Albert Einstein is an example of someone knowing multiple and being significantly gifted at mathematics more specifically physics.

How many languages did historically well-known mathematicians master?

This was closed on the sister site https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/1928115/how-many-languages-did-historically-well-known-mathematicians-master

  • $\begingroup$ until recently (ie less than 100 years ago) the study of latin, and to a lesser extent greek, was a standard part of education even in grade school. so you can bet that anybody who advanced to higher education at least knew enough latin to read it $\endgroup$ – mobileink Sep 19 '16 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @mobileink very interesting. I always felt annoyed that my parents never taught me the greek or latin alphabet. $\endgroup$ – William Sep 19 '16 at 21:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I heard that russian was the standard language of science paper ,too. $\endgroup$ – Takahiro Waki Oct 2 '16 at 11:24

Einstein would not call himself a mathematician:-) "Historically well-known" is an ill defined description. It depends on place and time.

Until 18s century only one language was necessary to do mathematics: Latin.

Euler wrote in German, French and Latin (mathematics in Latin, other things in French and German). He lived and worked in Russia for a large part of his life, but the sources I know do not tell whether he spoke Russian:-) Newton wrote mathematics in Latin, other things in English.

Proceedings of St Petersburg Academy founded in 1740-th had two official languages: Latin for mathematics and French for all other sciences. Latin was a part of any high school and university curriculum in Europe until late 19s century.

Until the middle of 20s century most mathematicians could read mathematics in German, French and English. (Mathematical papers were rarely, almost never translated. And a serious mathematician had to be aware of the literature in his area. This was not possible without working knowledge of these three languages)).

When I first met my future adviser (in 1971) he asked what languages I can read. I was a first year student, and I replied with some pride: English and French. He was not impressed and told me: a mathematician has to read in ALL languages:-) So we are returning to the situation which existed at the times of Euler.

Knowledge of foreign languages declined in the second half of 20s century: English gradually displaced other languages in mathematics, and at this time a mathematician can survive if s/he knows only English.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the late reply. What does he mean that someone must read in all languages ? $\endgroup$ – copper Nov 5 '16 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Eremenko: Euler, after changing from Russia to Prussia, was abused by the Prussian King Friedrich II. (the Great) to translate intercepted Russian messages. $\endgroup$ – Otto Jun 1 '17 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Otto: can you give a source of this information? My impression was that Euler did not know Russian, but I have never seen any justified arguments for or against this. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Mar 14 '18 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Eremenko: Sorry, I have no information about the source which I read long ago. But I remember that there a lot of non-mathematical obligations of Euler were described, among them the translation. $\endgroup$ – Otto May 3 '18 at 18:36

There are too many "historically well-known mathematicians" to list them all next to the number of languages they knew. As for those who knew particularly many, perhaps the best known is von Neumann (Hungarian-American, 1903-1957), who was fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, English, Yiddish, and Hungarian. Frankl (Hungarian combinatorialist, Erdös' co-author, born 1953) is less well-known but is fluent in more: English, Russian, Swedish, French, Spanish, Polish, German, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean. However, they both pale in comparison to al-Farabi (medieval Persian polymath, 872-950 AD), who is not exactly known as a mathematician (he did some work in logic), but allegedly mastered over 70(!) languages.

From late middle ages to 18th century many Islamic and European mathematicians and scientists knew Greek and Latin in addition to their native tongue, Gauss still had to publish in Latin at the beginning of 19th. Since 17th it was not uncommon for them to at least be able to make out technical texts in English, French and German.

Wikipedia has a long list of polyglots, dead and living. In a different vein, see What is the history of scientific Latin? and Porzucki's How English beat German as language of science.

  • $\begingroup$ The claim that al-Farabi "mastered over 70 languages" has no factual basis. $\endgroup$ – fdb Sep 23 '16 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ @fdb Yeah, "Considerable myth has become attached to the man: it is unlikely, for example, that he really spoke more than seventy languages, and we may also query his alleged ascetic lifestyle." muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/H021.htm I wonder how many he actually knew :) $\endgroup$ – Conifold Sep 23 '16 at 22:07

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