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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 who lack a professional background in linguistics.



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

In 1923, he began his career teaching languages at City College in 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.

In 1937, 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, constitutional literalism, and other paleoconservative principles. In the book, Pei denounces the income tax, as well as communism and other forms of collectivism.

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



Value of neologisms

In noting that neologisms are of immense value to the continued existence of a living language, and that 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.


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.




  • French Precursors of the Chanson de Roland, 1949, AMS Press
  • Story of Language, 1949, Lippincott, ISBN 0397004001
  • 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
  • One Language for the World, 1958, Biblio-Moser, ISBN 0819602183
  • 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 0385065841
  • Getting Along in German (with Robert Politzer), 1965, Bantam
  • Glossary of Linguistic Terminology, 1966, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231030126
  • 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 0060133279
  • Getting along in Spanish, 1972, Bantam
  • Weasel Words, 1972, Harper & Row
  • How To Learn Languages And What Languages To Learn, 1973, Harper & Row, ISBN 0060133236
  • Families of Words, 1974, St Martins Press, 0312280351
  • Dictionary Of Foreign Terms, 1975, Delacorte Press, ISBN 0440017793
  • What's In A Word? Language: yesterday, today, and tomorrow, 1975, Universal
  • The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages, 1976, Harper-Collins, ISBN 0977326403
  • New Italian Self-Taught, 1982, Harpercollins, ISBN 006463616X


  • 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)


  • The American road to peace: a constitution for the world, 1945, S.F. Vanni
  • Swords of Anjou, 1953, John Day Company. Pei's first and only novel, praised in HISPANICA [1953] as "an admirable combination of absorbing narrative and sound scholarship..."
  • THE CONSUMER'S MANIFESTO: A Bill Of Rights to Protect the Consumer in the Wars Between Capital and Labor, 1960, Crown Publishers
  • Our National Heritage, 22021, Houghton Mifflin
  • America We Lost: The Concerns of a Conservative, 1968, World Publishing
  • Tales of the natural and supernatural,, 1971, Devin-Adair

See also


  1. ^ a b WordSpy


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