Linguists by Charles Lever

Story type: Essay

There are two classes of people not a little thought of, and even caressed, in society, and for whom I have ever felt a very humble estimate–the men who play all manner of games, and the men who speak several languages. I begin with the latter, and declare that, after a somewhat varied experience of life, I never met a linguist that was above a third-rate man; and I go farther, and aver, that I never chanced upon a really able man who had the talent for languages.

I am well aware that it sounds something little short of a heresy to make this declaration. It is enough to make the blood of Civil-Service Commissioners run cold to hear it. It sounds illiberal–and, worse, it seems illogical. Why should any intellectual development imply deficiency? Why should an acquirement argue a defect? I answer, I don’t know–any more than I know why sanguineous people are hot-tempered, and leuco-phlegmatic ones are more brooding in their wrath. If–for I do not ask to be anything higher than empirical–if I find that parsimonious people have generally thin noses, and that the snub is associated with the spendthrift, I never trouble myself with the demonstration, but I hug the fact, and endeavour to apply it.

In the same spirit, if I hear a man in a salon change from French to German and thence diverge into Italian and Spanish, with possibly a brief excursion into something Scandinavian or Sclav–at home in each and all–I would no more think of associating him in my mind with anything responsible in station or commanding in intellect, than I should think of connecting the servant that announced me with the last brilliant paper in the ‘Quarterly.’

No man with a strongly-marked identity–and no really able man ever existed without such–can subordinate that identity so far as to put on the foreigner; and without this he never can attain that mastery of a foreign language that makes the linguist. To be able to repeat conventionalities–bringing them in at the telling moment, adjusting phrases to emergencies, as a joiner adapts the pieces of wood to his carpentry–may be, and is, a very neat and a very dexterous performance, but it is scarcely the exercise to which a large capacity will address itself. Imitation must be, in one sense or other, the stronghold of the linguist–imitation of expression, of style, of accent, of cadence, of tone. The linguist must not merely master grammar, but he must manage gutturals. The mimicry must go farther: in simulating expression it must affect the sentiment. You are not merely borrowing the clothes, but you are pretending to put on the feelings, the thoughts, the prejudices of the wearer. Now, what man with a strong nature can merge himself so entirely in his fictitious being as not to burst the seams and tear the lining of a garment that only impedes the free action of his limbs, and actually threatens the very extinction of his respiration?

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It is not merely by their greater adaptiveness that women are better linguists than men; it is by their more delicate organisation, their more subdued identity, and their less obstreperous temperaments, which are consequently less egotistical, less redolent of the one individual self. And what is it that makes the men of mark or note, the cognate signs of human algebra, but these same characteristics; not always good, not always pleasant, not always genial, but always associated with something that declares preeminence, and pronounces their owner to be a “representative man”?

When Lord Ward replied to Prince Schwartzenberg’s flippant remark on the bad French of English diplomatists by the apology, “that we had not enjoyed the advantage of having our capital cities so often occupied by French troops as some of our neighbours,” he uttered not merely a smart epigram but a great philosophical truth. It was not alone that we had not possessed the opportunity to pick up an accent, but that we had not subordinated our minds and habits to French modes and ways of thought, and that the tone and temper of the French people had not been beaten into us by the roll of a French drum. One may buy an accomplishment too dearly. It is possible to pay too much even for a Parisian pronunciation! Not only have I never found a linguist a man of eminence, but I have never seen a linguist who talked well. Fluent they are, of course, like the Stecknadel gun of the Prussians, they can fire without cessation, but, like the same weapon, they are comparatively aimless. It is a feu roulant, with plenty of noise and some smoke, but very “few casualties” announce the success. The greatest linguist of modern Europe, Mezzofanti, was a most inferior man. Of the countries whose dialect he spoke to perfection, he knew nothing. An old dictionary would have been to the full as companionable. I find it very hard not to be personal just now, and give a list–it would be a long one–of all the tiresome people I know, who talk four, five, some of them six modern languages perfectly. It is only with an effort I abstain from mentioning the names of some well-known men who are the charming people at Borne and Vienna every winter, and each summer are the delight of Ems, of Berlin, and of Ischl. What tyrants these fellows are, too, over the men who have not got their gift of tongues! how they out-talk them and overbear them! with what an insolent confidence they fall back upon the petty superiority of their fluency, and lord it over those who are immeasurably their masters! Just as Blondin might run along the rigging of a three-decker, and pretend that his agility entitled him to command a squadron!

