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.

Collins says he can't reveal future titles, but mentions as likely contenders a "very odd POW escape narrative" and a couple of missing links from the Bloomsbury circle. Some of the authors on his short list, he adds, are so obscure that "Google searches on their names turned up zero hits—nothing at all, not even different people with the same name."

His own Web site (www.collinslibrary.com) contains mini-discoveries made during his prolonged library trawls—and also a revision to the story of EASIS's genesis, as she is known, from Alexander MacBride, a graduate student in linguistics at UCLA. In brief, MacBride thinks da Fonseca (described by Collins as author of "a long and respectable list of published works in poetry, linguistics, and translation") may have been the victim of a shoddy publisher and an incompetent fellow countryman.

MacBride's suspicions were initially aroused by internal evidence in the book itself, notably the authors' brain-twisting preface. "Untwisted," he writes on the site, it "becomes a sensible (though somewhat boastful) introduction to what sounds like a decent little textbook." Intrigued, he consulted the online catalog of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—and found a French-Portuguese phrasebook by da Fonseca alone, published by J.-P. Aillaud in 1836.

If MacBride is correct that Aillaud did assign another writer to do an English knockoff, the hack in question was presumably Carolino, of whom, Collins informs us, little is known beyond his authorship of a manual on letter writing. MacBride soon discovered he was not the first to reach this conclusion. A 1967 British edition features an introduction by Leslie Shepard that likewise puts the blame on Carolino, though he speculates that da Fonseca may have been complicit. "The idea of an English-language version was perhaps a natural one, and it seems that da Fonseca became acquainted with a certain Pedro Carolino, who confidently undertook the task of producing an exact English edition," Shepard wrote.

But MacBride is dubious that the genesis of EASIS lies in da Fonseca's unwarranted faith in a newfound friend's language skills: "[It] looks an awful lot like a guess on Shepard's part, and if it's a known fact, Shepard provides no source for it," he tells the Voice.

Then there's the point that in 1853, Aillaud brought out an edition of da Fonseca's 1836 Portuguese-French phrasebook, just two years before publishing the work that would achieve infamy as EASIS. Could the latter primer simply have been a blind translation of the former? MacBride says it's possible da Fonseca had nothing to do with either of these books: "If he didn't live in France, he may not have even known about them."

A further twist to the tangled tale occurred when MacBride came upon an article by George Monteiro from the 1983-84 issue of the journal Estudos Anglo-Americanos. According to Monteiro, "It is now accepted . . . that [Carolino] was merely a pseudonym for [da Fonseca], whose dates are given on library catalog cards as 1792?-1866."

MacBride contacted Monteiro, who was unable to provide any further information. It would certainly seem bizarre for da Fonseca to include his own name along with a pseudonym, since this is usually a tactic of writers who wish to conceal their identity, not multiply it. In fact, the proliferating histories of EASIS itself begin to read like bad translations from a decayed source. "Every time I look at this stuff again, it becomes more mysterious," says MacBride, adding that da Fonseca is "the Lautréamont of incompetence."

Unable to find any biographical information on either da Fonseca or Carolino, MacBride has nevertheless discovered a clue that may prove decisive—da Fonseca had published books on English prior to 1855, including phrasebooks; he would later translate Gulliver's Travels. "I'm wondering now if da Fonseca actually did have some solid work in English, and the bad phrasebook was an attempt to cash in on his reputation," MacBride says. "If not, and the earlier English works are as bad as this one, he must have been a tremendous imbecile." The books that could prove the case, one way or the other, reside in French libraries. MacBride is trying to secure copies.


Was da Fonseca an unknowing dupe, a too trusting friend, a linguistic serial killer, or a borderline schizophrenic? "My first assumption was that the mysterious 'Pedro Carolino' was some hack who'd gone through the original phrasebook with a dictionary, and that Fonseca was completely innocent," MacBride says. "I still think that's likely, but I'm not tremendously confident about it."

Indeed, the ground shifts like the tenses in EASIS. Yet MacBride's initial hypothesis still seems the most probable. If da Fonseca did have some command of English, it's unlikely he would have had his name tied to such a work. If he did not—well, the mind boggles at the prospect of other books of this ilk remaining undiscovered for so long. And how did he continue to get commissions? Surely someone in France spoke English.

If the hypothesis holds, da Fonseca (one imagines a thin, quiet man with a neatly clipped moustache) has been the innocent victim of the worst possible press. As Collins says, "Da Fonseca has gone down as the worst scholar in history—and probably undeservedly. The irony is that, unlike most of his colleagues, it means that people still read him."

But would such immortality have appealed to the respectable da Fonseca, or was he the first to be caught in the trap? If the latter, the calumny is unspeakable. A moment of silence, then, for his tormented shade. To use a Familiar Phrase, He is tears.

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