Friday, October 28, 2011

Famous Polyglots in History and Today

This is the second part of It’s a Polyglot World Out There

Cleopatra VII (late 69 BC – 12 August, 30 BC)

The Queen of the Nile and Ancient Egypt’s last pharaoh was of Greek descent. A member of Greece’s Ptolemaic dynasty, she ruled the country after Alexander the Great’s demise. Just like the other Ptolemies before her, Cleopatra chose not to speak Egyptian although she knew the language. Some say Cleopatra knew Aramaic, Ethiopic, Hebrew and Latin on top of Greek and Coptic/Egyptian. She was also believed to have spoken Syriac, Median, Parthian and Trogodyte and actually used her facility for languages to her advantage.

Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543)

Talented astronomer Copernicus, the one to devise a heliocentric model of the universe was a known polyglot. Born in Germany, he was said to have spoken at least four languages including Polish, Latin and Greek. Aside form being a noted astronomer Copernicus was a mathematician, physician, classical scholar, artist, and translator.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (26 December 1194 – 13 December 1250)

Italian born Frederick II was one of the Middle Ages’ most formidable Holy Roman Emperors. He was once King of Italy, King of Germany, King of Sicily and King of Jerusalem. Apart from Italian, his mother tongue, Frederick II was fluent in German, French, Greek, Latin and Arabic. His being a polyglot helped his during his reign especially during the numerous battles he fought against people who spoke the languages he was said to have learned.

Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio (25 November 1562 – 27 August 1635)

A contemporary of fellow Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes, De Vega was a very prolific writer of plays and poetry. De Vega, a baroque playwright who hailed from Madrid, was said to be a master of several languages. At five years old, he could read Spanish and Latin. Later on, De Vega learned French, Greek, Italian and Portuguese.

Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (19 September 1774 – 15 March 1849)

This Italian cardinal wins the top prize when it comes to mastery of languages. Born in Bologna, some sources indicate that Mezzofanti knew 72 languages (other sources gave a number more than this). He also understood and spoke many dialects. What is unbelievable is that he never ventured out of Italy yet he supposedly knew this many languages. Some of the 72 languages he learned were: Algonquin, Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Basque, Bulgarian, Burmese, Catalan, Coptic/Egyptian, Czech, Dutch, English, Flemish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindustani, Hungarian, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Latvian, Malay, Maltese, Mapundungu, Mexican, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Quechua, Romanian, Russian, Sanskrit, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Tibetan, Turkish, Vietnamese and Welsh.

José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonzo Realonda (19 June 1861 – 30 December 1896)

Rizal was born in the Republic of the Philippines. He is the country’s national hero. A martyr, Rizal was said to have spoken 22 languages. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Rizal was a known polymath, a doctor, essayist, poet, novelist, diarist, correspondent, and much more. Rizal advocated non-violent means of achieving independence. His execution by the Spanish colonizers was believed to have paved the way for the revolution against Spain. Aside from speaking several local dialects and Pilipino, Rizal was said to be very proficient in Catalan, Spanish, English, French, German, Chinese, Latin, Malay, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Japanese and English. His last message to his sister, according to his biography was spoken in English so as not to be understood by the Spanish guards around him. He was telling his sister that he left a message for them hidden inside one of his shoes. Alas, that message was never found.

Ziad Youssef Fazah (born June 10, 1954)

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Fazah is giving Mezzofanti stiff competition. In the 1998 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records, Fazah is listed to be able to read and speak 58 languages. Fazah claims the number to be 59. In a Chilean television program, Fazah was put in a not-so-good light when he did not understand easy phrases in Chinese, Greek, Persian, Russian, Finnish and Hindi. But according to this Lebanese polyglot, he can speak the following languages among many others: Albanian, Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Czech, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Mandarin, Nepali, Norwegian, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhala, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

Pope Benedict XVI (16 April 1927)

German born Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger) is the 265th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Elected on the 19th of April 2005, Pope Benedict speaks German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, and ecclesiastical Latin. He also knows Portuguese, biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek.

Harold Williams (April 6, 1876 – November 18, 1928)

Harold Williams was an amazing Kiwi. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, he went on to become a journalist and foreign editor of British daily newspaper, The Times. He has been named by the Guinness Book of World Records for his ability to fluently speak 58 languages and several dialects. Learning the classics in Latin through his father who was a Methodist minister, he began to get interested in languages at age seven. As a journalist who had to travel around the world he increased his knowledge of other languages, which he learned on his own. Some of the languages he was able to speak include Basque, Old Irish, Albanian, Tagalog, Chinese, Czech, Egyptian, Hittite, Japanese, Coptic and Hungarian. He also mastered the book containing 12,000 characters in Chinese Mandarin as well as the Cuneiform inscriptions. Williams was really incredible. Working as a foreign correspondent in Serbia, he amazed the locals when he was able to speak their language fluently after only two days.

Polyglots in the entertainment industry

Many celebrities are known polyglots. Ingrid Bergman spoke Swedish, German, French, Italian and English. Audrey Hepburn knew English, French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. Peter Ustinov knew French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English, a little Turkish and Modern Greek. Unfortunately, they have long exited the stage.

However, there are still many celebrities who are multilingual. The list is very, very long. Some of those who speak more than three languages are:

• Mariska Hargitay speaks English, Hungarian, Italian, and French
• Penelope Cruz speaks Spanish, French, Italian, and English
• Masayori “Masi” Oka speaks Japanese, English, German, and Spanish
• Karen Mok speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Italian and English
• Lucy Liu speaks English, Mandarin, Italian and some Japanese and French
• Aishvarya Rai speaks English, Tulu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi
• Dolph Lundgren speaks Swedish, German, French, English, Spanish and Japanese
• Viggo Mortensen speaks Danish, English, Spanish and some Norwegian and Swedish
• Andrew Divoff speaks English, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Russian

The most notable celebrity polyglot is none other than Count Dracula himself, Christopher Lee. The man who is well known for his work as the Master of the Dark, Saruman and Count Dooku speaks French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. He also has knowledge of Swedish, Russian, and Greek. One article claims that he can speak or at least is familiar with 12 languages.

If you have a love for languages, why not try learning a new one? Becoming a polyglot will open doors for you that do not normally open for monolingual people. Learning languages is both difficult and fun. Pick a language of a country or culture you love to make learning easier for you.

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