Mario Pei

Mario Andrew Pei (1901–1978) was an Italian-American linguist and polyglot who wrote a number of popular books known for their accessibility to readers without a professional background in linguistics.


Pei was born in Rome, Italy, and emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1908. By the time that he was out of high school, he spoke not only English and his native Italian but also French and had studied Latin as well. Over the years, he became fluent in several other languages (including Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and German) capable of speaking some 30 others, having become acquainted with the structure of at least 100 of the world's languages.

In 1923, he began his career teaching languages at City College of New York, and in 1928, he published his translation of Vittorio Ermete de Fiori's Mussolini: The Man of Destiny. Pei received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1937, focusing on Sanskrit, Old Church Slavonic, and Old French.

That year, he joined the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University, becoming a full professor in 1952. In 1941, he published his first language book, The Italian Language. His facility with languages was in demand in World War II, and Pei served as a language consultant with two agencies of the Department of War. In this role, he wrote language textbooks, developed language courses, and wrote language guidebooks.

While working as a professor of Romance Philology at Columbia University, Pei wrote over 50 books, including the best-sellers The Story of Language (1949) and The Story of English (1952). His other books included Languages for War and Peace (1943), A Dictionary of Linguistics (written with Frank Gaynor, 1954), All About Language (1954), Invitation to Linguistics: A Basic Introduction to the Science of Language (1965), and Weasel Words: Saying What You Don't Mean (1978).

Pei penned The America We Lost: The Concerns of a Conservative (1968), a book advocating individualism and constitutional literalism. In the book, Pei denounces the income tax as well as communism and other forms of collectivism.

Pei was also an internationalist and advocated the introduction of Esperanto into school curricula across the world to supplement local languages.

Pei and Esperanto

Pei was fond of Esperanto, an international auxiliary language. He wrote his positive views on it in his book called One Language for the World. He also wrote a 21-page pamphlet entirely on world language and Esperanto called Wanted: a World Language.


Value of neologisms

Noting that neologisms are of immense value to the continued existence of a living language, as most words are developed as neologisms from root words, Pei stated in The Story of Language:

Of all the words that exist in any language only a bare minority are pure, unadulterated, original roots. The majority are "coined" words, forms that have been in one way or another created, augmented, cut down, combined, and recombined to convey new needed meanings, The language mint is more than a mint; it is a great manufacturing center, where all sorts of productive activities go on unceasingly.[1]

Creative innovation and slang

While slang may be condemned by purists and schoolteachers, it should be remembered that it is a monument to the language's force of growth by creative innovation, a living example of the democratic, normally anonymous process of language change, and the chief means whereby all the languages spoken today have evolved from earlier tongues.[1]



  • One Language for the World, 1958, Biblio-Moser, ISBN 0-8196-0218-3
  • Wanted: a World Language, New York: 1969, Public Affairs Committee,
  • French Precursors of the Chanson de Roland, 1949, AMS Press
  • Story of Language, 1949, Lippincott, ISBN 0-397-00400-1
  • All About Language, 1950, Lippincott
  • Liberal arts dictionary in English, French, German [and] Spanish, 1952, Philosophical Library
  • Liberal Arts Dictionary (with Frank Gaynor), 1952, Philosophical Library
  • A Dictionary Of Linguistics (with Frank Gaynor), 1954, Philosophical Library
  • Language For Everybody;: What It Is And How To Master It, 1956, New American Library
  • Getting Along in Italian, 1958, Bantam
  • Getting Along in Russian, 1959, Harper
  • Getting Along in French (with John Fisher), 1961, Bantam
  • 109 Most Useful Foreign Phrases for the Traveler, 1962, Curtis
  • Voices of Man: The Meaning and Function of Language, 1962, Harper & Row
  • The Story of English: A Modern Approach, 1962, Premier
  • Invitation to Linguistics: A Basic Introduction to the Science of Language, 1965, Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-06584-1
  • Glossary of Linguistic Terminology, 1966, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-03012-6
  • Studies In Romance Philology And Literature, 1966, Garnett Publishing
  • Words in Sheep's Clothing, 1969
  • Talking Your Way Around the World, 1971, Harper-Collins, ISBN 0-06-013327-9
  • Getting along in Spanish, 1972, Bantam
  • Weasel Words, 1972, Harper & Row
  • How To Learn Languages And What Languages To Learn, 1973, Harper & Row, ISBN 0-06-013323-6
  • Families of Words, 1974, St Martins Press, 0312280351
  • Dictionary Of Foreign Terms, 1975, Delacorte Press, ISBN 0-440-01779-3
  • What's In A Word? Language: yesterday, today, and tomorrow, 1975, Universal
  • The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages, 1976, Harper-Collins, ISBN 0-9773264-0-3
  • New Italian Self-Taught, 1982, Harpercollins, ISBN 0-06-463616-X


  • Medieval Romance Poetry, 1961 (Folkways Records)
  • One Language for the World, 1961 (Folkways)
  • Getting Along in Russian, Vol. 1, 1962 (Folkways)
  • Getting Along in Russian, Vol. 2, 1962 (Folkways)
  • Getting Along in French, Vol. 1, 1962 (Folkways)
  • Readings in Church Latin – Caesar and Cicero: Read by Dr. Mario A. Pei, 1962 (Folkways)
  • Readings in Church Latin – Virgil and Horace: Read by Dr. Mario A. Pei, 1962 (Folkways)
  • Getting Along in English, Vol. 1, 1964 (Folkways)


See also


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