Who was the Greatest Linguist of all Time?

Who was the greatest linguist of all time? A difficult and subjective question, but recent news has shed a light on one contender.

Today the first purpose-built mosque in the UK (and maybe all of Northern Europe), the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, was granted Grade I listed status. This means it has the same historical preparation as the famous Buckingham Palace.

Surprisingly for a Muslim place of worship, the mosque was built by a Hungarian-British Jew named Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. Leitner was born in Hungary but went to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to study Arabic and Turkish at the age of eight. By the age of ten he was fluent in Turkish, Arabic and most European languages. At fifteen, he was appointed Interpreter (First Class) to the British Commissariat in the Crimea, with the rank of colonel.

After the end of the Crimean War, and still only aged nineteen, he became a lecturer in Arabic, Turkish and Modern Greek at King’s College London. By twenty-three he was appointed Professor in Arabic and Muslim Law at the same University.

Three years later, sometime in 1864, he became Principal of Government College University (Lahore). During this period he wrote a two-volume book on the History of Islam in Urdu. By middle age, Letiner was said to be familiar with around fifty languages, many of which he spoke fluently.

He would return to Europe in the late 1870sand then move to Britain in 1881 to found a centre for the study of Oriental Languages, Culture, and History. In the grounds of this new ‘Oriental Institute,’ Leitner built the Shah Jahan mosque for Muslim students, staff, and visitors.

An extraordinary man who made important contributions to cross-cultural understanding, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner must be part of the conversation on history’s greatest linguists.

Photo: Christopher Hilton