Sunday, January 22, 2012

Quot linguæ, tot homini

[And, a rhyming version: 
Quot linguas calles, tot homines vales.
Karl Vossler's version:  "So viel Sprachen einer kann, so viel mal ist er ein Mensch.
(Replace Mensch by Mann, and you get a rhyming version of that.]

A venerable Latin tag, but I don’t really buy it.  If you spread yourself too thin, you run aground in the shallows:  there is no intellectual depth in maintaining a brain-deck of file-cards à la  book = Buch = livre = libro = kitâb …;  and the question, “How many languages do you speak?”  always makes me grind my teeth. (“No more than one at a time,” I sometimes growl.)  Pursuing multilingualism as a fetish  smacks of calculating-savants, quiz-winners, and that ilk.  Antiquity had its Mithridates of Pontus;  the ottocento, its Cardinal Mezzofanti:  but these polyglots were by no means philologists.

There is a quiditas, a je-ne-sais-quoi, a haeccéité  or quintessence, in each linguistic culture, sui generis and untranslatable.   To steep yourself deeply in these, particularly in a language with a long and intricate written history, like Latin or Arabic, or (at somewhat shallower time-depth, but overtaking those in later laps) English, German, or French.  Both at work and in my free time, I use other languages (a different mix depending on the context)  nearly as much as I use English, and am the better for it.   But the point is to go deep, one culture at a time, and not to display some multilingual multitasking like simultaneous tournament chess.   I know many people employed as linguists  who have never read through an entire book in the language that they work with, beyond Harry Potter in translation.  That seems sad.

Anyhow, here is a review, from this morning’s New York Times, of a book on multilingualism, Babel No More, which makes a useful distinction between multilinguals and hyperpolyglots.
(And for a beautiful and elaborate painted depiction of that ancient toppled tower, along with some entertaining philology, click here.)

[Update 18 March 2012] More ammo, from a staff writer of Science:

A propos:

Hugo Schuchardt, best known as a Romance philologist, but who studied a remarkable range of languages, not excluding Basque and Berber, and indeed Arabic (which he traveled to Egypt to master) nonetheless wrote:

Wir glauben nicht an den Segen der Zweisprachigkeit;  wenn man mit Recht gesagt hat, qu’une population qui parle deux langues, a deux cordes à son arc, so hat man vergessen hinzuzufügen, daß keine dieser Sehnen  sehr straff ist.
-- Romanisches und Keltisches (1886), repr. in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 363

Note that this assessment did not, however, prevent him from pioneering the study of the neither-this-or-that Mischsprachen known as creoles;  he even put in a good wrord for those culturally decidedly slack-stringed confections -- not foam-born but test-tube-engendered -- the artificial entities Esperanto and Volapük.

[Update Oct 2014]

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