, Persian, Hebrew, and Syriac, among other languages and dialects.[45]
  • Yaqub Sanu (1839-1912), Egyptian journalist.
  • Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) French Symbolist poet. After retiring from writing he went on ambitious language learning program while traveling around Europe and the Middle East; mastering Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Arabic, Hindi, Amharic,[46] as well as developing a working knowledge of several native African languages while living in Ethiopia.[47]
  • Chiragh Ali (1844–1895), an Islamic scholar who, apart from his native Urdu, mastered Persian, Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek.[48]
  • Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Read and memorized many entire books, and was capable of speaking eight languages: Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.[49]
  • Ludwig Zamenhof (1859–1917), creator of the constructed language Esperanto, spoke 11 languages besides his own: Aramaic, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Polish, his native Russian, Volapük, and Yiddish. He also had an interest in Arabic, Italian, and Lithuanian, though he never claimed fluency in those.[citation needed]
  • José Rizal (1861–1896), was a Filipino nationalist, writer and revolutionary. He was able to speak 22 languages including Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, Dutch, and Japanese. Rizal also made translations from Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit. He translated the poetry of Schiller into his native Tagalog. In addition he had at least some knowledge of Malay, Chavacano, Cebuano, Ilocano, and Subanun.[50][51][52][53]
  • Rıza Tevfik Bölükbaşı (1869–1949), a Turkish philosopher and politician, who "...was proficient in eight languages, including Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Spanish"[54] in addition to Hebrew, Albanian and Armenian.[55]
  • Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950), an Indian philosopher who, apart from his native Bengali and educational English, knew ancient Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish and other Indian languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati.[56]
  • Harold Williams (1876–1928), a New Zealand journalist and linguist, spoke more than 58 languages.[57]
  • Hrachia Adjarian (1876-1953), Armenian linguist. He spoke Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, French, English, German, Italian, Persian, Latin, Sanskrit, and Laz.[58]
  • Martin Buber (1878–1965), German philosopher, who "spoke German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, English, French and Italian and read, in addition to these, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Dutch and other languages".[59]
  • Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the Vietnamese Communist leader, became fluent in French, English, Russian, Cantonese, and Mandarin, in addition to his native Vietnamese, through study and many years spent in exile.[60]
  • Harinath De (1877–1911) could speak 34 languages including many eastern and western languages such as Chinese, Tibetan, Pali, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, Greek, Latin, out of which he was M.A in 14.
  • Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan (1893–1963) could speak 36 languages and wrote in more than 6.[61]
  • William James Sidis (1898–1944), an American child prodigy who knew nine languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Armenian) when eight-years old and claimed to speak about forty languages shortly before his death. He also created his own artificial language, which was called Vendergood. Although Sidis was supposed to have an IQ between 250 and 300 measured through psychological analyisis, this was never confirmed.[citation needed]
  • Sukarno (1901–1970), the first President of Indonesia, was able to speak Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Indonesian, Dutch, German, English, French, Arabic, and Japanese.[62]
  • John von Neumann (1903–1957), mathematician. While better known for his work in mathematics, Von Neumann was a polyglot; fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, English, Yiddish, as well as his native Hungarian[citation needed]
  • S. Srikanta Sastri (1904–1974), eminent Indian Historian, Indologist, and epigraphist at the University of Mysore, was fluent in over fourteen languages, including Greek, Latin, Hittite, Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit.[63][64]
  • Nathan Leopold Jr. (1904–1971) was born to a wealthy Jewish family. He spoke his first words at 4 months. He reportedly had an intelligence quotient of 210, and claimed to have been able to speak 27 languages by the time he was 19.[65] More likely he was only fluent in 9 or 10 languages.[66] He was involved in the murder of Robert "Bobby" Franks with friend Richard Loeb. He served in prison for 33 years before receiving parole.
  • João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) was a Brazilian writer, considered by many to be one of the greatest Brazilian novelists born in the 20th century, and a self-taught polyglot. In a letter he claimed to speak Portuguese, German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, and some Russian. He also claimed to read Swedish, Dutch, Latin and Greek, but with the use of a dictionary. He also professed some understanding of German dialects, and study of Hungarian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, Polish, Tupi, Hebrew, Japanese, Czech, Finnish, and Danish grammar. Guimarães Rosa suggested that studying other languages helped him understand the national language of Brazil more deeply, but that he studied primarily for pleasure.[67]
  • Muhammad Hamidullah (1908–2002), an Islamic scholar, knew 22 languages and learned Thai at 85.
  • Uku Masing (1909–1985), an Estonian linguist, theologian, ethnologist, and poet, claimed to know approximately 65 languages and could translate 20 languages.[68]
  • Kató Lomb (1909–2003), a Hungarian interpreter, translator, and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world, was able to interpret fluently in 10 languages.[69]
  • George Campbell (1912–2004), a Scottish polyglot and a linguist at the BBC, who could speak and write fluently in at least 44 languages and had a working knowledge of perhaps 20 others.[70]
  • Meredith Gardner (1912–2002), an American linguist and codebreaker. German, Old High German, Middle High German, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and Japanese.[71]
  • Enoch Powell (1912–1998), an English politician, classical scholar, linguist, and poet. English, French, German, Italian, Urdu, Modern Greek, Classical Greek, Latin, Welsh, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew.[72]
  • Ahmad Hasan Dani (1920–2009), a Pakistani intellectual, archaeologist, historian, and linguist, who mastered 35 languages.
  • Christopher Lee (1922-2015), English actor, singer, author, and World War II veteran who spoke fluent English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and was moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek.[73]
  • Michael Ventris (1922–1956), an English linguist and architect. French, German, Swiss German, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Italian, Spanish, some Turkish, and Modern Greek.[74]
  • P. B. Sreenivas (1930–2013), an Indian singer and poet, spoke and wrote in eight languages, including Kannada, English and Urdu.[75]
  • Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (1930–1989), a Kurdish political activist and economist, mastered eight languages that included his mother tongue.[76][77][78]
  • Kenneth L. Hale (1934–2001) was an American professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spoke over 50 languages, including Basque, Dutch, French, Hopi, Irish Gaelic, Japanese, Jemez, Lardil, Navajo, O'odham, Polish, Spanish, Warlpiri, and Wômpanâak.[79][80]

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