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George Psalmanazar: The Lying Linguist

How one man formalized his gibberish and fooled Europe’s scholars.

Nobody knew what to make of George Psalmanazar. From the day he arrived in London in 1703, his pale features, shabby dress, and raw meat diet raised eyebrows. Stranger still was the way he worshiped the sun and moon, his unusual patter, and the odd symbols he scribbled.

Psalmanazar was accompanied by Alexander Innes, a Scottish priest eager to introduce the boy to London’s scholars. The two had met in Holland, where Innes was serving as an army chaplain. Psalmanazar was an oddball local who claimed to hail from the island of Formosa- what Europeans called Taiwan at the time. As he told it, he’d been kidnapped and brought to Europe by a Jesuit missionary. Now, Innes planned to take credit for converting the heathen, knowing it would do wonders for his career.

Psalmanazar was full of fascinating tales, but his most unusual quality was his dialect. His Formosan used 20 characters, some of which resembled Greek and Hebrew letters, intriguing scholars interested in the migration of language. He spoke Latin as well, but it was blurry in comparison with his flawless “native tongue.” Psalmanazar would credit the rote memorization he’d been drilled in as a schoolboy for his rise as Europe’s most famous Formosan. Which he undoubtedly was- though he’d never set foot in Formosa.

Psalmanazar was probably French. He left home as a teenager to travel through Europe in search of patronage and a little fun. At first he pretended to be an Irish pilgrim, but ran into too many people who knew too much about Ireland. So he pretended to be Japanese. Then he relocated to Formosa, about which practically nothing was known. He invented all sorts of outlandish customs (Cannibalism! Ritual sacrifice of children!), but what really sold the story was the language.

In the early years of his hoax, Psalmanazar spoke in gibberish and wrote in nonsense characters. Then one day Innes asked him to produce a written Formosan translation of a passage from Cicero. Psalmanazar dashed one off. Innes took the paper away, and asked him to do it again.

Psalmanazar was sure the jig was up: There was no way he could repeat the scribblings. But Innes was less concerned with Psalmanazar’s soul than with the cushy job he’d secure if he could deliver a converted Formosan to the Bishop of London. Innes told Psalmanazar that he’d be wise to be more prepared should a similar test arise again. He needed to take his top-of-the-head gibberish to the next level. He needed to construct a language.

At the time there were few existing descriptions of Formosa, or even Japan, so when Psalmanazar claimed “the language of Formosa is the same as that of Japan, but... the Japanese do not pronounce some letters gutturally as the Formosans do,” nobody could prove otherwise. Same thing with how he wrote from right to left.

His explanation of verb tenses was exotic (some tenses were indicated by a rising or falling tone of voice) yet familiar to language scholars who were steeped in the Latin tradition, which had special forms for specific tenses. “I love” was Jerh Chato; “I was loving,” Jervieye Chato; and the form known to Latinists as paulo post futurum -used for action taking place in the near future- was Jerh viar Chato. It seemed like something a language might do, and it excited those who studied it, appealing to their thirst for understanding worlds beyond our reach.

Besides, what kind of fool would take the time to make up an entire language just to back up a murky origin story? And how clever would that person have to be to craft one that stood up to scrutiny? As Psalmanazar later wrote, those who examined his translations “found the language so regular and grammatical, as well as different from all others they knew, both with respect to the words and idiom, that they gave it as their opinion, that it must be a real language.” Convincing London society that he was legit was as easy as taufb, bogis, charhe (or one, two, three in “Formosan”).

Innes got his promotion in the church and left for a post in Portugal. Psalmanazar spent the rest of his life in England, where he eventually faded from public life and gained a reputation as a lovable eccentric. And when no one definitively proved he wasn’t who he said he was, he took that honor himself. Published after his death, his memoirs roguishly apologized for his fraud.

Psalmanazar’s linguistic creation, however, lived on, appearing in collections of translations of the Lord’s Prayer into the 20th century. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers. Or as they say in Formosan: Radonaye ant amy Soehin, apo ant radonern amy Soehiakhin.

The article above by Arika Okrent appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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