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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Head Wound Lets Man Speak in Tongues




Willi Melnikov speaks 93 languages and can discourse for hours on their historical formation and cultural roots - yet his career choice is a $29-per-month state job researching the herpes virus.


Perhaps it's an odd decision for a 37-year-old Muscovite possessing such a rare talent. But it's one with which he's quite satisfied, even if there is little room in virology for Sanskrit, ancient Egyptian or Pictian.


Looking up and off to the side as if his mind had wandered to a far away place long ago, Melnikov recited one of his own poems in the language of sixth-century England with the majestic intonation of a forgotten age.


"Ancient English is one of my favorites, along with Aztec and ancient Egyptian," he said, "because it's a language of beautiful multidimensional expression of both real and imagined things. And the pronunciation is poetic and reminds me of praying."


When there's a favorite, there's always its opposite. For Melnikov, French is the ugliest language in the world.


"French," he said emphatically, "is the most unattractive language in my collection, partly because I could never relate to the French mind-set."


Those languages that Melnikov speaks fluently include English, Italian, Slovenian, German, Japanese, Belarussian, Latvian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, Sanskrit, ancient Egyptian, Gypsy and Polynesian. He also speaks fluent Navajo, among other native North American languages. And he is fluent in many of the languages of various ethnic groups of Russia's Far North.


In his more frivolous moments, Melnikov enjoys playing around with different American English dialects and exploring the differences in phraseology found in the various U.S. states.


"While in British English one would say, 'I was afraid,' in Texas they might say, at least in the old days of the cowboy, 'I used to show the white feather,'" he said, with a flawless Texas drawl.


"In normal American English one would say, 'I'm tired,' but in Texas they might say something like, 'I'm really pooped.'"


"I don't speak all 93 languages fluently," Melnikov said. "It's impossible and there's no need for this. But I maintain them all in active form. Most important for me is that I can write poetry in all of these languages."


And as he pulls out collages of poetry in languages both ancient and contemporary, it is clear that Melnikov is first and foremost an artist - someone who sees his talent as a passionate hobby that need not be associated with the working world.


Melnikov first became interested in languages as a child when his hobby of etymology forced him to learn Latin. His interest was further sparked when he learned, on his 13th birthday, that he was half-Russian and half-Scandinavian, with ancestors from Iceland and Sweden.


This new information about his roots inspired him to learn the long-forgotten language of his father, who was born in Sweden before his father, a Bolshevik sympathizer, emigrated to the Soviet Union.


Tragedy after tragedy, beginning with the death of his fianc?e in an auto accident during their college years and the subsequent death of their 8 1/2-month-old daughter from an illness, forced a young Melnikov to seek out a creative way of coping with life - and death.


But the real story of this polyglot began during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where he served as a medic. A land mine explosion killed his friends and dealt Melnikov a serious trauma to his head. He was even pronounced clinically dead for several minutes (his experience has convinced him of the existence of a beautiful afterlife).


"My head trauma was the key incident that boosted my language study," Melnikov said.


"My head has a strange disease. I have headaches very often and a strange nausea in my brain. But I transformed this disease into a language center."


Suffering through a landmine explosion and never-ending headaches are "a very high price to pay for learning languages," he added.


As he spoke, rubbing his forehead and switching back and forth to Russian, English and sometimes German or an obscure ancient dialect, it indeed seemed as though wires were zapping and crackling from a million different outlets - the same outlets that allow him to concentrate simultaneously on a multitude of languages.


Though the land mine incident seems to have expanded Melnikov's phenomenal language talents, it was his prior experience with languages that landed him in Afghanistan in the first place.


After he had graduated from a Moscow veterinarian school in 1984, Melnikov was drafted into the army and sent to Turkmenistan to serve in a nuclear missile division.


There, he recounted, he fell afoul of a KGB colonel, who accused him of being a spy for seven different nations - on the grounds that his school and college transcripts showed perfect grades in seven languages.


"He asked me which countries I was spying for," Melnikov said. "Then, he listed six of the languages and gave me a translation test for each, after which he named me a spy for Italy, the U.S., West Germany, Sweden, Spain and especially Japan.


"Then he asked me if there wasn't perhaps another language I had left out, and I reminded him that I also knew Latin."


Melnikov said the colonel promptly accused him of spying for "Latin."


"I panicked," Melnikov said. "I didn't know what to do."


Melnikov refused the KGB colonel's request for a written confession, he said, and instead wrote a letter volunteering his services as a much-needed medic on the front line in Afghanistan.


Since then, language, poetry, even photography - but especially a much more "surreal sense of life" - have been his passions.


After the war, Melnikov learned his dozens of new languages during 90-minute commutes on the metro to and from work every day. According to Melnikov, there is no way to study a language except immersion in the history and habits of the people who speak it.


"You have to know the mentality of the people to really speak their language," he said. Only then can you be what Melnikov refers to as a "live carrier" of the language.


Perhaps language specialists will soon be immersing themselves in the mentality of Melnikov - he's created a language of his own, called Muff.


Named after the often-fake fur hand warmer, Muff is a "hybrid" of various languages that combines words and roots in ways Melnikov hopes can convey a much richer meaning than those of common words in modern languages.


As a light example, Melnikov offered one word based on English: "Braining," he said, "is a rain of ideas in your brain."