The prefix poly before a word comes from Greek and means “many” or “multi-.” But what about glot? That part of the word comes from the Greek term glōtta, meaning “language” or “tongue.” First used in English in 1650, the exact definition is:
- (noun) A person who speaks several languages
- (adj.) Speaking several different languages
- (adj.) Composed of different linguistic groups e.g. a polyglot population
- (adj.) Containing matter in several languages e.g. a polyglot sign
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we thought we’d put together a list of our favourite female polyglots throughout history. Some of them may surprise you!
Cleopatra VII (69 – 30 BC)
Cleopatra, the last pharoah of Egypt, was a polyglot, speaking nine languages according to Plutarch.“Like a many-stringed instrument, she turned her tongue easily to whatever dialect she would, and few indeed were the foreigners with whom she conversed through an interpreter, since she answered most of them in her own words, whether Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebrew, Arab, Syriac, Median or Parthian.” She rarely needed an interpreter and spoke Eygytian, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, and Latin as well as her native Greek.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
The famous red-headed monarch ruled the throne of England for 44 years. She was one of the best-educated women of her time, and reportedly spoke ten languages – English, French, Latin and Italian, and could converse in Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Flemish, Greek and Welsh. She was able to converse with ambassadors and noblemen from all over Europe in their own languages at court. A Venetian ambassador said of her, “she possessed these [langauges] so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue” and Elizabeth herself was well aware of her prodigious intellectual ability, writing to her brother in 1551, “for the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present.”
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1799)
This Italian mathematician, philospher and humanitarian spoke Italian, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish and German – and all by the age of eleven years old. She was widely regarded as a prodigy, and her reputation for her exceptional intellect was cemented when she was appointed as a professor in the mathematics faculty at the University of Bologna – the first woman ever to hold this role anywhere in the world. She also was the first woman to author a book on mathematics, published in Milan in 1748. An asteroid was named after her in 1996.
Kató Lomb (1909 – 2003)
Kató Lomb was born in Hungary in 1909. She graduated with a degree in physics and chemistry, but her love of languages resulted in a career as a famous interpreter, and one of the world’s first simultaneous interpreters. In her own words, she had various degrees of fluency in an incredible number of languages: “I, over 25 years, got to the point of being able to speak ten languages, translate technical documents and enjoy fiction in six more, and understand written journalism in eleven more or so.” She visited five continents and over forty countries as an interpreter and published four books about her language acquisition method, her love of languages and the experiences she had through language learning.
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
This famous African American poet, writer and activist was also a polyglot, speaking five languages as well as her native English; French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti, a West African language. Her interest in languages was sparked at the age of twenty six, when she toured Europe as part of a production of Porgy and Bess and started learning the language of every country she visited. “Nothing will work unless you do,” is one of her famous quotes, which could very well be applied to studying a foreign language!
Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993)
Audrey Hepburn was reputed as a beauty of her generation, but there was much more to her than a pretty face! She was born to a Dutch Baroness and a British businessman, and learnt Dutch, French and English as a child. The famous Oscar-winner went on to learn Italian, German and Spanish as an adult, and used these different languages during her career and in her later charity work for Unicef as she travelled around the world.
Madeleine Albright (1937-)
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, Madeleine Albright emigrated with her family to America when she was eleven years old. She made history when she was the first woman appointed to the position of Secretary of State in 1990 under then-President Bill Clinton. She speaks English, French, Russion and Czech, and understands Polish and Serbo-Croation.
Jodie Foster (1962 – )
She began her acting career aged three years old, was nominated for an Oscar at the age of fourteen, then took a break from acting in order to study literature at Yale, and in addition to this also speaks five languages. As well as her native English, she is fluent in French as a result of attending a French-language prep school in Los Angeles. Her French is so good that she dubs her own voice in French versions of her films and acted as a French interpreter for journalists at Cannes Film Festival during the release of Taxi Driver when she was only fourteen! She also speaks Italian, German and Spanish.
Priya Anand (1986 -)
This Indian actress and model was brought up bilingual, speaking both Tamil and Telugu. In additional to her two native languages, she also speaks English, Bengali, Hindi, Mariathi and Spanish. She has acted in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, and is able to dub her own voice across these languages.
And a final quote from Maya Angelou to inspire you in your language learning efforts: “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”
Do you know of any famous female polyglots that should have been on the list? Let us know in the comments!