In 1817, Lord Byron is said to have challenged an Italian cardinal to a multilingual cursing contest.
The English poet reputedly opened the contest by uttering as many different imprecations as he could in the languages he had studied.
Byron recalled later that he swore “in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, posthouses, post, everything.”
Realizing that he was running out of words, the nobleman switched to English slang. He eventually exhausted his reserves and fell silent. At that moment, the gently spoken cardinal is said to have uttered these crushing words: “And is that all?”
The prince of the Church then unleashed a seemingly unending stream of London slang, much of it unknown to the poet.
Lord Byron described the cardinal later as “a monster of languages … a walking polyglot … who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter.”
The cursing contest story is told by Charles William Russell in his monumental 1858 biography “The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti.” Russell, an Irish Catholic priest, added a note of skepticism, saying that while the anecdote was “still current in Rome,” it was “doubtless a mere exaggeration of the real story.”
Cardinal Mezzofanti is regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — language learners of all time. He was not merely a polyglot, or speaker of multiple languages, but a “hyperpolyglot,” a person fluent in six or more languages.
Mezzofanti’s nephew claimed that the cardinal was acquainted with 114 languages. Russell himself estimated that Mezzofanti spoke 30 languages with “rare excellence,” including Armenian and Maltese, a further nine fluently (including Algonquin), and 11 “less perfectly.”
Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti was born on Bologna’s Via Malcontenti on Sept. 17, 1774. A precocious learner, he was ordained a priest in 1797 and named a professor at the venerable University of Bologna.
Briefly removed from the post after refusing to swear loyalty to Napoleon Bonaparte’s Cisalpine Republic, he ministered to foreigners wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, expanding his knowledge of European languages.
Mezzofanti claimed that he could familiarize himself with a new language in two weeks by asking the recuperating soldiers to recite well-known prayers in their native languages, which he would then use to build up his mastery.
He credited God, not just his native skills, with helping him to pick up foreign tongues. “Through the grace of God,” he said, “assisted by my private studies, and by a retentive memory, I came to know not merely the generic languages of the nations to which the several invalids belonged, but even the peculiar dialects of their various provinces.”
Mezzofanti moved to Rome in 1831, serving as a member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Two years later, he was named custodian-in-chief of the Vatican Library. In 1838, he received the cardinal’s red hat. He died in the Eternal City on March 15, 1849, at the age of 74.
The cardinal is the subject of Michael Erard’s gripping book “Mezzofanti’s Gift,” subtitled “The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.” The American writer and linguist hunts for the truth about the much mythologized Mezzofanti.
Erard told The Pillar in a phone interview that one feature of a hyperpolyglot is that they learn more languages than they need to live in their communities. The acquisition of languages typically sets them apart from the community.
“He benefited from being a cleric because he had functions that gave him access to speakers that other people wouldn’t have had or maybe would have seen suspicious,” he said.
“Certainly, a priest coming in ministering to wounded soldiers is going to be perceived in a different way than a random unassigned person who might be thought of as a spy or someone potentially dangerous.”
“But then he was also linked to an institution that was truly global and at the time was one of the only globally spread institutions that had the power to bring people from all over the world to a single spot, and then send them back out again.”
“He was able to confound that dynamic about polyglots whereby learning more languages takes them apart from their local community. His local community was the Church and then the Vatican, where there were as many languages as he had an appetite for.”
As Mezzofanti’s fame grew, people started to seek him out — either to marvel at his gift or in hope of exposing him as a charlatan. A Hungarian woman who met him in 1841 acknowledged his unusual abilities, but compared him to “a monkey or a parrot, a talking machine, or a sort of organ wound up for the performance of certain tunes.”
Erard said that while writing the book, he met people who were able to perform “Mezzofanti-like” feats.
“I was taken on a tour of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which is where the U.S. military sends people to be trained in foreign languages,” he recalled.
