Say what? Polyglots talk <I>all</I> the talk


Q. Polyglots are people who speak, read or write several languages, and there are even a few hyperpolyglots. Just how hyper can a hyperpolyglot get? –A. F. Farrell

A. Lomb Kato (1909-2003), a Hungarian translator and interpreter, spoke 17 foreign languages, says Michael Erard in NewScientist magazine. Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) spoke 72 languages, 30 fluently.

He "once learned a language overnight in order to hear the dawn confession of two condemned prisoners." University College of London linguist Dick Hudson told of being contacted by N, who described accompanying his grandfather on a six-month world cruise to Venezuela, Argentina, Norway, the UK, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan. Whatever port they called at, said N, his grandfather knew the local language.

Even more amazing, N's grandfather's own father and great-uncle could speak more than 100 languages. Hudson posted these claims on the Linguist listserv, coining the term "hyperpolyglot."

One reader called the Mezzofanti claim preposterous: Assuming 20,000 words per language, he would have had to learn a word a minute, 12 hours a day for 5.5 years! Some linguists say the brain lacks such reserves, but psycholinguist Suzanne Flynn argues, "It gets easier the more languages you know."

Whether hyperpolyglots just work harder at it or have a special intelligence, they're a marvel and the envy of the rest of us who struggle to master passable Spanish, Russian, Japanese...

Q. Which of our muscles have the most stamina or endurance? Is it the jaw muscles? People sure seem able to eat virtually nonstop. –L .Lovelace

A. All skeletal muscles will fatigue and in fact jaw fatigue is common, particularly for folks who wear dentures or grind their teeth at night, says University of Kentucky physiologist Michael Reid.

Of the limb muscles, antigravity muscles such as soleus (calf) are most fatigue resistant. Diaphragm–the main muscle for breathing–is even more resistant than soleus. "But the endurance athletes of the muscle world are the extraocular eye muscles, the tiny ones that work constantly to keep shifting eye positions. Fatigue is rare because of their high metabolic activity and generous blood supply."

Q. It's a roadblock to space travel even though space medicine specialists have worked on it much as other docs have searched for a cancer cure. Without a cure, manned missions to Mars may be just a dream. With a cure, life on Earth may improve for millions. Can you peg the problem? –A. Schwarzenegger

 A. Bone and muscle loss in microgravity, says Sten Odenwald in Back to the Astronomy Cafe. For every month in orbit, astronauts lose about 1.5 percent of bone mass, while a 4 percent loss/year is severe for those with osteoporosis. The molecular reason for this is not yet clear.

One thing is clear: Weight-bearing activity promotes bone growth, so mission astronauts must exercise assiduously to stave off loss. Still, crew members during the 237-day Soviet Soyuz T-10 mission lost bone in spite of hours of daily exercise.

Even more troubling, losses often are not fully recouped later. Some kind of cellular-level cure seems required, which could also aid osteoporosis sufferers. Says Odenwald, humans will not easily travel beyond the Moon unless we can solve this major medical problem.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at