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On the strangeness of the word “polyglot”

Written By: katie_k on December 24, 2009 3 Comments

So I was talking with my friend, who insisted on calling me “quadrilingual” (she was counting English of course, then Spanish that I took in high school and afterwards quickly forgot, French – I’ll give her that one, and Russian – no way could this be counted as a language which I know, though I have studied it). Of course, then I had to say that someone who spoke many languages could be considered a “polyglot” (and in addition, that I could not be considered this either since I only really count English and French).

Now, the absurdity of this word strikes me every time I use it. First of all, it sounds like a cross between “polygon” and “glutton” even though I know it comes from the Greek for “many-tongued”. Does it really sound like a good thing to aspire to be a polyglot? Not to my ear, even though I know that it’s exactly what I do aspire to be! To prove that I am not the only one who finds this word strange, my sister (after having heard me talking about the conversation with my friend) tried to use the word the next day and called me a “polylog”, which I suppose is some sort of cross between a tadpole and a mathematical problem (pollywog+logarithm). In some ways I think her word is better, at least it brings to mind marginally better connotations than the word “glutton” does. This is a frivolous post I know, but perhaps some of the polyglots out there who read this can come up with a good defense for the word.

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3 Responses to “On the strangeness of the word “polyglot””

  1. Nicko on: 17 February 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Funny post!

    I think that in French, we use quite often his French counterpart “polyglotte” to refer to a person who speaks more than 3 languages. In fact, I feel that sometimes people consider this word complicated and fancy. Therefore, they tend to use it to show off and prove that they know a complex word! I don’t know if you have that here in US, but in France I’m actually part of a group called “polyglotte” who meet few times a week to speak foreign languages.

    If you don’t like the word “polyglot” maybe you can use the word “plurilingual”. Actually, the Council of Europe in his work “the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages” recommends using the word “plurilingual” to refer to a speaker of various languages and the word “multilingual” to refer to a context where various languages are spoken.

    Also, you don’t actually need to have symmetric competencies in the languages you speak to be considered as a “polyglot” or as a “plurilingual speaker”. In fact, it is nearly impossible to have symmetric competencies in your languages repertory. There is always a subject that you know better in a certain language. And as a matter of fact, you can’t possibly master all the registers in your own native tongue. For instance, a talk between two specialists about a particular topic might be completely meaningless if you are not familiar with their jargon…

  2. katie_k on: 17 February 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I’m glad my post worked in making someone laugh!

    In English, polyglot also sounds complicated, but unlike in French, I wouldn’t call it fancy. My friend liked using it specifically because it sounded funny, which in turn inspired my post. It is certainly not a typical English word (and perhaps that’s what gives it that complicated feeling?). It’s interesting how words can suddenly stand out and seem so strange in a language. Maybe the word “polyglot” is just used so little in English that it has lost the “everyday” feeling and now sounds bizarre to an American speaker (I couldn’t say if this holds up for other English varieties; maybe it’s quite common in New Zealand for example).

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “plurilingual” before, but I like the idea of separate words for a speaker of many languages and for a situation where many languages are spoken.

  3. CK on: 9 October 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I tend to perceive the term “polyglot” as an insult, but that is because one day, after a three day multilingual workshop I was running in Alsace for foreign language teachers from the U.S., France and Germany, the French husband of one of the French participants asked me how I had come to be in charge of this workshop and exclaimed: “Alors, comme ca, on vous a choisie pour vos dons de polyglotte!?” – I felt totally insulted. His remark implied a sexist, monolingual prejudice that felt like a slap in the face. So I responded: “D’abord personne ne m’a CHOISIE ! c’est moi qui ai fait une demande de fonds etc. Et deuxiemement, je ne suis pas POLYGLOTTE, il se trouve tout simplement que je sais le francais, l’anglais et l’allemand. C’est tout!”

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