Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a Democratic presidential candidate, has become famous for speaking lots of languages. Depending on the day and the media outlet, the number rises and falls. He’s been granted six languages, seven languages, and eight languages. After the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, he dipped into French to answer questions from French media. He fielded questions from Norwegian journalists in Norwegian, which he’s said to have taught himself in order to read novels in the language.
While speaking so many languages may be rare among the American public, Buttigieg’s ascent is a textbook polyglot path to fame. An aura tends to grow around multilinguists—and often beyond their control. Their fame can be immediately disqualifying if the stories seem too fantastic to be true. It can also set polyglots up for failure and embarrassment if they rely on their myths for attention and livelihood. Either way, the embellishment of their abilities says more about the era in which they live and the culture that surrounds them than the possibility of speaking a lot of languages in any objective sense.
Hyperpolyglots—the world’s best language learners—can perform some prodigious linguistic feats. Early in the 20th century, a German diplomat named Emil Krebs, stationed in Beijing, was a favored interlocutor of the Empress Dowager Cixi and could translate 32 languages into and out of German. In 1990, the Scotsman Derick Herning was crowned the most multilingual person in Europe for having 10-minute conversations in 22 languages in a row with native speakers. Hyperpolyglots like these two men must put in tremendous amounts of time and effort. But even in cases of genuine talent, some recurrent factors contribute to things getting exaggerated.
One important key to the myth that tends to be built up around polyglots is the vaporous quality of numbers of languages. How many languages can Buttigieg actually speak? His campaign confirmed eight when I reached out: English, Norwegian, Spanish, French, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, and Dari. A specific count of languages, though, can also be an unreliable credential for any polyglot, because a language isn’t a defined unit of measure.
At a certain point, it’s pegged more to people’s fascination than to actual language abilities. In my 2012 book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, one hyperpolyglot I profiled wouldn’t tell me how many languages he could speak, because he knew he’d lose control. “I would walk in the party and say I spoke nine languages,” he said, “and by the end of the night I would hear that I spoke 24.”
In the media glare, this fraught metric becomes even more unstable. Buttigieg’s linguistic repertoire could continue to swell or diversify, not because he claims more languages but because others do it for him. As soon as Buttigieg popped up on political media, anecdotes poured in about his swooping in out of nowhere with his exotic languages. Last month, the writer Anand Giridharadas tweeted that Buttigieg’s Norwegian appeared “like a magic trick.” A South Bend emergency-room doctor sent a message on Twitter to the BuzzFeed writer Ashley C. Ford about the time the mayor materialized in a local hospital and translated in Arabic for a patient. According to the message, Buttigieg had been listening to the police scanner and had heard that an Arabic translator was needed.
The Onion has already joked that Buttigieg “stunned a campaign crowd Wednesday by speaking to manufacturing robots in fluent binary.” (This seems to be an allusion to the most famous movie hyperpolyglot, C-3PO, who is “fluent in over 6 million forms of communication”—or so he claims.)
No matter the historical period, polyglot mythmaking has thrived on anecdotes of isolated encounters and mini-spectacles. In 1820, a Hungarian named Baron Franz Xaver von Zach visited an Italian cardinal, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who by that point was a world-famous hyperpolyglot. Von Zach reported that Mezzofanti first addressed him in Hungarian, next in several dialects of German, and then spoke English to an Englishman and Russian and Polish to a visiting Russian prince. Mezzofanti’s reputation as “a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglott,” as Lord Byron enthused, was a litany of such instances.
Modern academic linguists have traded similar stories about Ken Hale, an MIT professor who was said to speak 50 languages. They retell how a clerk at an Irish embassy once begged Hale to switch to English, because his Irish was better than hers, and how Hale showed up in an Australian Aboriginal village at 10 a.m. to begin fieldwork and was conversing fluently by lunchtime. (Hale died in 2001.)
The polyglot myth can further expand based on how commentators, journalists, and bystanders loosely apply terms such as fluency, proficient, speaks, or knows. Heavy.com, for instance, reported that Buttigieg “is proficient in seven languages other than English: Norwegian, French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, and Dari.” But what does proficient mean? Is it the same as mastery? (When I asked Buttigieg’s campaign about his languages, I received his list with no verb like speaks or knows; I asked about his criteria for grouping them but have not heard anything back.) Corporations, universities, and governments have developed fine-grained scales of people’s abilities to read, write, speak, listen, and translate in languages because they need objective measures of those abilities. In the vernacular, those distinctions get flattened.
MIT’s Hale tried to counter this by distinguishing between “speaking” a language and “talking in” one, in order to combat the myth he felt forming around him. He could speak only three languages, English, Warlpiri, and Spanish, he would say, but could talk in the rest. His admirers weren’t always convinced. In an interview, he once tried to explain that he doesn’t deserve his reputation as a gifted language learner. It didn’t work. “That is not true,” the interviewer told him.
None of this is meant to cast doubt on or give credence to Buttigieg’s actual language abilities. But the contours of polyglot mythmaking underscore a deep, tenacious belief in language as a form of magic. Somehow, words do things. They reveal, and they hide. Witnessing a conversation in a language you don’t understand confirms words’ esoteric power. In that light, someone who speaks lots of languages can’t avoid being regarded as a prodigious magician.
Monolinguals aren’t the only ones with this belief. Even in communities where being multilingual is completely ordinary, individuals who know many unusual languages or know them at a very young age are often regarded with awe. So Americans could be forgiven for their fascination with Mayor Pete’s languages, whether his viral moments are embellished sleights of hand or true magic.