· Biography
     · 1774 to 1798
     · 1798 to 1802
     · 1803 to 1806
     · 1807 to 1814
     · 1814 to 1817
     · 1817 to 1820
     · 1820 to 1823
     · 1823 to 1830
     · 1831
     · 1831 to 1833
     · 1834
     · 1834 to 1836
      · Vatican Libary
      · Angelo Mai
      · Polyglot party
      * Number his
      * languages
      · Greek Epigram
      · Fleck's
      · criticisms
      · Dr. Baines
      · Swedish
      · Armenian
      · Greek
      · Literature
      · Sicilian
      · The Poet Meli
      · Padre
      · Angiarakian
     · 1836 to 1838
     · 1838 to 1841
     · 1841 to 1843
     · 1843-1849
     · Recapitulation
     · About the book
   · FAQ
   · Characters
   · Places
   · Highlights
   · Language table

Learn That Language Now -- Learn a New Language 3 Times Faster
Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 to 1836 > Number his languages

The exact number of languages to which this extraordinary facility extended, had long been a matter of speculation. Mezzofanti himself—averse to everything that bore the appearance of display—although repeatedly questioned on the subject, generally evaded the inquiry, or passed it off with a jesting answer. It is probable too, that- he was deterred from any enu¬meration by the difficulty of distinguishing between languages properly so-called, and dialects. The first distinct statement of his own, bearing directly upon the point, which I have been able to trace on good authority to himself, was made soon after his appointment as Vatican Librarian, in an interview with a gentleman of Italian family, long resident in England, who was introduced to him by Dr. Cox, at that time vice-rector of the English College. The particulars of the interview were communicated to me by Dr. Cox himself, in a letter which 1 received from him a very short time before his death. The gentleman referred to was Count Mazzinghi, the well known composer, who, if not born in England, had resided in London for so long a time, that in language, habits, and associations, he was a thorough Englishman.

On one occasion," says Dr. Cox, "when going to the Vatican Library to visit Mezzofanti, I took with me an English family, who were most desirous of being introduced to him. Mezzofanti remonstrated good-humouredly with me for bringing people to see him, as if he were worthy of being visited, but he received our party with his habitual politeness.

The gentleman whom I introduced, begged as a favour that he would tell him how many languages he could speak. 'I have heard many different accounts,' he said, 'but will you tell me yourself?'

After some hesitation, Mezzofanti answered, ' Well ! if you must know, I speak forty-five languages.'

' Forty-five !' replied my friend. ' How, sir, have you possibly contrived to acquire so many ?'

' I cannot explain it,' said Mezzofanti. ' Of course God has given me this peculiar power: but if you wish to know how I preserve these languages, I can only say, that, when once I hear the meaning of a word in any language, I never forget it.'

He then begged us to excuse him, and called one of the librarians to show us the principal curiosities of the library On our return, we found him seated with a young German artist, who, he told us, was going to Constantinople. ' I am teaching him Turkish before he goes,' he continued, 'and as he speaks modern Greek very well, I use that language as the means of my instruction. I had the honour,' he subjoined,' of giving some lessons on modern Greek to your poet, Lord Byron, when he was in Bologna.'

"I should add," said Dr. Cox " that I frequently heard him speak of Byron, and that his criticisms upon his works, and his reflections on the peculiar characteristics of his poetry, would have been worthy of a place in a Review.

While he thus professed, however, to speak forty-five languages, he took care, as in his similar conversation with Dr. Tholuck, to convey that his knowledge of some of them was much less perfect than of others.

Nor did it remain stationary at this limit. Its progress, even while he resided at Bologna, had been steady, and tolerably uniform. But the increased facilities for the study which he enjoyed in Rome, enabled him to add more rapidly to his store. Cardinal Wiseman assures me, that, before he left Rome, Mezzofanti's reply to the inquiry as to the number of his languages, was that which has since become a sort of proverb, " Fifty, and Bolognese." Even as early as 1837, Mezzofanti himself, in his extempore reply to Dr. Wap's Dutch verses, as we have seen, used words to the same effect :—

Mijne tong verbleef med vijftig taalen storm,

I have been anxious to obtain, on this interesting point, an authentic report from persons who enjoyed almost daily opportunities of intercourse with Mezzofanti at this period, for the purpose of testing more satisfactorily, the accuracy of a contemporary sketch of him, which appeared in a work of considerable pretensions, published in Germany, in 1837—Fleck's "Scientific Tour,''—which describes him, from popular report, as speaking " some thirty languages and dialects, but of course, not all with equal readiness."

Copyright 2009 - All rights reserved
No part of this website may be copied by any means without my written authorization.
Printed from