In BWE, how many languages does Meyer speak? We see him speaking English, Italian, and Hebrew/Yiddish (IDK which) on screen, so he's at least trilingual. One could also assume he learned whatever language was native to Odessa when he lived there as a child (Polish? Russian?), and by the way he interacted with the blonde woman in Havana in S5, I got the feeling he speaks at least passable Spanish. I might be thinking too much into this, but I'd like your thoughts, if you've got the time. Thanks!
OKAY I WANT YOU TO KNOW I’M REALLY SORRY ABOUT THE LENGTH OF THIS POST BUT IT’S A REALLY GOOD QUESTION SO TL;DR ANSWER: depending on how we define “speaking a language,” and depending on certain historical circumstances that i don’t know enough about to speak on with definite certainty but am DAMN SURE GOING TO SPECULATE ON, the possible set of “languages meyer might be able to speak” ranges from four to eleven languages. english, yiddish, hebrew, italian/sicilian [which can count as one or two languages, depending on Many Things], and spanish make up the core possibilities, with the latter three[/four] being phrase-based as opposed to comprehensive fluency.
like you said, on screen we see him speak three languages; in terms of fluency, he’s obviously fluent in english as well as yiddish, though he doesn’t actually use a significant amount of yiddish in boardwalk; the stuff he says during the beatdown in all in is hebrew, not yiddish, and they use the same script but are different languages. based on what i’ve read meyer’s much more likely to understand german thanks to knowing yiddish than hebrew. as for the yiddish he actually does use, “mishegoss” and “emis” are pretty much it, iirc? …you can maybe include “hocking” in 5x01 because i don’t think that one had entered the yinglish lexicon juuust yet? but anyway, he uses it on a phrase/word basis, mostly because americanization respectability not-wanting-AR-to-be-a-dick-about-it etc etc, but it would have been his first language and he continued to speak it at home to his parents historically, so presumably he did in bwe as well. so, so far, fluent in english and yiddish, at least passably fluent in hebrew to construct sentences on the fly while murdering a dude, and depending on how impressive we want to make Meyer The Polyglot out to be, yiddish’s mutual intelligibilty with german could count for a fourth.
as far as italian goes, apparently the phrase he says in ourselves alone is… extremely formal and stilted, as well as being italian, not sicilian. there’s a whole ongoing debate in linguistics circles wrt whether sicilian is a dialect or a language, but suffice it to say mutual intelligibility between the two is not very high, for non-native speakers at least; i’ve looked up the italian subtitles for charlie and masseria’s scenes and more often than not, what’s written in italian does not match up with what’s being said in sicilian in the slightest. it’s sort of baffling, considering the writers apparently did so well with the sicilian in the rest of the show, and charlie and masseria have a whole conversation in what i’ve read is fairly accurate sicilian a few episodes later, but at this point i just headcanon it away that meyer taught himself mainland italian from library books while charlie was away in hampton farms and tried to surprise charlie with his ~italian skillz~ when he got out and charlie was just like “WHY ARE YOU TALKING LIKE A SIXTEENTH CENTURY SCHOOLMARM sit down i have to fix this” and taught him enough sicilian to get by when surrounded by mafia guys, but the stupidly formal italian is an inside joke past 1920. again, depending on whether we’re counting italian and sicilian as different languages, and whether charlie actually taught him any sicilian phrases offscreen [which i cannot believe he wouldn’t have, not if charlie’s going around picking up yiddish himself], we can add either one or two languages to the total, but he’s probably not as fluent in either sicilian or italian as he is in yiddish, english, or even hebrew.
you’re probably right about spanish too, but my guess is if he does know it his knowledge is probably pretty phrase-based more than a comprehensive fluency. he can probably get by in cuba if he has to, though, which is more than i can say, so that’s another, though spanish is probably closer to his fluency level with italian/sicilian than yiddish or english.
then the question of “russian or polish” is… a complicated one. he was from grodno, not odessa; odessa is in present-day ukraine, whereas grodno is in present-day belarus, but lies extremely close to both poland and lithuania [”close” as in walking distance, less than 20 miles from either border] and was part of the russian empire when meyer was born, but was considered to be part of poland within the empire, kind of? russian imperial history is a whole nightmare of “officially, according to the russians, countries other than russia that were subsumed by the empire did not exist and retroactively never existed after they were subsumed, except for how non-russian peoples resisted russification where they could,” which means that there are potentially FOUR options for the vernacular language of the city: belarusian, polish, and lithuanian, with russian being the “official” language of the imperial government—and therefore what forms would have been written in and the language spoken by government officials and in schools, but not necessarily spoken by anyone in grodno.
while my guess for the spoken language meyer might’ve picked up is belarusian or maybe polish, i genuinely do not know enough about eastern european history to say what would have been spoken in the gentile parts of grodno when meyer was growing up there. but that in and of itself kind of presents another problem; i also don’t know how independently the jewish population of grodno operated from the gentile population in the early 1900s. the impression i get is “significantly independently,” because afaik the russian empire [ON THE WHOLE some of the czars were better than others but GENERALLY NONE OF THEM WERE GREAT ON THIS FRONT] didn’t admit jewish kids to the russian school system, so meyer may not have even learned russian because shuls wouldn’t necessarily teach it. by the same token, the population of grodno was more than half jewish in 1907, and considering he was A LITERAL FIVE YEAR OLD he may not have interacted with any gentiles in a significant enough context to learn anything other than yiddish as a kid ANYWAY. so the answer for “what non-yiddish language[s] might meyer have picked up while living in grodno” can be anywhere between 0-4, with either “none of them” or “written russian and spoken belarusian/polish” being the most likely answers imo, depending on how much interaction there was between the jewish and gentile communities in grodno before 1909.
for me, my headcanon regarding any knowledge meyer may have had of any of the slavic languages mentioned is, he may have known polish/belarusian/russian as a kid, but in contrast to yiddish—which he presumably continued to speak offscreen with his parents and anna if we’re transposing historical facts onto bwe canon—and both spanish and italian/sicilian—which he would have had to put in at least SOME concentrated effort to learn after emigrating from grodno—meyer would have had no interest retaining polish/belarusian/russian, because it is in no way useful to him as a teen/adult, and the only thing the people who spoke those languages did was force his family to emigrate out of fear.
so like i said in the tl;dr, it sort of depends if you consider certain things languages or dialects, if you factor in mutual intelligibility, the historical context of both non-russian languages during the russian empire’s death throes, AND the historical context of jewish-goy interaction IN the late russian empire, but the potential options for languages he can speak in bwe are:
- english [confirmed, obviously]
- yiddish [confirmed historically and on a word basis in bwe]
- hebrew [confirmed in bwe but not to what degree]
- italian [confirmed in bwe but outdated/overly formal]
- sicilian [not confirmed on screen but i refuse to believe charlie picked phrases in meyer’s mother tongue up easier than meyer picked up phrases in charlie’s]
- spanish [not confirmed on screen but pretty likely on a phrase basis]
- russian [not confirmed on screen and dependent on historical context, also likely primarily written russian]
- belarusian [not confirmed on screen and dependent on historical context, and probably an either/or situation with polish/lithuanian]
- polish [not confirmed on screen and dependent on historical context, and probably an either/or situation with belarusian/lithuanian]
- lithuanian [not confirmed on screen and dependent on historical context, and probably an either/or situation with belarusian/polish, also the least likely of the slavic languages]
- german [not confirmed and mostly due to mutual fluency with yiddish, not any concerted effort or interest in the language]