Edmund White has written a fascinating piece for the NYRB on Henry James’ letters. The essay focuses on James’ and his brother William’s education, including this intriguing linguistic bit:
In 1855 [Henry James Sr.] accordingly bundled the family off to Europe–to Geneva (surely the least sensuous city on the Continent), where little Henry was taught by French-speaking governesses, then sent to the Pensionnat Roediger. When their father’s enthusiasm for this institution inevitably waned they all moved to London where tutors were engaged again, though their governess Mlle Cusin was retained and brought over from Geneva to continue teaching them French. It was during these years that the boys acquired their nearly perfect and certainly idiomatic French; the self-critical James could say, “My French astounds me–its goodness is equalled only by its badness. I can be terribly spirituel, but I can’t ask for a candlestick.”
In later years Henry would be guilty of Gallicisms (“the actual President of the United States”) and would scrawl hasty notes to himself in French. His letters in these two volumes are peppered with French phrases, two or three a page. After addressing Thomas Sergeant Perry in French for a full page, Henry (at age twenty-four) switches back to English but deplores the loss of the intimate tu (“How detestable this you seems after using the Gallic toi!”). Some of the strangeness of James’s prose in these early letters can surely be explained by his translating back into English from French. For instance, when he writes Perry in 1860 from Paris he describes what he sees out the window of his hotel and refers to “a grasp of warriors” passing by (a phrase which surely began life as une poignée de guerriers). Or when James talks of a Swiss mountain trail that took eighteen years to “pierce,” he’s obviously translating back from percer. Richardson remarks on similar mistakes in William’s English, though in his case the source of the errors was German.
I was thinking a little about this sort of thing — crossing languages and how speaking one affects the other — over the weekend. Currently, I speak appalling French and Spanish, and I’ve been considering adding some hideous Latin or Greek to the stable. Just idle, What Would George Eliot Do-type thoughts before bedtime.
If you’ve invested a lot of time with flash cards and language labs and still never cleared “appalling,” you may look for consolation. And for me, that’s come from what the other language, no matter how imperfectly mastered, has revealed or reminded me about English. Etymologies, sentence structures, relationships between word families: All of these get thrown into sharper relief. For instance, reading García Márquez in Spanish, you might come across espuma for shaving lather, and so lather and foam get tossed around in your brain for a while, in a way that is gratifying and/or makes you seem a little high, depending: Lathered waves, espuma, spume!
That’s the train of thought that got me to the Latin and Greek. I’m not sure which, if either, I’ll try to learn (recommendations are welcome). For now I’ve been entertaining myself with the various Amazon reviews on the different textbooks (Teach Yourself Pig Latin in a Day!) available.* Here’s an excerpt from a review of Introduction to Attic Greek:
I’m not sure how to answer the chap who thinks learning a language ought to be a distractingly entertaining experience. But let me try. Language learning can indeed be accompanied by merriment at times, usually during the immersion phase and often at the expense of the learner. I’m afraid we’ve missed that boat by a couple millennia. If the pure cerebral rush that comes with the gradual mastery of the inner logic and outer mechanics of your target language is not sufficient stimulation in itself, then the learner might be better advised to stick to Spanish, where he can start pretending to make sentences almost from the outset.
Something to keep in mind.
(Link to White article via Maud.)
* I really love reading Amazon reviews — I don’t know why, possibly because I don’t get out much: It’s people-watching for agoraphobics. Like sitting on a bus where everybody around you is talking about books (and Harriet Klausner rides every line). For a long time my favorite was one that took Zadie Smith to task for not writing well enough about menopause in On Beauty. It was the abundance of clinical detail that really made the case.