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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 Mathematics SE.

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    $\begingroup$ 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
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @mobileink very interesting. I always felt annoyed that my parents never taught me the greek or latin alphabet. $\endgroup$
    – William
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ I heard that russian was the standard language of science paper ,too. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 11:24

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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.

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    $\begingroup$ The claim that al-Farabi "mastered over 70 languages" has no factual basis. $\endgroup$
    – fdb
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 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
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 22:07
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Einstein would not call himself a mathematician:-) "Historically well-known" is an ill defined description. It depends on place and time.

Until 18th 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 1740s 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 19th century.

Until the middle of 20th 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 20th century: English gradually displaced other languages in mathematics, and at this time a mathematician can survive if s/he knows only English.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry for the late reply. What does he mean that someone must read in all languages ? $\endgroup$
    – copper
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Eremenko: Euler, after changing from Russia to Prussia, was abused by the Prussian King Friedrich II. (the Great) to translate intercepted Russian messages. $\endgroup$
    – Franz Kurz
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 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. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ @copper: He meant what he said: a mathematician should be able to read math papers in all languages:-) He himself was able to write a review of a paper written in Chinese or Japanese, for example. I cannot boast about such things: formally I studied only English and French, but during my long career, I read papers in German, Polish, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and Catalan, and once even in Finnish, with a dictionary:-) Reading mathematics in a foreign language is easier than reading fiction. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ After seeing your new comment, I saw the earlier one asking for evidence Euler knew Russian. I just searched online for эйлер русский говорил and here is what came up as the first result after his Wikipedia page: scfh.ru/papers/…. It settles the issue affirmatively, with copies of some writing included. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 17:34

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