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English as She is Spoke
by José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino
Edited by Paul Collins
(McSweeney's, 2001)

It was originally published in 1855 under the title "The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English, in Two Parts," and its authors, José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino, did have a list of respected publications on poetry, linguistics and letter-writing under their belts. But unfortunately, neither of these two gentlemen spoke English. To compensate for this shortcoming, they used a Portuguese to French dictionary and a French to English dictionary. The resulting "linguistic train wreck" (as editor Paul Collins dubs it) quickly became a cult hit, and went on to be reprinted under the title "English as She is Spoke" throughout the 19th century and every decade or so in the 20th century. The latest printing of "English" was recently done by McSweeney's Collins Library, which publishes rare or out of print books.

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A quick glance at the volume's "Index of Matters" will give a taste of what lies within. Sections of the book cover topics such as "The Mankind," "Quadruped's Beasts," "For to Visit a Sick," and last but not least, "Idiotisms and Proverbs."

The earlier chapters list vocabulary words related to a given topic. If you want to talk about "Defects of the Body," for example, you might discuss "a blind," "a lame," "a hump," "a rheum," "a left handed," or "an ugly." Consult the "Eatings" chapter if you are hungry, and you can request "vegetables boiled to a pap" or "some wigs." And if "Fishes and Shell-Fishes" are to your liking, how about a "calamary," "a sorte of fish," or a "hedge hog." (If a "large lobster" is not enough, try a "wolf.")

The next section of "English," which, by the way, is meant to be read by "the studious persons, and especialy of the Youth," offers the reader "Familiar Phrases" to be used in conversation. Every student needs to know how to say, "I have drinking enough," and "I have mind to vomit." And there might come a time when a student would need to make a request such as "Remove you of the river," or "Come us in this thicket?" or even "Undress you to." But one must wonder if it was wise of Fonseca and Carolino to suggest that the Youth practice the phrase "I should kill-you to the blows with a stick."

Once the student of "English" has mastered vocabulary words and simple phrases, he is ready to engage in dialogues. Fonseca and Carolina give examples of the kinds of conversations that English speakers typically have. When riding a horse, someone might ask, "Your pistols are its loads?" The appropriate answer would be: "No; i forgot to buy gun-powder and balls. Let us prick. Go us more fast never i was seen a so much bad beast; she will not nor to bring forward neither put back."

And unfortunately, when traveling in a foreign country, it is sometimes necessary to seek medical treatment. Luckily "English" prepares the reader for what he might encounter at a dentist:

"You have a bad tooth; will you pull out this tooth?"

"I can't to decide me it, that make me many great deal pain."

"Your tooth is absolutely roted; if you leave it; shall spoil the others."

"In such case, draw it."

Finally, when the reader has mastered the art of conversation, he can take things up a notch by adding clever sayings to his banter. The "Idiotisms and Proverbs" section provides him with timeless gems of wisdom such as "the walls have hearsay," and "that which feel one's snotly blow blow one's nose."

It is safe to say that Fonseca and Carolino were truly original wordsmiths. Indeed their fresh, daring use of language earned them praise from literary legend Mark Twain, who wrote, "nobody can imitate ["English"] successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure."

-- Christine Leahy

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[email protected] | May 2003 | Issue 38
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