Lately there has been a lot of European media coverage of eager polyglots (sometimes hyped as “hyperpolyglots”), but these newspaper or magazine articles are often centered around meetings or internet communities where people claiming some command of a foreign language are seeking others with whom they can converse, and so it’s obvious what skills they have (or don’t). A blog post by Russian travel guru Anton Krotov introduced me to Villi Melnikov, a now-deceased Russian who several years ago convinced journalists that he knew up to a hundred languages, and as they had no way to verify that, they simply accepted his claims uncritically.
Melnikov has his own article at the Russian Wikipedia, a section of which notes that some of the languages he claimed to speak don’t even exist, e.g. “Sumero-Akkadian” or a mysterious “Dkhurr-Wuemmt” (a Google search for the latter in the original Cyrillic spelling дхурр-вуэммт returns only results linked to Melnikov). Amusing is Krotov’s own account of a time that he met Melnikov and realized he was a flimflam artist:
Once, several years ago, when I had been impressed by the “talents” of Villi Melnikov, I happened to be among the same group of people with him and decided to carry out a small test of his talents. To test him, I used 1) a surah from the Quran, 2) a passage from Practical Free Travel [one of Krotov’s own books] in its Latvian translation, and 3) some text or other in Indonesian. A friend of Roman Pechenkin’s from Laos was also present. Villi enthusiastically provided a Russian translation of all the necessary phrases and passages, but there was just one thing: none of these translations matched the actual contents of the given texts. Villi had cleverly played a trick on every present, and many of them didn’t even realize the nature of the con. The woman from Laos was happy to hear him rambling in Lao, but she didn’t understand anything and answered,I am not understand you, after which the polyglot switched to English and everyone gathered there was satisfied.