“My tour guide was a former head of the school who was now the head of the alumni group. He was doing a very Mezzofanti-like thing, saying ‘hi’ in Arabic to this person, saying ‘hi’ in Russian to this other person, ‘hi’ in Polish to another.”
“If you didn’t know that what he was saying were formulaic kinds of expressions, and that no one expected any kind of substantive interaction or conversation to come out of it, you would think: ‘Wow, this guy is amazing. He speaks 12 languages.’ He was very multilingual, but he didn’t speak all 12 languages like a native speaker.”
Mezzofanti himself would usually respond modestly when people praised his linguistic skills. He liked to say: “What am I but an ill-bound dictionary?”
Get 'The Pillar' in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday - and help make subscriber-supported journalism happen - with no clickbait, and no nonsense
Along with modesty, the cardinal displayed other marks of holiness — or at least asceticism. He reputedly ate little, slept just three hours a night, and refused to use heating in cold weather. He would also decline the “baciamano,” the customary kiss of an ecclesiastical dignitary’s ring.
The Napoleonic Wars were not the only occasion when Mezzofanti’s pastoral labors and hunger for linguistic knowledge were happily combined. A woman once reputedly asked the cardinal to hear the confession of her maid, who only spoke Sardinian. The cardinal asked her to send the maid to talk to him for an hour a day for two weeks. He mastered the language and was able to hear her confession before Easter.
The cardinal would sometimes write occasional verses of poetry for visitors, which seem to shed light on his inner life. For one guest, he wrote in English:
Let mind be right, and heart be pure;
This, will good works ensure.
Good fruits come forth from a good tree:
God! give me such to be.
In another, written in Italian and cited by Erard, he wrote:
Of all the thousands of voices in various accents
that come from human breasts in hundreds of languages
the one that’s dearest to a virtuous and modest heart
is the voice that praises and extols the Creator.
Erard said that Mezzofanti left several clues about his language-learning techniques. He noted that the cardinal struggled to learn Chinese, indicating that he was a “phonetically oriented learner.” Mezzofanti experimented with shorthand systems which he could use to represent the sounds of languages from diverse families.
“The other thing was that I found his flashcards,” Erard said. “In the archives [in Bologna], there were boxes that were listed as ‘miscellaneous.’ And if you ever do any archival research, always open the boxes that are listed as ‘miscellaneous’ because that’s where the good stuff is. There were all of these unmarked, very thick stacks of paper. And I unpacked them and realized that they were flashcards.”
“But the languages that were listed there were ones that he learned later. So I don’t know if the flashcard system was something that he invented and used for his whole life, which would be interesting. I don’t know if the flashcard system was something that he picked up and then used later in life for languages that he was studying later. Or maybe the earlier flashcards were lost or destroyed somehow.”
Erard added: “Every time I talk about hyperpolyglots, I always ask: ‘Do you know what the history of flashcards is?’ No one’s been able to tell me where that educational technology comes from. And I think it’s plausible that Mezzofanti was the person who invented it.”
“I would be surprised if that were the case, because he appears rather late in the history of learning technology. I would have anticipated that the Chinese would have developed something like that, or the Arabs would have. But I haven’t found any evidence of that. So I think that’s an open question for someone to try to figure out.”
Erard said he also uncovered some evidence suggesting that Mezzofanti was considered a potential candidate for canonization at one point.
“I did find a document that was a description of the exhuming of his body. It was 15 years after he died, or something like that. It seemed to be a reaction to the fad at the time of stealing the skulls of geniuses. So it was an attempt to try to make sure that his body was intact,” he said.
“But it may have also been linked to an effort to canonize him, because part of the rules are about ascertaining whether or not there’s any other sort of cult surrounding this particular person. You’re going and looking at the corpse to see unusual signs of some sort of holy phenomenon.”
“According to the canonization rules of the time, Mezzofanti was kind of within the ballpark. He met some of the criteria as a sort of a father of the Church or leader of the Church, or something like that. But obviously, nothing came out of that. I don’t know why.”