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Word Minutiae

I have been going through a distracted phase.  That’s a kind way of saying that I sit down at the computer with good intentions to get work done, and then start Googling things such as “Pitfall, Intellevision.”  And then I waste 14 minutes watching videos on YouTube of Pitfall.  I follow that up with a downloading-sample-chapters-off-of-Amazon chaser.  And reading blogs.  And writing a pointless blog post such as this one.  Truly, no one in the world is dying to read these words.  They will not change anything.  But still, I write them.  And then I notice that in 20 minutes, I have to pick up the kids from school so there’s really no point trying to get any writing done.  I might as well just play a game for 20 minutes.

And the cycle renews the next day.

I decided that I needed a goal.  5 pages a day.  20 pages a week.  You may notice that it doesn’t add up.  That’s because I’ve designated one day to be a catch-all for my Googling as well as any other small tasks that pop-up during the week.  If I write 20 pages per week, I will be finished with the book I’m writing in two months.  And if I am done in two months, I have a nice chunk of time to edit before the manuscript is due.

Telling myself to write from 9 to 3 everyday wasn’t working, but telling myself that I only have to complete 5 pages has made me hyperproductive.  In my first week of trying this, I hit 26 pages by Thursday.  I record my progress on a virtual post-it note on the left side of the screen so I can’t ignore the fact that I have something to do every day.  Just 5 pages.

Not so bad.


I looked up how many blog post drafts I have.  245.  If I spread them out a bit instead of posting every single day, I could have a year’s worth of posts.  I could set them up to run and walk away from the blog for a year and still have content on here semi-daily.  That is a bizarre idea.  It’s like frozen dinners that you make before surgery so you’ll have something to eat while you’re recuperating.  Except I have no planned surgery.  Just a freezerful of frozen dinners.  I almost feel like I should invite others over, tell them to take what they wish out of the freezer.  I mean, just sitting there, those posts will get frostbite at some point… right?


Mental Floss had an article recently about how many languages it’s possible for one person to know.  In other words, do our brains have a limit? Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti held the most languages (of the people listed in the article) at 40 to 72 languages.  The article says,

He had 14 which he had studied but not used, 11 in which he could have a conversation, 9 which he spoke not quite perfectly but with a perfect accent, and 30 languages (from 11 different language families) which he had totally mastered.

30 languages that he mastered!  MASTERED!  Spoke perfectly with a perfect accent?  An additional 20 that he could converse in?

And he’s not the most accomplished polyglot.  The wikipedia page on the subject lists many people — alive or dead, some that you’ll know and some you won’t — who know six or more languages to fluency.  On that page, the good cardinal only got to claim 39 languages.  But still — STILL — 39 languages?  The most accomplished seems to be Emil Krebs, who “mastered 68 languages in speech and writing and studied 120 other languages.”  Other languages.  In other words, 188 languages total.

I’m not sure I could even list 188 languages much less learn them.  To show my limitations, I started constructing a list.  I got to 49.

  1. English
  2. French
  3. Spanish
  4. Portuguese
  5. Italian
  6. Latin
  7. Greek
  8. Hebrew
  9. Arabic
  10. Aramaic
  11. Amharic
  12. Xhosa
  13. Afrikaans
  14. Hausa
  15. Yoruba
  16. Igbo
  17. Norwegian
  18. Swedish
  19. Danish
  20. Finnish
  21. Icelandic
  22. Dutch
  23. German
  24. Russian
  25. Ukranian
  26. Romanian
  27. Polish
  28. Mandarin
  29. Cantonese
  30. Korean
  31. Japanese
  32. Hindi
  33. Tamil
  34. Urdu
  35. Farsi
  36. Swahili
  37. Vietnamese
  38. Lao
  39. Tagalog
  40. Thai
  41. Estonian
  42. Turkish
  43. Serbo-Croatian
  44. Czech
  45. Hungarian
  46. Yiddish
  47. Quechua
  48. American Sign Language
  49. Braille

So I could only name off the top of my head 49 languages.  I know some of these breakdown further.  Some people count classic Greek and modern Greek as knowing two languages.  Due to a lot of Scandinavian studies classes, I know Norwegian has both Nynorsk and some other form of Norwegian.  Obviously there are many forms of sign language, and I only included American Sign Language.  I wasn’t sure whether or not to add Cued Speech.  Is that a language?  I know some people say it isn’t.  But you sort of learn it as you would learn a language.  I was really on the fence there.  So yes, if you forced me to delve a bit deeper, I could probably extend it beyond 49.  But certainly not to 188.

I have a translation degree, so I obviously know another language beyond English.  I also had to pass a fluency exam in a third language to get out of a language requirement in college, though I’d argue that their definition of “fluent” and my definition of “fluent” are two different things.

My knee-jerk reaction of coveting was that I wanted to learn 188 languages too, or at least have access to a paltry 39 – 72 like the cardinal.  To always have a word for everything; I mean, you have to assume that amongst 188 languages, all emotions and ideas are covered.  But then I wondered what was lost by knowing so many languages.  Is there such a thing as “too much” when it comes to words?  And what is the tipping point?

When does knowledge of words go from enhancing to detracting from your life?

And can you think up 188 languages?  Can we even collectively brainstorm the names of 188 languages starting from this jumping off point of 49 languages?


1 Amber { 03.10.13 at 11:30 am }


2 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.10.13 at 11:56 am }

You named a bunch of languages I would not have thought of.

