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How Robert Maxwell had such a way with language

Robert Maxwell arrives at the Houses of Parliament to take up his seat after being elected MP for Buckingham in 1964 - Credit: Getty Images

Peter Trudgill on the dubious master of multilingualism.

There are many things to be said about Ján Ludvik Hoch, many of them very bad, even though he was a war hero. But this column is interested in his linguistic prowess: he was a remarkable polyglot.

Better known as Robert Maxwell, Hoch did not learn English until the Second World War. He had his 20th birthday in 1943, and normally learning a foreign language at that age is far too late to acquire a perfect accent and native-like command of grammar and idiom. But he ended up speaking English so well that many people were surprised to learn that he was not originally English.

Clearly, Maxwell had a special aptitude for language learning. But it also seems probable that this was greatly bolstered by a childhood spent in a very multilingual environment.

He was born into an Eastern European Jewish family at a time when the home language of most Jews in that part of the world was Yiddish. His easy fluency as an adult in German was no doubt due to Yiddish being a variety of German.

Maxwell was born in a town that now lies in Ukraine and goes by the name of Solotvyno; these days it is one-third Romanian speaking. At the time of his birth, however, the town was located in the newly established nation of Czechoslovakia, and was called Slatinské Doly. Prior to 1918 it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In German it was called Salzgruben, ‘salt pits’, and in Hungarian Aknaszlatina.

During the Second World War it was taken back into Hungary; and in 1945, when the eastern end of the original Czechoslovakia was carved off, it became the part of the Soviet Union which was Ukraine after 1991. Anyone born there before 1918 and surviving beyond the age of 73 could claim to have lived in five different countries without going anywhere.

Czechoslovakia at the time of Maxwell’s birth was a very multilingual country. It had been conceived as a homeland for Czechs and Slovaks, who speak closely related, mutually intelligible West Slavic languages. But large areas in the west contained German-speaking majorities, and a very sizeable part of the south was Hungarian speaking.

A smaller region along the northern border was Polish speaking – although Polish is also a West Slavic language and there were disputes as to whether the dialects spoken there were ‘really’ Polish or not.

Many thousands of Romani speakers also lived in Czechoslovakia. The eastern end of the country was linguistically Ukrainian – a language closely related to Russian – although the status of the dialects spoken there was contested, with suggestions that they were not ‘really’ Ukrainian but Rusyn, another Eastern Slavic language.

Solotvyno lies on the banks of the river Tisza, which at different points today forms the border between Ukraine and Romania, Ukraine and Hungary, and Slovakia and Hungary.

The majority of its residents were Hungarian speaking at the time of Maxwell’s birth, although Czech/Slovak was the official language. The borders with Romania and Poland were also close by.

According to John Preston’s new biography, The Fall, Ján Hoch grew up speaking Yiddish, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian; he would probably also have been exposed to Ukrainian. He later variously claimed to speak nine, 10 or 11 languages. It depends, of course, on what you mean by ‘speak a language’, but on this occasion he was probably telling something like the truth. He certainly married a Frenchwoman, and did speak French.

We know from linguistics research that growing up bilingual greatly assists with learning third and additional languages. And it really looks as if growing up quadrilingual-plus did help to turn Maxwell into an unusually gifted polyglot, no doubt assisted by the fact that Yiddish, Slovak and, particularly, Hungarian have very different structures and vocabularies.

In Maxwell’s case, the areas of the brain that handle language learning had been alerted to the nature of linguistic diversity very early on in his life.


Polyglot, ‘multilingual’, comes from Ancient Greek polýglottos, where poly meant ‘many’ and glotta was ‘tongue’. The Modern Greek term is polýglossosGlotta (as in English glottis) was the Attic dialect variant, while other dialects had glossa (as in English glossary), which is the form which has come down into Modern Greek. 

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