CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI of Bologna was a secular saint. Though he never performed the kind of miracle needed to be officially canonised, his power was close to unearthly. Mezzofanti was said to speak 72 languages. Or 50. Or to have fully mastered 30. No one was certain of the true figure, but it was a lot. Visitors flocked from all corners of Europe to test him and came away stunned. He could switch between languages with ease. Two condemned prisoners were due to be executed, but no one knew their language to hear their confession. Mezzofanti learned it in a night, heard their sins the next morning and saved them from hell.
Or so the legend goes. In “Babel No More”, Michael Erard has written the first serious book about the people who master vast numbers of languages–or claim to. A journalist with some linguistics training, Mr Erard is not a hyperpolyglot himself (he speaks some Spanish and Chinese), but he approaches his topic with both wonder and a healthy dash of scepticism.