Polish Polyglot Andrzej Gawroński
➡  Polyglots 📆 23 March 2021 ✍️  Marcin Stachelski

Andrzej Gawroński was born in Geneva in 1885. This Polish polyglot was the the son of Franciszek Rawita Gawroński, who was a writer, historian and journalist, and Antonina née Miłkowski. His family consisted also of one sister and two brothers. Gawroński was not an exemplary student. On his school certificates, he had the note “manners reprehensible because of persistent playfulness”. However, his sister recalled that he had “great ease of writing and poetry”.

The discovered talent of a special young polyglot

When Andrzej Gawroński was ten years old, an interesting event happened that would reveal his extraordinary memory capabilities. One day, his father discovered that Andrzej had not completed his homework – he had not learned a certain number of irregular verbs from a German grammar book! In response to the rebuke, the boy carelessly replied, “No big deal! I’ll learn them in a moment.” Soon after, he returned and recited all the verbs without hesitating. It was a total of 10 pages – from “becken” to “zwingen”! His father could not forget this moment for the rest of his life.

When Andrzej Gawroński was about 12 years old, he lived in Przemyśl, where he attended the local grammar school. Then, a large Jewish community inhabited the city. The young man managed to master the Hebrew alphabet and learn a large amount of the grammar structures of this language. He did this by redrawing Hebrew inscriptions from shop signs and by obtaining interesting explanations from his Jewish colleagues. He then filled the gaps by studying the collection of psalms printed in Hebrew and Polish.

Friends and acquaintances repeatedly talked about Gawroński’s remarkable memory. Many years later, when Andrzej was a student, the following event happened. One day in Schneider’s cafe in Lviv, there was a disagreement between several writers there about the poem “Vivo sin vivir en ” by St. Teresa”, which was recently translated into Polish. Suddenly, Andrzej Gawroński, then still a student, entered the cafe. The debaters asked him to clarify something about the poem, because “he knows everything”. Gawroński in response recited the entire poem in its original language: Castilian.

The young Polish polyglot was a very active man. He rode horses, swam, paddled, constantly read books and scientific papers during his school years. He used foreign trips to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France for the practical usage of newly learned languages and to learn new dialects.

Languages as a means to learn about other cultures

Gawroński always learned languages in order to get to know more about the traditions, history and mentality of other nations. Thanks to his many years of hard work and his great curiosity about the world, he was perfectly knowledgeable in various fields.

Besides linguistics and oriental studies, he was passionate about psychology, philosophy, religious studies, history of literature, history and sociology. Prof. Kazimierz Nitsch used to say about him, “When you try to determine where is the core of his interests, you come to the conclusion that there is only one limitation that can be made: he is a humanist”.

It is also worth mentioning the Polish polyglot’s great love of poetry. It allowed him to relax and at the same time provided new material for his linguistic research. He independently translated, among others, “Rubaiyat” (quatrains) of the Persian scientist and writer Omar Khayyam (1048-1131).

How many languages did he know?

People often asked Gawroński how many languages he knew. He usually replied, “I haven’t counted.” However, when he was once constantly questioned by someone, he replied impatiently, “I speak and write in forty languages, and I understand and can read in about a hundred.”

Prof. Eugeniusz Słuszkiewicz knew him personally, as he was the Polish polyglot’s student and assistant. According to him, Gawroński had learned at least 60 languages and dialects. The preserved manuscripts and books, in which he wrote down explanations and comments in the margins, not only proved that he read in all these languages, but also that he actively used them. 

According to Słuszkiewicz, Gawroński unquestionably spoke the following: Vedic, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit languages (including Maharashtri, Magadhi, Sauraseni), New Indian languages (Hindi, Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil), Avestan, Old Persian Pehlevi, Sogdian, Tochar, Armenian, Hittite, Yaghnobi, Georgian, Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Tibetan, Japanese, Ainu, Manda, Old Peruvian, Old Church Slavonic, Bulgarian, Serbian, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, German, Dutch, English, Swedish, Danish, Latin, Italian, French, Provençal, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Old Iranian, Breton and Albanian.

What were his learning techniques?

In his memoir about Gawroński, Prof. Kazimierz Nitsch wrote about the techniques that the great Polish polyglot used to learn other languages: “He did not acquire knowledge theoretically. When dealing with languages from groups known to him, for example Slavic or Swedish or Romanian, he did not use grammar. He immediately started reading texts in these languages. For completely unknown languages, he did the same. However, after the initial mastery of the elements of a language, he strived as fast as possible to read the literature in the given language”.

Throughout his life, Gawroński was passionate about other nations and their culture. One of his friends recalled the time when Gawroński lived for some time in Paris. “He was interested in everything and everyone around him. Andrzej talked a lot, even with the servants and asked about their working conditions. Gawroński appreciated the diligence of French women. His linguistic observations at the Louvre were invaluable. There, he liked to listen to guides telling rubbish stories to groups of foreigners.”

