Marco Polo (1254-1324) and the languages he spoke

Born in Venice, Marco Polo later declared that he could speak (and read) four languages besides his own, five in total. He was raised by an extended family as his mother died when he was young, and his father and uncle, successful jewel merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, were in Asia for much of Polo's youth. He set out for China at the age of 17 with his uncle and his father, on a four year overland trip. They spent 17 years actually in China with Marco becoming Kublai Khan's slave. Afterwards, a two year return trip by ship escorting a princess to the Persian Gulf, and finally overland to Venice, arriving back in winter 1295. He was captured and imprisoned in Genoa shortly afterwards — having led a Venetian galley into battle against that rival Italian city-state — and he dictated his adventures to a fellow-prisoner before being released in 1299. The book was published shortly after. He then married in 1300 and had three daughters.

Regarding Mardo Polo's five languages

  1. This book "The Travels of Marco Polo" was almost certainly written in Franco-Venetian, and thus the language in which he dictated his account.
  2. Marco Polo said he visited hundreds of churches and saw thousands of Christians in the east. The churches that were there at that time followed Syriac Christianity, using an Aramaic translation of the Bible called the Peshitta. So Marco probably learnt to speak and could also read this Aramaic (Syriac) language.
  3. The Kublai Khan, Emperor of China, was originally from Mongolia where the language was known as Eastern Turki, and used an Old Turkic alphabet based on Aramaic. The Turkish version Marco Polo would have spoken was probably Cuman.
  4. Marco Polo lived 17 years in China. While the Kublai Khan was apparently belittled by the Chinese for his inability to speak their language, Marco Polo would have prided himself on learning the language of the Uighur (We-gur) people during the years he served the emperor.
  5. In his travels Marco Polo visited the land of Persia. He spoke about time with the Persians who "worship Mahomet", and also referred to Chinese place names in the Persian language, so it is very likely he spoke an Arabised Persian, and could read its Arabic script, similar to Aramaic.

Click here for another article on Marco Polo's adventures.

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