The 40 language dash

Just before Christmas last year, a French computer geek called Alex Lemaire managed to break the record for the mental arithmetical calculation of the 13th root of a 100 digit number. He did it in 3.62 seconds. He’s now set another global challenge to like-minded calculators – find the 13th root of a 200 digit number (Libération last week) in the shortest possible time.

More interestingly, this memorization hobbyist is also trying to learn 40 (modern) languages simultaneously. By that, I guess he means languages with Latin alphabets, and “learning” probably means memorizing lists of facts about or sayings in a language, rather than demonstrating natural conversational fluency. But there are as yet no details about what he’s doing.

I can’t find a Guinness Book of Records type performance benchmark for this sort of skill, but have the feeling that language hobbyism is set to grow. This could surf on the growing interest in inventing whole languages, and could extend to competitions such as memorizing word lists, speed translating and so on, rather as speed typing was a competitive sport in the early 20th century. As we shift from an era of information scarcity to one of web-driven glut, our sense of ‘language knowledge’ may well evolve into something far more entertaining and competitive, as tongues clash in cyberspace.

Discussions about record-breaking polyglossia, however, have a venerable half life on sites and discussion lists all over the web, even though the notions of “speaking” or “knowing” are notoriously slippery. The most cited (Western) lingo champ is Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti who was reputed to speak thirty-eight languages perfectly. But I was intrigued to come across Plutarch’s reference to Cleopatra’s fairly extensive multilingualism in Nicholas Ostler’s constantly interesting book referred to in a previous post. According to Plutarch in (Thomas North’s translation), Cleo’s guests found that:

It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian.

Presumably the Troglodytes spoke a version Berber as spoken in Libya and eastern Numidia (today’s southern Tunisia) where there still people who escape the midday sun by living in caves.  She would have conversed with Mark Antony in Greek (presumably her mothertongue, coming as she did from a Macedonian background). Her story raises the intriguing subject of the glosserotics of multilingual love affairs in history. Interestingly the expression in either singular or plural cannot be found on Google as yet.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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