When he was in Italy, he would eagerly use the local dialect. He also made friends with Genoese and Neapolitan workers. As a result, years later in Poland, he recited with good humour Italian couplets that he had memorized.

Not only a Polish polyglot, but also a recognized scientist

Andrzej Gawroński was a professor at the University of Lviv. He was considered a widely respected orientalist, expert in Indian languages and the impact of psychology on languages.

His research career was brilliant from the start.

He moved to Cracow for the first year of his docent (1913-1914). It was then that he began his cordial friendship with the Professors, Rozwadowski and Nitsch. Various scholars visited him in his apartment. Being a 28 year old man, he was consulted by gray-haired academics such as Bronisław Piłsudski, whose Materials for the Study of Ainu Language and Folklore were then edited by Rozwadowski. After his death, Gawroński even left behind a manuscript glossary of the Ainu language, a minority language spoken in Japan.

In 1916, the University in Lviv appointed him as associate professor of Sanskrit philology. The following year, he took over the department of comparative linguistics. By 1920, he was already a full professor at this university.

Helping his students

Being an academic professor, he would give impossible assignments to those students who were overconfident in class. He looked after the other students in a more fatherly way. Nitsch said about Gawroński: “When it comes to people working in academia and with great potential, there was no kind of material or moral help that he would refuse. Regardless of time and energy, he was always ready to share his knowledge and expertise.”

Rozwadowski remembered that Gawroński lived a disciplined life, like a monk, at that time. Others believed that he was “the happiest, most witty companion”. However, his own sister considered him “unsociable,” adding, “as it happens with shy people, he was more himself among strangers than among his own relatives.”

Sanskrit handbook

Andrzej Gawroński wrote the “Sanskrit Handbook”, which to this day remains an irreplaceable item for learning this language in Poland. The book was published in Cracow in 1932, only after the author’s death. The publishing process was long and faced various obstacles, related to the exotic nature of the language. Rozwadowski recalled that: “Gawroński first prepared grammar and excerpts, then explanations and a dictionary.

However, the printing house of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow did not have Sanskrit font – just like all other printing houses in Poland. Consequently, they decided to first send the book for printing at one of the foreign printing houses. It took a long time to finalize these steps. As a result, the management of the printing house finally decided to purchase the necessary set of fonts and print the book in-house.

Unfortunately, the printing house took a long time include the fonts in the required set. By the time the fonts were laid out, the correct folding was found and they were sufficiently familiar with them, the author died. The book would not have been published if it were not for Prof. Willman-Grabowska. She carried out corrections and compared the text with the manuscript.

Once Prof. Willman-Grabowska took over, another difficulty was caused by the typesetter. He needed the possibility of constant contact with the person conducting the printing, while also composing and revising. When he would be distracted by other tasks, he would return to work on the “Sanskrit Manual” only after some time. He’d then have to relearn everything. Also, these month-long breaks in his work resulted from the need to renew the stock of fonts, given they would wear out quickly. He also had to supplement fonts that were missing.

Fighting against disease

For years, Gawroński struggled with tuberculosis, which was then a fatal disease and a big social problem. Both poor and wealthy people suffered from it. He made attempts to fight his illness through trips to sanatoriums and through cold shower treatments. The disease started to decline in the 1920s with the invention of the vaccine, while antibiotics helped successfully eradicate it by the mid-20th century. However, unfortunately for Andrzej Gawroński, he did not live to see these developments.

Sometimes, he would spend all day lying down when he would feel ill. However, he would try to use this time to read books. He loved reading all his life. He often gave books to his friends as gifts. His friends remembered the Polish polyglot as a steadfast, strong-willed man who did not admit to weakness. In letters and personal conversations, he mocked his illness.

The Polish polyglot’s approach to life

Helena Willmanowa-Grabowska said about him: “Gifted, with extraordinary abilities and possessing the temperament of a conqueror and leader, he saw many tasks ahead of him and he was eager to tackle them. He was something of a boisterous Polish knight. He would repeatedly say, “I will not give up, I will not give in!” and his spirit overcame his body. He suppressed moments of weakness and would not forgive if anyone pointed out that he was feeling weak.”

Due to tuberculosis, he decided to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. His sister recalled that she found out later, through his friend, that a pretty and overly emotional girl confessed to their common friend about her undying love for Gawroński. She wanted him to let her nurture and look after him. His only comment after hearing about this confession of love: “She is hysterical!”. He accepted the constraints required by the disease, scrupulously avoiding all physical contact, by caution and pride.

Shortly before his death in 1927, Andrzej Gawroński was suffering from a fever. In delirium, the Polish polyglot uttered the last words: “Radio stations everywhere, but no signal!” and then he died.

Marcin Stachelski

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Christopher Newland
Christopher Newland
7 months ago

Amazing story… remarkable man…

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