Posted by: patenttranslator | November 30, 2012

To Know Two Languages Is To Possess A Second Soul


It was Charlemagne who said “To know two languages is to possess a second soul”. Somebody told me that there is a German proverb that says “Je mehr Sprachen du kanst, desto mehr Mensch du bist” (the more languages you know, the more you are a human being), which happens to be an almost exact copy of a Czech proverb (Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem).

I have a feeling that it all started with Charlemagne and that the proverbs in European languages are probably translations and variations of this famous quote. But who knows. Interestingly enough, this proverb or idiom does not seem to exist in English, possibly because most English speakers are quite happy with having only one soul.

Although we can have only one life on this Earth, this would mean that we can have more than one soul. The problem is, it takes a lot of work to acquire this second soul. Years and years of work, in fact. If you are rich and decide that you need a second passport, all you have to do is invest a certain amount of money, well, usually a lot of money, and many countries will gladly let you have their passport. “Here you go, Sir, please take this passport in lieu of a receipt for a million bucks. Nice doing business with you, thanks very much, and don’t forget to tell your friends about this great deal. We will have a sale again soon!”.

But no amount of money will buy you a second language. You will have to learn it first. Perhaps things were different in Charlemagne’s times, but most people who go to the trouble of learning another language are not that rich these days, although you probably had to be rich 1200 years ago to be able to spend a few years learning another language.

One stupid reality TV series that I am addicted to is “House Hunters and House Hunters International“. I always look for information about whether the English speaking couple (American, British, Canadian) looking for a house abroad is learning or planning to learn the language of the new country where the happy couple is planning to happily spend the rest of their lives. Sometime, usually when it is a mixed couple and one person already speaks the language of the new country, the other person, usually the husband, is already learning or plans to learn it.

But usually there is no indication whether the people who are buying a gorgeous, inexpensive house on a beach somewhere in Central or Southern America, or a “picturesque” house somewhere in Italy, Spain, France or Bulgaria, (Bulgaria is still very inexpensive if you pay in pounds), are planning to learn the language to acquire a new soul to go with their fabulous new house.

Sometime the happy, telegenic couple already has children, and the children are going to be groomed to become translators and interpreters to spare the adults the troubles involved with learning another language. I remember that in one show, when a British couple was buying a picturesque, rustic house in Normandy, the young mother asked her children “How do you say pickles in French?”, her two children answered in unison “les cornichon”. The happy look on her face told me that this couple would probably not learn much more than a few French words, especially since there are plenty of French people out there who already speak some English. Well, at least the children will have a second soul, I was thinking to myself.

If it is true, as Catholics believe, that The Devil will try to take our soul if we commit too many sins in this life (the exact amount of sinning is yet to be determined by a special commission in the Vatican), those of us who have sinned too much could offer The Devil one of our souls in one of the languages that we know, and we would still have another soul left to us.

Since I have lived and worked in quite a few countries on three continents, and mindful of what Charlemagne said, in every country I was trying very hard to learn the new language as best as I could to find my other soul in that language, I should have accumulated something like 2.6 souls during the last few decades.

If The Devil comes and asks for my soul, and he probably will, I can try to haggle with him so that I can keep at least one of my souls.



  1. […] It was Charlemagne who said “To know two languages is to possess a second soul”. A German proverb says “Die mehr Sprache du weißt, die mehr Mensch du bist” (the more langua…  […]


  2. But the key question, Steve, is which soul would you let Him take?


  3. No matter what he says, I’m keeping my Slavic soul.


  4. Though English is my native tongue, though I know French and Spanish very well, and though I have never lived in Bohemia, I think my basic soul would be Bohemian because my grandmother on my father’s side was Bohemian, my father spoke “Bohemian” until he went to scool and kids made fun of him, we always answered “Bohemian” when asked what nationality we were, we bought Bohemian products and heard Bohemian when we went to the butcher shop and bakery in Cedar Rapids, we listened to Bohemian music all day long on Sunday, and because part of us (at least) thought there was something “racy,” even magical about it. Even though we knew Mom’s side of the family was German, it would NEVER have occurred to me or any of us to say we were German (we would admit to half, later on). My mother’s parents died when she was quite young, her German grandparents were mean, and Mom adored her Bohemian mother-in-law, so I guess that is the soul I would keep, even though I would still have to learn the language, in the Czech Republic, I would hope! Gramma Lacina also taught Mom to make apple streudel, unequaled in Vienne, but perhaps that was the Austro-Hungarian heritage.

