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     · 1836 to 1838
     · 1838 to 1841
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     · 1843-1849
     · Recapitulation
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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > Recapitulation > Definition

I.I wish I could begin, in accordance with a suggestion of my friend M. d'Abbadie, by defining exactly what is meant by knowledge of a language. But unfortunately, the shades of such knowledge are almost infinite. The vocabularies of our modern languages contain as many as forty or fifty thousand words; and Claude Chappe, the inventor of the telegraph, calculates, that for the complete expression of human thought and sentiment in all its forms, at least ten thousand words are necessary. On the other hand, M. d'Abbadie, in his explorations in Abyssinia, was able to make his way without an interpreter, though his vocabulary did not comprise quite six hundred words ; and M. Julien, in his controversy with Pauthier, asserts that about four thousand words will amply suffice even for the study of the great classics of a language, as Homer, Byron, or Racine.

Which of these standards are we to adopt ?

And even if we fix upon any one of them, how shall we apply it to the Cardinal, whereas we can only judge of him by the reports of his visitors, who applied to him, each a standard of his own?

It is plain that any such strict philosophical notion, however desirable, would be inapplicable in practice. It appears to me, however, that the objects of this inquiry will be sufficiently attained by adopting a popular notion, founded upon the common estimation of mankind. I think a man may be truly said to know a language thoroughly, if he can read it fluently and with ease ; if he can write it correctly in prose, or still more, in verse; and above all, if he be admitted by intelligent and educated natives to speak it correctly and idiomatically.

I shall be content to apply this standard to Cardinal Mezzofanti.

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