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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 to 1836 > Dr. Baines

In like manner M. Fleck takes upon him to pronounce that Mezzofanti's English was "just as middling" as his Latin. Now I need hardly recall the testimonies of Mr. Harford, Stewart Rose, Byron, Lady Morgan, Lady Blessington, and every other English traveller who conversed with him, as completely refuting this depreciatory estimate. The truth is, that most of the English and Irish visitors with whom I have spoken, have agreed with me in considering that, in his manner of speaking English, the absence of all foreign peculiarities was so complete as to render it difficult, in a short conversation, to detect that he was a foreigner. " One day," Cardinal Wiseman relates, " Mezzofanti then a prelate, visited me, and shortly after an Irish gentleman called who had arrived that moment in Rome. I was called out, and left them together for some time. On my returning, Mezzofanti took leave. I asked the other who he thought that gentleman was. He replied, looking surprised at the question, ' An English Priest, I suppose.' "

On another occasion, about the same period, the late Dr. Baines, Vicar Apostolic of the Western district, having been present at one of the polyglot exhibitions in the Propaganda, and having there witnessed the extraordinary versatility of Mezzofanti's powers, returned with him after the exhibition. " We dined together," said Dr. Baines, " and I entreated him, having been in the tower of Babel all the morning, to let us stick to English for the rest of the day. Accordingly, we did stick to English, which he spoke as fluently as we do, and with the same accuracy, not only of grammar but of idiom. His only trip was in saying, ' That was before the time when I remember,' instead of ' before my time.' Once, too, I thought him mistaken in the pronunciation of a word. But when I returned to England, I found that my way was either provincial or old-fashioned, and that I was wrong and he was right."

Nor was this fluency in speaking English confined to the ordinary topics of conversation, or to the more common-place words of the language. His vocabulary was as extensive and as various as it was select. A curious example of this, not only as regards English but also in reference to German, was told to me by Cardinal Wiseman.

One broiling day he and Mr. Monckton Milnes were walking in company with Mezzofanti across the scorching pavement of the Piazza SS. Apostoli. They were speaking German at the time.

" Well!" said Mr. Milnes, utterly overcome by the heat and glare, " this is what you may call a—what is the German," he added, turning to Dr. Wiseman, " for ' sweltering?"

" 'Schwiilig,' of course," suggested Mezzofanti, without a moment's pause !

I have heard several similar anecdotes illustrating the minuteness of his acquaintance with other languages ; and when it is remembered, that his stock of words was in great measure drawn from books, and those generally the classics of their respective languages, it need hardly be considered matter of surprise, that, as, in English, Lady Morgan found "his turn of phrase and peculiar selection of words to be those of the " Spectator," so other foreigners have been struck by finding an Italian model his conversational style upon the highest and most refined standards in their respective literatures.

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