Polyglot or multilingual: What's the difference?

by and on February 19, 2016

Are you a polyglot or multilingual? What’s the difference? The short answer is that “polyglot” comes from Greek, whereas “multilingual” comes from Latin. Both words are compounds in their respective languages of origin and can be broken up and literally translated as ‘many’ + ‘tongue’. The terms therefore refer to a person or object that has something to do with many tongues—that is, many languages.

Have you many tongues?

The word “polyglot” originates from ancient Greek πολύγλωττος (poluglōttos), literally ‘many-tongued’, and entered English in the 17th century. But what’s a tongue got to do with being able to speak many languages? Well, as a vital organ of vocal expression, the tongue has become a metaphor for speech, words, and language itself—and perhaps a specific one too, so we entertain the idea of a person who speaks multiple languages having many tongues. The 16th century English classical scholar and statesman John Cheke tells us so in his advocacy for Saxon words over more complex Greek and Latin ones:

I am of the opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borrowing of other tungs.

Cheke probably won’t be very happy about the way we spell ‘tongue’ today, what with its French air about it (‘tongue’ is langue in French)!

The earliest instance of “multilingual”, in the sense of ‘having or speaking more than two languages’ is dated 1838 in the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas the earliest entry for “polyglot” is dated to 1650. It seems that “multilingual” entered the English lexicon much later (in the 19th century) than “polyglot”, which had already been around and in use for close to 200 years.

It might seem intuitive to us today, but in fact, forming English words beginning with “multi” is a relatively new phenomenon—having begun in the early 17th century when most everyone in the fields of academia and politics used Latin. King George I of Great Britain, for example, couldn’t speak English, and his Prime Minister Robert Walpole couldn’t speak German or French, so they communicated in Latin! According to the English historian William Coxe, who was also a tutor to the nobility, “Walpole was frequently heard to say, that during the reign of the first George, he governed the kingdom by means of bad Latin.”

Anyway, word formations involving “multi-” only became more common in the 19th century and then most frequent in the middle of the 20th century. This is probably because Latin has always been used in specialist and scientific terms, and technological innovations really picked up the last two centuries.

Multilingual = Polyglot ?

To return to the main topic, over time, people probably figured they didn’t need terms for being super specific about the number of languages one speaks—thus getting by without terms like trilingual/triaglot, quadralingual, pentalingual, hexalingual, septalingual, and so on—and so settled for “multilingual” or “polyglot”. Which one do you intuitively use?

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows us how both terms were used from the years 1600–2000, and also shows us that while “polyglot” came to being much earlier than “multilingual”, it is the latter that persists in people’s spoken and written words today. Perhaps it’s also more intuitive to use than “polyglot”, since there is a larger number of words English speakers use in common discourse that begins with the Latin-derived “multi-” meaning ‘many’, as in multiple, multipurpose, and multicultural. With the Greek-derived morpheme “poly-”, we can think of one other—unpopular—example off the top of our my heads: polymath, literally ‘having learnt much’, and meaning someone with wide knowledge or learning.

Google NGram of the use of “multilingual” and “polylglot” from 1600–2000.

Linguistic realities

With an increasingly globalised, multilingual world, people have become more meta-linguistically aware—that is, they talk about languages, and not just in them. We saw earlier that “multilingual” began to be used more frequently only around the 20th century; interestingly, the same can be said for the word “monolingual”, albeit at a much lower frequency—perhaps a reflection of the proportion of multilinguals versus monolinguals in the world? Or a reflection of the decentralisation of the English-centric linguistic study from that time. In any case, such a trend could also be attributed to the increasing interest in and knowledge of multilingual landscapes that exist in most parts of the globe, and the fact that the topic has been institutionalised as an academic field of study.

Surely this is a step forward towards understanding the multilingual realities in which we live in and interact with, if only to allow us to better appreciate the multifarious cultures, experiences, and histories of common thought—like, two ways to say call someone who speaks many tongues!

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