· 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
     · 1836 to 1838
     · 1838 to 1841
     · 1841 to 1843
     · 1843-1849
     · Recapitulation
      · Introduction
      · Definition
      · Stages
      · Table
      · Languages
      · Analysis
      · Reader's
      · recollection
      · System to study
      * Natural gift
      · Mental process
      · Literary
      · circles
      · Regrets
      · Criticisims
      · Writers
      · Conclusion
     · About the book
   · FAQ
   · Characters
   · Places
   · Highlights
   · Language table

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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > Recapitulation > Natural gift

On the other hand, it is certain that Mezzofanti's power of acquiring languages was mainly a gift of nature. It is not easy to say in what this natural gift consisted. Among the faculties of the mind chiefly employed in acquiring language—perception, analysis, judgment, and memory—by some it has been placed in his intuitive quickness of perception—by others in his memory—and by others, in his power of analysing the leading inflexional and structural characteristics by which each language is distinguished. Others place it in some mysterious deli, cacy of his ear, which detected in each language a sort of rhythm or systematic structure, and thus supplied a key to all its forms But no one of these characteristics, taken singly, even in its very highest development, will account for a success so entirely unexampled. Almost all great linguists, it is true, have been remarkable for their powers of memory ; but there are many examples of such memory, unaccompanied by any very peculiar excellence in the gift of languages. Still less can it be ascribed exclusively to any quickness of perception, or any perfection of analytic or synthetic power. Perhaps there is no form in which these powers are so wondrously displayed, as in the curious phenomena of mental arithmetic. And yet I am not aware that any of the extraordinary mental calculators has been distinguished as a linguist. On the contrary, many of them have been singularly deficient in this respect. Mr. George Bidder, one of the latest, and in many respects most creditable, examples of this faculty, confesses his entire deficiency in talent for literature or language ; and Zachariah Dase, whose performances as a calculator almost exceeded all belief, could never master a word of any foreign language except a little German.

But in Cardinal Mezzofanti we meet not only each of these qualities, but a most perfect and perfectly balanced union of them all. His memory in itself would have made him an object of wonder. Quick and tenacious to a degree certainly not inferior to any recorded example of the faculty, it was one of the most universal in its application of which any record is preserved ; embracing every variety of subject— not alone the vocabularies and forms which he acquired, but every kind of matter to which it was directed; -history, poetry, and even persons and personal occurrences. But there was, above all, one characteristic in which it was distinguished from almost all other memories. Some of those qualities already named were possessed by other individuals in an equal, if not a greater or more striking, degree. Henderson, the player, was said to be able to repeat the greater part of the most miscellaneous contents of a newspaper after a single reading; and the mental arithmetician just named, Zachariah Dass, after dipping his eye over a row of twelve figures, could repeat them backwards and forwards, and in every other order, and could multiply them instantaneously by one or two figures at pleasure. Some memories too possessed this faculty entirely independent of the judgment or the reasoning powers. Pere Menestrier was able to repeat a long jumble of unmeaning names after hearing them but once, and the young Corsican mentioned by Padre Menocchio could do the same, even after the lapse of an entire year ! But the perfection of Mezzofanti's memory was different from all these, and consisted in its extraordinary readiness. Sir W. Hamilton, in one of his notes on Reid, happily reviving an old view of Aristotle, distinguishes between memory (mnhmh) and reminiscence, (anamvhsis) between spontaneous and elaborated memory—memory of intuition, and memory of evolution. In Mezzofanti the latter hardly appears to have had a place. His memory seems to have acted by intuition alone. It was not only a rare capacity for storing up and retaining the impressions once made upon it, no matter how rapid and how various, but a power of holding them distinct from each other, and ready for instant use. And thus, over the vast and various assortment of vocabularies which he possessed, he enjoyed a control so complete, that he would draw upon each and all at pleasure, as the medium for the expression of his thoughts ;—just as the experimentaist, by the shifting of a slide, can change, instantaneously and at will, the colour of the light with which he illuminates the object of exhibition. Dugald Stewart tells the case of a young woman who could repeat an entire sermon after a single hearing, and whose sole trick of memory consisted in connecting in her mind each part of the discourse with a part of the ceiling. It would almost seem as if the memory of Mezzofanti had some such local division into compartments, in which the several vocabularies could, as it were, be stored apart, and through which his mind could range at pleasure, culling from each the objects or words which it desired, no matter how various or how unconnected with each other.

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