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Uneducated linguists
Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > Other linguists > Uneducated linguists

It would be interesting too, and not without its advantage in reference to the history of the human mind, to collect examples of what may be called Uneducated Linguists; of Dragomans, Couriers, " Lohnbedienter," and others, who, ignorant of all else besides, have acquired a facility almost marvelous of speaking several languages fluently, and in many cases with sufficient seeming accuracy. Perhaps this is the place to mention the once notorious (to use his own favourite designation) " Odcombian Leg- stretcher," Tom Coryat, a native of Odcombe in Somersetshire (1577-1617), and author of the now rare volume, " Coryat's Orudities," Coryat may fairly be described as " an uneducated linguist;" for, although he passed through Westminster School, and afterwards entered Gloucester Hall, Oxford, the languages which he learned were all picked up, without regular study, during his long pedestrian wanderings in every part of the world; one of which, of nearly two thousand miles, he accomplished in a single pair of shoes, (which he hung up in the church of Odcombe as a votive offering on his return), and another, of no less than two thousand seven hundred, at a cost of about three pounds sterling ! This strange genius acquired, in a sufficient degree for all the wants of conversation, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani ! another singularity of the same kind was Robert Hill, the Jewish tailor, whom Spence has made the subject of an exceedingly curious parallel with Magliabecchi. And many similar examples might doubtless be collected among the couriers, interpreters, and valets-de-place of most of the European capitals. Baron von Zach mentions an ordinary valet-de-place who could speak nearly all the European languages with the greatest ease and correctness, although he was utterly ignorant not only of the grammar of every one of them, but even of that of his own language. I have already said that the same species of talent is hereditary in several families in different ports and cities of the Levant. the history of such cases as those, if it were possible to investigate it accurately, might throw light on the operations of the mind in the acquisition of languages. those, however, and many similar topics, interesting and curious as they are for their own sake, have but little bearing on the present inquiry; the purpose of which is simply to prepare the way for a fitting estimate of the attainments of the illustrious subject of the following Biography, by placing in contrast with them the gifts of others who, at various times, have risen to eminence in the same department. Cardinal Mezzofanti will be found to stand so immeasurably above even the highest of those names, in the department of language, that, at least for the purposes of comparison with him, its minor celebrities can possess little, claim for consideration.

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