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Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890)

 Language Learning Forum : Polyglots Post Reply
30 messages over 4 pages: 1 2 3
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Speaks: English*, French, Mandarin
Studies: Arabic (Written)

 Message 25 of 30
03 July 2009 at 3:55am | IP Logged 
I find it worth noting that while the number of languages Burton spoke can be found on the Internet, I have not yet been able to find any complete list of what exactly those 29 languages were.

Can anybody help reconstruct the list of languages he spoke, if you have the book resources? Also, is anybody as interested as I am in knowing in what order he learned them?

Andy in Taiwan
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 Message 26 of 30
03 July 2009 at 4:54am | IP Logged 

There is some pretty specific information available on the issues you raise at - both a list of the languages and (for some of the languages) when he began learning them or specific dates he passed the appropriate regimental exams.
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Joined 5416 days ago

16 posts - 28 votes
Speaks: English*, French, Mandarin
Studies: Arabic (Written)

 Message 27 of 30
03 July 2009 at 3:53pm | IP Logged 
Great Source, thanks!

Some questions still remaining. Dissecting the list, I compiled the dates below (assumes, likely incorrectly that study began one year before the tests). It looks like the dates of some languages are not known and the 1850's and 1860's are somewhat of a mystery. Also, even counting the 2 French and 1 Italian dialects separately, 2 languages are missing from the oft-quoted 29.

Lastly, the language Toda is a new name for me. Does anyone know if it's the same as Kannada?


(List from
1822     English 
1825     Latin 
1826     French  Provençal & Bearnais (1836)
1826     Greek 
1831     Italian Neapolitan
1840     Hebrew
1840     Arabic Zanzibari
1840      Aramaic (?)      
1841     Hindustani 
1842     Gujarati       
1843     Portuguese  
1843     Marathi/Maratha   ; 
1843     Sindhi 
1844     Persian 
     Punjabi     ;  
     Toda    &n bsp; 
     Swahili     ;  
1872??     German

Edited by Xenoguy on 03 July 2009 at 3:55pm

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William Camden
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 Message 28 of 30
06 July 2009 at 3:50pm | IP Logged 
According to Wikipedia, Burton actually took an official test in Arabic after making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and failed the test.
Wikipedia is not always reliable as a source, but Burton had an impatience with academic routine and may not have always done well in formal tests.
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 Message 29 of 30
08 December 2010 at 10:46am | IP Logged 
I do like wikipedia, but as for this information they sure are wrong!!
First, Burton mastered so well the arabic language that he easily could look like a native himself (Damas authorities f.e. were not that pleased with Burton becoming a consul because -according arab authorities - it was no good for them to have consul who looked like an arab, spoke like an arab and knew about arab society so well), so I very much doubt this story of "failed test"...

Second, from 1840 till - let's say - 1865, Burton took examinations in so many languages (hindustani, pashto, armenian, turkish, punjabi, telugu, maharathi, and so on, that I very much doubt he failed taking an examination in his best language, that is, arabic...

Now, the best reliable source is Fawn Brodie "the devil drives" a fantastic book... I know some parts by heart and I so much cherished this guy... not only was he a huge polyglot, but a fantastic traveller too and his translation of arabian nights so much outperform the one made by this french guy I dont even remember the name...

Edited by polyglossia on 08 December 2010 at 10:49am

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 Message 30 of 30
14 December 2010 at 9:08pm | IP Logged 
Richard Francis Burton is my favorite historical character and I'm so glad that I found this thread. He was a main character in The River World Series by Phillip Jose Farmer. It is a science fiction series but it uses historical characters. I read it when I was 13 and it actually started my love affair with language.

I have his biography by Edward Rice, which is entitled Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton A Biography, and I have heard several times that he failed the Arabic test, (he also supposedly killed a young boy during his pilgrimage). I would not put it past him to have failed a test on purpose, as he was known for his anti-authority views; he trampled the rose garden at Oxford to prove a point for instance.

He is a fascinating character and started learning languages very early. He had the traditional classics education as a child where he learned Greek and Latin, and there is some evidence that he had a gypsy girlfriend as a teenager, which could have given him a base in Hindi for later in life.

Definitely worth reading about for anyone interested in language and history.

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