Friday, February 01, 2008


When I tell people that I studied Latin and German (and a bit of Classical Greek) at uni they often think it must be a really difficult and confusing thing to learn more than one language at the same time. I think that attitude comes partly from the fact that not many people (especially native speakers of English) bother to learn languages any more, and so to them it seems like a difficult thing. Not so long ago languages were at the core of a liberal education, and to speak several languages was not so unusual.

In Europe it’s still fairly common to speak more than one language; I spent six months on exchange in Vienna during uni and made friends with Bulgarians fluent in German, Russian and English, as well as people from Hungary, China, Spain, Turkey and Poland also fluent in at least German and English, and often other languages besides. One of my good friends there grew up in the French speaking part of Switzerland, with an Italian dad and an Austrian mum, had studied Russian at school, lived in Greece for a year, and picked up English in her spare time by talking to American exchange students. She was pretty fluent (as far as I could tell) in all of them.

James Murray, the most important editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, had an even more remarkable ability with languages. Applying for a job at the British Museum in 1867, Murray wrote the following:

I have to state that philology, both Comparative and Special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes- not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal and various dialects. In the Teutonic branch I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French and occasionally other languages), Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician to the point where it is left by Genesius.

At the time Murray was thirty and working as a bank clerk, having left school at the age of fourteen. He didn’t get the job.

[cited in The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Simon Winchester, p 34]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, I can speak 3 languages.

Bad English
and Bad Latin.

Really, what more could you want or need?