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Who is Mezzofanti?


If you have been to Mezzofanti.org before, you know that Mezzofanti combines resources and information about many languages of the world into one location - a place where both students and professionals go for their language needs. But, where does the name Mezzofanti come from?

This website is named after the greatest of all students of foreign languages, Giuseppe Caspar Cardinal Mezzofanti. Although specific estimates vary, historians generally agree that Cardinal Mezzofanti spoke around 38 languages and 50 dialects fluently, and spoke many other languages with less fluency. With this amazing ability in language learning, Mezzofanti holds the world record for multi-lingual fluency, and is considered the greatest polyglot in history.  

So, did he learn so many languages? His story begins on 19 September 1774 in Bologna, Italy, where a child named Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti is born to a poor carpenter. As a grade-school student in Bologna, young Mezzofanti learned Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish, German, and Central & South American indigenous languages from former Jesuit missionaries. With much enthusiasm for learning, and an outstanding memory, Mezzofanti excelled in school, and finished his studies for the priesthood early. Not old enough to be ordained a priest, Mezzofanti spent the extra time studying Middle Eastern and Oriental languages.
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In 1797, at the age of 23, Mezzofanti was ordained a Catholic priest, and in the same year, was named professor of Semitic  languages (e.g., Hebrew) and chair of that department, at the University of Bologna. However, he later lost his position in the university when he refused to pledge allegiance to the Cisalpine Republic. Rev. Mezzofanti became a chaplain for hospitals in Bologna during the battles of 1799-1800 in Italy, where he was able to converse with people of many languages and nationalities who were wounded in the battles. In 1803, Mezzofanti was invited back to the university as a professor of the Classical languages (i.e., Greek and Latin). 

Napoleon personally invited Rev. Mezzofanti to come to Paris (1806) and Pope Pius VII invited him to come to Rome (1814), yet he refused the offer. Instead, he remained in Bologna and ministered to visitors and immigrants who could not speak Italian. Finally, Mezzofanti accepted the request of Pope Gregory XVI (1831) to come to Rome, where he earned several official offices and positions within the Vatican. In 1833, he was named Custodian-in-Chief (director) of the Vatican Library, and in 1838 he was named a Cardinal in the Catholic Church. While in Rome, Mezzofanti dedicated much effort to learning languages from the dignitaries, professors, missionaries, and clerics of the Church. He died on 15 March 1849 after a period of ill health.

A biographer of Cardinal Mezzofanti recorded that Mezzofanti spoke all of the following languages: 
Biblical Hebrew Rabbinic Hebrew Arabic Chaldean Coptic Ancient Armenian Modern Armenian Persian Turkish Albanian
Maltese Ancient Greek Modern Greek Latin Italian Spanish Portuguese French German English
Illyrian Russian Polish Bohemian Magyar (Hungarian) Chinese Syriac Ge'es Amharic Hindustani
Guzerati Basque Wallachian Californian +50 dialects +30 other languages        

In this spirit of enthusiasm for learning languages, we present Mezzofanti.org - an all-in-one site for word languages. Featuring instant translation to, and language resources for dozens of world languages, Mezzofanti.org - like its inspiration - seeks to bridge speakers of many diverse languages by using current linguistic technology to its fullest for all students of foreign languages.

References:
-- Benigni, U. "Giuseppe Mezzofanti." Catholic Encyclopedia. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10270b.htm> Ed. 1911.
-- Russell. The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti. London, 1858.
-- Picture from: http://www.icp.ac.ru/RAS_1724-1999/CD_PAH/ENG/18/1834.HTM 


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By: Andrew V. Liaugminas