Some of the world's greatest linguists

History is full of tales (including some very tall tales) of remarkable polyglots. Here are a few examples found on the web - follow the links and you will often find fascinating details of said linguist's life and exploits. In each case the number here shows the maximum number of languages or dialects the person allegedly spoke, translated, or otherwise 'knew'.
(for more examples see this debate on Proz).

Multilingual dogs and wombats

The internet, meanwhile, is full of less talented, often quite bizarre individuals. Instead of learning multiple languages, some for example simply collect polyglot "Beware of the Dog" signs.

As for myself, despite learning to say "Are you going towards...?" quite fluently in numerous languages while hitchhiking around Europe, I was never able to compete with even the average Dutchman, let alone the wonders above. However, I later decided to study one incredibly useful phrase in as many languages as possible, so that now at least I could answer the question "How many languages can you speak?" in double figures...

The phrase I chose came from a television programme called "Not the Nine O'Clock News", popular in the UK in the 1980s. One sketch (as I recall it, although I have not been able to find anything to back this up) included a phrasebook featuring useful phrases such as "Do you have a sluice gate for sale?" and "My wombat has constipation". This was of course presumably inspired by the famous Monty Python Hungarian phrasebook sketch, which had similar lavatorial humour, and may in turn have been influenced by the wonderful "my postillion has been struck by lightning (Q729)".

I went on to research this phrase, and eventually -- within the limited parameters I had set myself) became fluent in over a dozen languages. Recently I decided to share this knowledge with the world, and at the same time attempt to increase my collection. Here is a list of the versions I have amassed so far, arranged in approximate language / geographical groups. Those shown in small text mean I have only found some isolated words, while some of the others are also 'pidgin' translations, as I lack the requisite grammar etc. to complete the phrase.

Please let me know (by e-mail, via link below) if you spot any mistakes, or if you can supply any other translations. (For languages which use non-English alphabets, a small GIF file accompanied by Unicode text if available would probably be best, while a WAV or MP3 audio file indicating the pronunciation would also be great.)

Incidentally, if you want information on real wombats, I'd recommend starting at the World Wide Wombat Web. It is interesting to note that in most languages, wombat is either a simple transcription of the native word, or in a few cases a translation of "pouched mouse" (phaskolo-mus) as in the Greek that was originally used for its scientific name. In Chinese, however, they have more accurately called it a pouched bear. The Lakhota version is rather idiomatic...

Note: much of the text below is in Unicode, and may not display properly unless viewed in a full Unicode font. Users of Windows 2000 (or later) may find that copying the text to e.g. Notepad and changing the font to e.g. Arial Unicode reveals characters that were previously displayed as question marks or square boxes.

EnglishMy wombat has constipation
WelshFy wombat bolrwym
Bretonmy wombat is {stanket e gorf ; bountet e gof ; kaledet ; start e gof ; kaledet e gorf ; start warnañ ; goustivet ; kalet}
FrenchMon phascolome est constipé
SpanishMi wombat esta estreñido
PortugueseMeu fascólomo tem constipação
ItalianIl mio vombato è stitico
GermanMeine Beutelmaus hat Verstopfung
DutchMijn vombat heeft verstopping
EsperantoMia vombato konstipiĝas
LatinMeus vombatus ursinus alvum adstrictam habet
GreekΤο φασκωλομύς μου έχει τη δυσκοιλιότητα
Danish/NorwegianMin vombat har forstoppelse
SwedishMin vombat har förstoppning
FinnishVombatillani on ummetus
EstonianMinu vombatil on kõhukinnisus
HungarianAz erszényes medvémnek székrekedése van
Serbo-Croat? zatvor
RussianУ моего вомбата запор
SlovakMoj vombat ma zapchu
CzechMůj vombat má zácpu
PolishMoj vombat miec zatwardzenie
Arabicووﻣﺒﺎﺗﻲ ﻴﻌﺎﻧﻲ ﻣﻦ ﺍﻻﻧﻘﺒﺎض
Persianmy جانور كيسه دارى شبيه خرس has constipation
Hebrewלוומבט שלי יש עצירות
Guaranimy wombat has {potiasy ; kakaasy}
Gujaratimy wombat has બંધકોશ
Hindimy wombat has कोष्ठबद्धता
Marathimy wombat has बद्धकोष्ठ
Sanskritmy wombat has बद्धकोष्ठः
VietnameseCon gấu túi của tôi bị bệnh táo bón
Lakota (Sioux)Wóžuha-mathóla mitháwa kiƞ uƞzé iyókaskiča

Some years after compiling my list, I happened upon the Kermit Project UTF8 sampler which has inherited the I Can Eat Glass project and expanded it to over 130 languages... That it turn took me to I don’t know. I only work here. and Why can't they just speak ________? which in turn have further ongoing links. I doubt mine will ever rival them for number of languages, but I'm still hopeful that it may expand further (maybe with IPA/MP3 pronunciation guides too). As to which of these numerous phrases is the most useful or useless, that's a matter of opinion.

This page produced by Ben Jones.