Slips of the Tongue

••• English as a Really Foreign Language

An insidious device for producing unwitting comic stereotypes, English as She Is Spoke has sputtered incoherently in the background of our culture for nearly a century and a half now, and the extent of its damage to Anglo-American/Portuguese-Brazilian relations can only be estimated. Thanks to Paul Collins and McSweeney's Books, it has returned after a hiatus of some 30 years, beautifully bound to resemble a volume from a school library, a new cover for an old trap.

"A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms, and despoiled phrases, it was missing yet to studious portuguese and brazilian Youth," the authors, José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino, state in their baffling Preface. The need has since been met by a wide variety of helpful phrase books, of which this is notoriously not one.

"Clean of gallicisms" strikes a particularly unfortunate note, given the received story of how this bizarre thing came to be. The authors, it seems, accepted the commission for a phrasebook despite the hurdle of being themselves non-English speaking. In addition, they were unable to procure a Portuguese-English dictionary.

illustration: Douglas Boehm

They did, however, have access to Portuguese-French and French-English dictionaries, and with admirable pluck, made the most of their limited means. (Were the authors stranded in a mountain cabin by agents of a particularly unscrupulous publisher? One of the most entertaining things about the book is the possible scenarios it spawns—not least of which is the attempt of an unwary Portuguese speaker to actually use it.) The result is, of course, flush with gallicisms, along with infusions from Portuguese and from the mysterious hybrids that sprout along linguistic borders.

EASIS begins, respectably enough, with a "Vocabulary" section, which soon goes wonky with the inclusion of "Some wigs, A dainty-dishes, An amelet, and Vegetables boiled to a pap" as representative "Eatings." There follows a list of "Familiar Phrases"—a number of them quite violent, e.g., "He has spit in my coat. He does me some kicks. He laughs at my nose. He has me take out my hairs. He has scratch the face with hers nails." Herein lie the intimations of a complicated story. The authors must have anticipated that the book might cause trouble and perhaps intended to aid the speaker in filling out a police report.

Indeed, ill temper is a recurring theme in the book. In one of the "Familiar Dialogues"—"For to Ride a Horse"—da Fonseca and Carolino envision, with characteristic ambiguity, either a very particular customer or an incredibly sorry nag: "Here is a horse who have bad looks. . . . He not sall know to march, he is pursy, he is foundered. . . . He is undshoed, he is with nails up; it want to lead to the farrier. He go limp, he is disable, he is blind."

Then, some "Anecdotes," the points of which remain dimly visible beneath the lush growth of this new dialect, and lastly the apt "Idiotisms and Proverbs." Here, some familiar phrases return, made strange ("The stone as roll heap up not foam"), while other entries seem wholly new and demand inclusion in English as we speak her now—especially "That which feel one's snotly blow blow one's nose."

It is, in short, a book that fairly begs to be mocked. And it has been, mercilessly, since soon after its original publication in France in 1855. Did the authors anticipate this too? Consider the following testy dialogue, "With a Bookseller": "The actual liking of the public is depraved they does not read who for to amuse one's self ant but to instruct one's." The target is not quite clear—perhaps it hinges on the word "ant"—but a denunciation of popular taste is obviously intended.

EASIS led a subterranean existence—an accident waiting to happen—until a London publisher brought out a new edition in 1883, changing the title from the respectable if muddled The New Guide of the Conversation, in Portuguese and Englishto the more obviously comic one it still bears. American knockoffs soon followed, one with an introduction by Mark Twain that contributed greatly to its ongoing popularity.

The McSweeney's reprint unfortunately doesn't include the Twain piece, but editor Paul Collins has supplied a succinct and sympathetic introduction of his own (he says of the authors, "their intentions were good"). It marks the inauguration of the Collins Library, devoted to the rediscovery of forgotten beauties and oddities of literature and potentially the most exciting new imprint since the launch of New York Review Books. "When I find really great weird old books that have been forgotten," Collins says, "the question that always gets me is 'Why don't people know about this? Why doesn't somebody reprint it?' The wonderful thing about a book is that it only takes one surviving copy to bring it back to life—they are the world's longest-lasting seeds."

As Collins, a former instructor of English at Dominican University, demonstrated in his own Banvard's Folly (Picador USA, 2001), he's a canny explorer of the crevices of culture. In that book, a worthy companion to John Michell's Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, he offered studies of 13 overlooked historical figures, unlikely in themselves and/or devoted to unlikely pursuits. Among its highlights are a portrait of Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland, whose spurious plays have their own genius, and a history of Jean François Sudre's Solresol language, originally based on the seven notes of the Western scale and later adapted for hand gestures, numbers, and colors. The second promised volume in the Collins Library is The Memoirs of **** by "George Psalmanazar" (real name unknown), whose life as a refugee from an imaginary Formosa is also detailed in Barnvard's Folly.

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