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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > Polyglot conversation

During my first visit to Rome, I had heard a great deal of this curious power of maintaining a conversation simultaneously with several individuals, and in many different languages ; but I was far from being prepared for an exhibition of it so wonderful as that which I have witnessed. I cannot, at this distance of time, say what was the exact number of the group which stood around him, nor can I assert that they all spoke different languages ; but making every deduction, the number of speakers cannot have been less than ten or twelve ; and I do not think that he once hesitated for a sentence or even for a word ! Many very wonderful examples of the power of dividing the attention between different objects have been recorded. Julius Caesar, if we believe Pliny, was able to listen with his ears, read with his eyes, write with his pen, and dictate with his lips, at the same time. Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, often dictated to six or seven secretaries simultaneously. Walter Scott, when engaged in his Life of Napoleon, used to dictate fluently to his amanuensis, while he was, at the same time, taking down and reading books, consulting papers, and comparing authorities on the difficult points of the history which were to follow. The wonderful powers of the same kind possessed by Phillidor, the chess-player, too, are well known.* But I cannot think that there is any example of the faculty of mental self-multiplication, if it can be thus called, upon record, so wonderful as that exhibited by Mezzofanti in these, so to speak, linguistic tournaments, in which he held the lists against all opponents, not successively, but at once. Guido Gorres, describing the rapidity of his transitions from one language to another, compares it to "a bird flitting from spray to spray." The learned Armenian, Father Arsenius, speaking of the perfect distinctness of his use of each, and of the entire absence of confusion or intermixture, says his change from language to language "was like passing from one room into another." " Mezzofanti himself told me," writes Cardinal Wiseman, "that whenever he began to speak in one tongue, or turned into it from another, he seemed to forget all other languages except that one. He has illustrated to me the difficulty he had to encounter in these transitions, by taking a common word, such as ' bread,' and giving it in several cognate languages, as Russian, Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian, &c, the differences being very slight, and difficult to remember. Yet he never made the least mistake in any of them."

When Rev. John Strain, now of St. Andrew's, Dumfries, who assures me that, while he was in the Propaganda, he often heard Mezzofanti speak seven or eight languages in the course of half an hour, asked him how it was that he never jumbled or confused them. Mezzofanti laughingly asked in his turn.

"Have you ever tried on a pair of green spectacles?"

" Yes," replied his companion.

" Well," said Mezzofanti, " while you wore these spectacles everything was green to your eyes. It is precisely so with me. While I am speaking any language, for instance, Russian, I put on my Russian spectacles, and for the time, they colour everything Russian. I see all my ideas in that language alone. If I pass to another language,  have only to change the spectacles, and it is the same for that language also!"

This amusing illustration perfectly describes the phenomenon so far as it fell under observation ; but, so far as I am aware, no one has attempted to analyse the mental operation by which these astounding external effects were produced. The faculty, whatever it was, may have been improved and sharpened by exercise; but there is no part of the extraordinary gift of this great linguist so clearly exceptional, and so unprecedented in the history of the faculty of language.

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