    It was a thrill for me to visit Czechoslovakia with friends in 1961, pre-tourists (also a thrill to find a Bohemian cemetery in Omaha, of all places, while looking for Warren Buffet’s favorite “super club”!) Prague reputedly had the first music conservatory in Central Europe, so perhaps I have the music in my soul from there. We were treated to a box at the State Opera to see “The Bartered Bride” by an “unofficial” guide, who stayed with us for days, a wonderful, knowledgeable, gracious guides whose opinions of us we would love to have known, along with his “motives”!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Actually I’d say it’s to possess a third soul: one for each language + a combination of the two.


  6. I think you mean Charlemagne…


    • Thank you. You can’t rely on spell checkers these days.


  7. Alto, Steve! Are you серьезно относитесь possessing more than one soul? Ou, do you empezar zu spinnen par Langeweile?

    Karls Heiliges Römisches Reich was neither holy nor Roman. Even Angelas Viertes Reich with its Euro is unlikely to sustain. I cannot take that quote from Charlie seriously. There is in fact only one soul to one body. When the body ceases to be, the soul goes along with it.

    I remember there was a character in Eco´s The Name of the Rose who spoke a mixed language that Adso had great difficulty to understand without interpretation by his master William of Baskerville who knew all those languages involved.

    I told my wife the other day that I would gladly have 3 lifes: one stays in Germay when I left there in 1993, one in South America when I left by the end of 1999 and the last one comes back with me to Taiwan. But I have only one life, one body and one soul that come along with me everywhere I have been, no matter which language I have to speak and which culture I have to adopt or adapt to.

    My opinion would be: To know a second language is to open another window, to learn another dimension of human being, and probably to endure more of its lightness.

    That some of us have the opportunities to get to know several languages and cultures is a kind of pure luck, for the bless or the curse. I´ll keep my only soul so long, wie es mir möglich ist, not for him or Him. I wouldn´t even sign a contract with Mephistopholes like what Dr. Faust did.


  8. “I told my wife the other day that I would gladly have 3 lives: one stays in Germany when I left there in 1993, one in South America when I left by the end of 1999 and the last one comes back with me to Taiwan. But I have only one life, one body and one soul that come along with me everywhere I have been, no matter which language I have to speak and which culture I have to adopt or adapt to.”

    Although we came from very different cultures and lived for the most part in different countries speaking different languages, you and I led a similar life in many respects.

    The big difference is that you seem to have completed the circle by returning back to where I presume you started, and I have not, or perhaps not yet.


    • There is a poem written in Chinese Tang Dynasty:

      Left home young, returned old with the same idiom.
      Kids look at the stranger and ask where he is from.

      You would experience the same, Steve, when you complete the circle. But your soul remains the same. You would feel the same when you see a squadron of geese heading south or north.

      I like the ending of Pierre Mille´s L´oiseau qui s´est tu very much, which reads:

      Il ne fut plus question de rien. Jamais.
      Les jours sont les jours, les saisons sont les saisons. Les années? C´est de l´astronomie. Les peuples et les individus les ignorent. Il n´y a que les calendriers qui complent les année.

      Sometimes, I feel lucky to be able to read all those beautiful words that are written in several different languages. And I am happy that there are many excellent translators whom I know of and who have brought those beautiful writings across different languages and cultures. I am still trying to become one of them and hope that there will still some time for me to do translations other than the boring manuals.


  9. 少小離家老大回

    I was young when I left home home, and I am old now, but not returning …

    Listen to Anthony’s version of Bob Dylan’s version of what I think is an American folk music song


  10. […] After all, it was Charlemagne, another Frenchman, who said almost 13 centuries ago that to speak a second language is to possess another soul, as I explain in this post. […]


  11. If you had to choose, which soul would you give to the devil? That of your native language or that of a learned language, and why? 🙂


  12. I already gave my soul to the devil. But I cheated her because I kept my native soul and she didn’t notice.


  13. Another Charles — Charles V — reportedly said, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” He could afford to lose a soul or two.


  14. I used to speak Japanese to our dogs because that was the language they and I were used to. Never Czech for some reason.


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