Does Esperanto count?

I cannot imagine being able to be facile with that many words and images.


3 a { 03.10.13 at 1:09 pm }

I could probably memorize vocabulary and learn grammar in several languages, but I would be unable to converse, unless I had to speak with a native speaker all the time.

To add to your list: the Native American languages – Sioux, Apache, etc. I don’t know how different they are or how many there are.

4 GeekChic { 03.10.13 at 3:07 pm }

I speak and read passable Welsh and some others mentioned on your list (Arabic and Ukrainian). I’m also loosely familiar with a few of the 50 or so Native Canadian languages still present in Canada (I’m most familiar with Cree).

5 JustHeather { 03.10.13 at 4:03 pm }

That’s a lot of languages…
I can think of Sami (Lapland people) and Kikuyu (Kenyan tribe) off the top of my head. Native American languages also came into my mind.

6 gradualchanges { 03.10.13 at 5:41 pm }

Ah distractions… Thanks for that. After my own google and subsequent you tubage of pitfall, I had to search for montezuma’s revenge – my favorite computer game from childhood. Fun times. As for languages, I can count to ten in Spanish (thanks Sesame Street) and French that’s about it. I can’t imagine knowing so many languages.

7 Elizabeth { 03.10.13 at 7:29 pm }

Don’t forget Albanian! 😉

8 persnickety { 03.10.13 at 8:16 pm }

Ah distractions, glad to know not the only one. I can think of Romansch (sp?) the latinate obscure language of Switzerland and Navajo language (I lived in northern NM for 5 years and knew the code talker story long before it was a movie), hopi, ute.
Also Lithuanian, latvian, Slovak(?- what do they speak in slovakia).
Inuit, maori, hawaiain (the polynesian tongues are probably pretty varied)
There are innumerate aborignal tongues in Canada and Australia as well, and South America.
I loved understanding the implications of language- the difference between the usage for profound in English and french even though they are nominally the same word.

9 Tracie { 03.10.13 at 9:50 pm }

I’m not sure if I would have come up with as many languages as you did.

The idea of scheduling posts for a year and walking away feels very strange. I can’t imagine it. I do kind of love the idea of sharing those posts around. You could make a list of topics, and let people choose from the list. First come, first served.

10 Queenie { 03.10.13 at 11:10 pm }

I know precisely the point at which knowledge of words goes from enhancing to detracting from my life. It’s the point where I have to spend time away from my children studying them. 🙂 My Spanish vocabulary sometimes lacks, as a result, but I am a happier human.

11 Mali { 03.11.13 at 3:13 am }

Add Tongan, Samoan, Tok Pisin, Khmer, Bislama, Bau Fijian, hawaiian, Bahasa Melayu. Each of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have dozens of languages, and I’m sure that’s the same in Malaysia and Indonesia. Hokkien, Mongolian … Etc.

I LOVE languages, and dabble in a number, approaching fluency (but not getting there) in a couple (Thai, Mandarin), and with travel capability in several European languages. I studied Japanese, but have completely forgotten it! I would love to be fluent, but have always learned new languages ether than persevering with the ones I already know. Stupid, eh?

12 Mina { 03.11.13 at 7:29 am }

I think it is an exponential growth process, once one knows a number of languages from a family of languages, it becomes easier for that person to acquire new related languages, provided the time, dedication and skills in the field. Knowing Latin and Greek helps loads when acquiring vocabulary in a large number of languages in Europe. Speaking Fr, Sp and Ro makes a text in Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Aromanian not all that foreign, the gist of it comes across without having studied any of it. The same, speaking En and De makes learning Dutch easier.
Proficiency, on the other hand, can only be given by study, formal or informal. There are few people in the world who have the talent and skills for foreign languages, and can dedicate a large part of their time to the study of languages.
I speak 3 languages fluently, 3 decently, and a several number of others (so far 4) I can understand in written form. I am seriously thinking of studying the former ones when I have the time, but wouldn’t it be just a vanity project? “Oh, I speak so many languages, but what can I practically do with them?” Still, it might be a better past time than playing solitaire or mahjong, mightn’t it? 🙂

13 Tiara { 03.11.13 at 8:07 am }

Does piglatin count? or Klingon?

Languages has always been 1 of my three wishes…you know, if you find a Genie & they grant you 3 wishes? One of my wishes would be to be able to understand any language & speak fluently in them all!

14 Denver Laura { 03.11.13 at 12:13 pm }

I had to laugh at Tiara’s comment as there was a point in time where I could speak more Klingon than I could French.

I’m currently learning #45 Hungarian in preparation to visit Hungary in a couple of years.

Unofficial languages: creole and gullah. Then there’s Boontling: http://screen.yahoo.com/boontling-lost-american-language-000000145.html

15 mlo { 03.11.13 at 6:12 pm }

I didn’t read the whole post yet, but are you familiar with DOSBox and other wonderful (timewasters) emulaters that let you run old games like SimEarth?

Interestingly, on one of the boards I frequent, there is a lot of talk about how we girl gamers have always been here, but not recognized. Maybe I need to write a post on that . . .

16 Sara { 03.11.13 at 10:21 pm }

Mayan (various dialects)

I speak two languages fluently (English being one of those–hey, it counts), and two more at a basic level. Beyond that, just a few words here and there.

17 Sara { 03.11.13 at 10:24 pm }

I forgot these:


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