English as She is Spoke


English as She is SpokeOne of the more delightful books in my personal library is a reprint of the 1883 American edition of English as She Is Spoke, described by Wikipedia as, 

…intended as a Portuguese–English conversational guide or phrase book; however, as the “English” translations provided are usually inaccurate or incoherent, it is regarded as a classic source of unintentional humour in translation.

Even a quick glance at its suggested English phrases and you’ll see the humour. It reads more like a guide for the speech of the beloved character of Manuel in Fawlty Towers than a guide for visitors and immigrants: “We will first to see him in outside, after we shall go in there for to look the interior.”

The book was originally published in France in 1855, with Pedro Carolino named as the sole author. Later editions added José da Fonseca as a co-author. The original title translates as “The New Guide to Conversation, in Portuguese and English, in Two Parts.” A British edition came out in 1882, with the title wittily translated as English as She is Spoke, and it stuck in English editions thereafter.

Mark Twain wrote an introduction to the American publication, saying,

Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naiveté, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.

And ridiculous it is, in a wonderfully entertaining way. It was apparently the result of a non-English speaker translating Portuguese from dictionaries first into French, then using another dictionary to translate the French into English (although clearly failing to make it “clean of gallicisms and despoiled phrases” as Carolino claimed). As Wikipedia explains:

It is widely believed that Carolino could not speak English, and that a French–English dictionary was used to translate an earlier Portuguese–French phrase book, O novo guia da conversação em francês e português, written by José da Fonseca. Carolino likely added Fonseca’s name to the book without his permission in an attempt to give it some credibility. The Portuguese–French phrase book is apparently a competent work, without the defects that characterize English as She Is Spoke.

And as the back cover of the Dover reprint notes,

Imagine the Portuguese traveler, with this book in hand, offering grooming tips, “Dress your hairs,” making polite dinner conversation, “Like you the soup?” and inviting an acquaintance to take a walk, “Let us go to respire the air.” The collection is organized into sections of familiar phrases, familiar dialogues, and familiar letters — which might not strike the native English speaker as particularly familiar, concluding with a selection of humorous anecdotes.

The book first came out shortly before a massive wave of Portuguese emigration took place. As fellow ukulele players know from their history of the instrument, this is the time when the ukulele was first made by Portuguese cabinet makers emigrating to Hawaii.

As a Monty Python fan (and surely you must be one), you might also recognize the parody of English as She Is Spoke in their 1970 Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook skit, which came out around the time I first learned of the book. But it wasn’t until recently that I acquired a copy (as a lover of all things about language, especially puns and plays on English).

Regardless of the convoluted origins of the book, the result has remained entertaining and enjoyable for more than a century. I had been aware of the book for many decades, and read portions of it, but until I recently bought a Dover reprint had not enjoyed it in all its risible glory. Not only are there the “translations” of travel and conversational phrases, but the back section contains a wealth of “familiar letters”, anecdotes, and “idiotisms and proverbs.”

One example from the anecdotes:

A traveller, which a storm had benumb of cold, he come in a field’s inn, and find it so fill of companies that he cannot to approach of the chimney. “What carry to the my horse a oyster’s basket,” tell him to the host. “to your horse cry out this. Do you think that he wake eating them?—Make what I command you,” reply the gentleman. At the words, all the assistants run to the stable, and our traveller he get warm him self. Gentleman, tell the host coming again, I shall have lay it upon my head the horse will not it.—So, take again the traveller, which was very warmed one’s, then it must that I eat them.”  

Sure to drive your Grammarly add-in crazy, but worth it for the laughs. Here are some of the “idiotisms” (an archaic term for idioms, not a description of phrases that come from the mouths of politicians) included in the book:

The necessity don’t know the low.
Few, few the bird make her nest.
He is not valuable to breat that he eat.
Its are some blu stories.
Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss.
He sin in trouble water.
A bad arrangement is better than a process.
He has a good beak.
In the country of blinds, the one eyed man are kings.

If you want a humorous escape from the weather, from the politics, from the news of the day, settle into your comfy chair with a cup of tea and a copy of English as She Is Spoke. As Mark Twain wrote n his introduction, “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”

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