Colin Dickey (who wrote an awesomely creepy intellectual history, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, about the 19th century fascination with the skulls of geniuses, which were dug up, dissected, hidden, stolen, lost) alerted me to Kevin McCann’s article in the newest Cabinet Magazine about Louis Wolfson, an American writer who, starting in the 1960s, began obsessively studying foreign languages, starting with French, German, Russian, and Hebrew.
So of course I was interested. Was Wolfson like the hyperpolyglots I’d met?
His account of his language obsession, Le Schizo et les langues, details his methods and process. What Wolfson does and what the people I talked to aren’t very similar. For instance, I met no one with Wolfson’s level of obsession. Writes McCann: “Wolfson decided to eschew any contact with the English language. To drown out people speaking English, he used a short-wave radio tuned to foreign language or classical music broadcasts.” But because he lived in the US, he couldn’t escape English entirely, so he developed methods to transform English words into foreign ones, neutralizing their Englishness. The linguist is interested in knowing if Wolfson’s transformations were solely in the spelling of the word or also in the phonology; McCann doesn’t say. I also wanted to know more about Wolfson’s “defensive system”: were these transformations something that he ran in his head, talking to himself, or did he actually vocalize them?
Sure, the hyperpolyglots I write about wanted to prove themselves by learning lots of languages, but they didn’t take it to this level of obsession; even Christopher, the polyglot savant, doesn’t spend all his time working with languages. Like Wolfson, some of them search for commonalities among languages that they experience at a subjective aesthetic level, but not as the focal point of the practice, not to the level of detail, and not with such arbitrary details as Wolfson, “who discovered that the letter combination dg in English words can generally be replaced by ck in German…for Wolfson, such discoveries constituted scientific breakthroughs,” McCann wrote.
And somewhat comically, and even sadly, Wolfson was never very good in encounters with real speakers, or at least according to what he wrote in Le schizo et les langues. When the rabbi came to sit with his dying mother, Wolfson tried to say “God is the bomb” to him in Hebrew, but he said it incorrectly, as “God is a bomb,” which the rabbid disagreed with and then turned away. The hyperpolyglots I write about all take basic communicative competence as a personal goal and a learning standard.
On the other hand, no hyperpolylot I know of had a reputation among French intellectuals in the 60s and 70s like Wolfson did, on the basis of his books, which have never been translated into English. (Maybe McCann is going to change that.)
I’m glad to have come across this article about Wolfson, who’s still alive and living in Puerto Rico (McCann writes that he interviewed him, in French; maybe he knows Spanish, too), for the purpose of contrast. You may think that making yourself fluent in a bunch of languages is insane, but Wolfson really is genuinely weird.
You’re going to go look up Louis Wolfson on the web now, but you’ll only find something about Louis Wolfson, the deceased financier. So here’s an opportunity for someone to write something up for Wikipedia, if you want.