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Nothing, besides, is more imposing than the mock eloquence of good French. The language in itself is so adaptive, it is so felicitous, it abounds in such innumerable pleasant little analogies, such nice conceits and suggestive drolleries, that he who acquires these has at will a whole armoury of attack and defence. It actually requires years of habit to accustom us to a display that we come at last to discover implies no brilliancy whatever in him who exhibits, though it argues immense resources in the treasury from which he derives this wealth.

I have known scores of delightful talkers–Frenchmen–who had no other charm than what their language lent them. They were neither profound, nor cultivated, nor witty–some were not even shrewd or acute; but all were pleasant–pleasant in the use of a conversational medium, of which the world has not the equal–a language that has its set form of expression for every social eventuality, and that hits to a nicety every contingency of the “salon;” for it is no more the language of natural people than the essence of the perfumer’s shop is the odour of a field flower. It is pre-eminently the medium of people who talk with tall glasses before them, and an incense of truffles around them, and well-dressed women–clever and witty, and not over-scrupulous in their opinions–for their company. Then, French is unapproachable; English would be totally unsuited to the occasion, and German even more so. There is a flavour of sauer kraut about that unhappy tongue that would vulgarise a Queen if she talked it.

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To attain, therefore, the turns and tricks of this language–for it is a Chinese puzzle in its involvements–what a life must a man have led! What “terms” he must have “put in” at cafes and restaurants! What seasons at small theatres–tripots and worse! What nights at bals-masques, Chateaux des Fleurs, and Cadrans rouges et bleus! What doubtful company he must have often kept! What company a little more than doubtful occasionally! What iniquities of French romance must he have read, with all the cardinal virtues arrayed as the evil destinies of humanity, and every wickedness paraded as that natural expansion of the heart which alone raises man above the condition of the brute! I ask, if proficiency must imply profligacy, would you not rather find a man break down in his verbs than in his virtue? Would you not prefer a little inaccuracy in his declensions to a total forgetfulness of the decalogue? And, lastly of all, what man of real eminence could have masqueraded–for it is masquerading–for years in this motley, and come out, after all, with even a rag of his identity?

Many people would scruple to play at cards with a stranger whose mode of dealing and general manipulation of the pack bespoke daily familiarity with the play-table. They would infer that he was a regular and professional gambler. In the very same way, and for the selfsame reason, would I carefully avoid any close intimacy with the Englishman of fluent French, well knowing he could not have graduated in that perfection save at a certain price. But it is not at the moral aspect of the question I desire particularly to look. I assert–and I repeat my assertion–that these talkers of many tongues are poor creatures. There is no initiative in them–they suggest nothing–they are vendors of second-hand wares, and are not always even good selectors of what they sell. It is only in narrative that they are at all endurable. They can raconter, certainly; and so long as they go from salon to salon repeating in set phrase some little misadventure or accident of the day, they are amusing; but this is not conversation, and they do not converse.

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“Every time a man acquires a new language, is he a new man?” is supposed to have been a saying of Charles V.–a sentiment that, if he uttered it, means more of sarcasm than of praise; for it is the very putting off a man’s identity that establishes his weakness. All real force of character excludes dualism. Every eminent, every able man has a certain integrity in his nature that rejects this plasticity.

It is a very common habit, particularly with newspaper writers, to ascribe skill in languages, and occasionally in games, to distinguished people. It was but the other day we were told that Garibaldi spoke ten languages fluently. Now Garibaldi is not really master of two. He speaks French tolerably; and his native language is not Italian, but a patois-Genoese. Cavour was called a linguist with almost as little truth; but people repeat the story, just as they repeat that Napoleon I. was a great chess-player. If his statecraft and his strategy had been on a par with his chess, we should never have heard of Tilsit or Wagram.

Lord Castlereagh, the Duke of Wellington, and George Canning, each of whom administered our foreign policy with no small share of success, were not linguists; and as to Charles Fox, he has left a French sentence on record that will last even as long as his own great name. I do not want to decry the study of languages; I simply desire to affirm that linguists–and through all I have said I mean colloquial linguists–are for the most part poor creatures, not otherwise distinguished than by the gift of tongues; and I want to protest against the undue pre-eminence accorded to the possessors of a small accomplishment, and the readiness with which the world, especially the world of society, awards homage to an acquirement in which a boarding-school Miss can surpass Lord Brougham. I mean to say a word or two about those who have skill in games; but as they are of a higher order of intelligence, I’ll wait till I have got “fresh wind” ere I treat of them.

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