“Harriet Tubman is indomitable” was, to my recollection, my first philosophical declaration in English—either that or “may I have water” when I meant soda a few years before. In any case, there I was, my seventh-grade self, showing off—the word “indomitable” we had learned a couple of days before—thus began my life as a nerd.
The history of English, as it is learnt by the non-native, is not as rosy. Take Pedro Carolino’s 1855 phrasebook of the English language, English as She Is Spoke: Being a Comprehensive Phrasebook of the English Language, Written by Men to Whom English was Entirely Unknown.
From the publisher: “Pedro Carolino set about writing an English phrasebook for Portuguese students. But there was just one problem: he didn’t know any English.” An ever-resourceful Carolino drew from José da Fonseca’s 1837 Guide de le Conversation Français et Anglaise and translated with a Portuguese-to-French dictionary and a French-to-English dictionary.
The lore: one could declare, when visiting a dentist, “I have the teeth-ache,” and he might reply, “Is it a fluxion, or have you a bad tooth,” and then, “I shall you neat also your mouth, and you could care entertain it clean, for to preserve the mamel of the teeth; I could give you a opiate for to strengthen the gums.”
I am reminded of my first encounter with phrasal verbs in my youth and my difficulty with idioms, which seem, even now, to borrow from William Carlos Williams, the “pure-product of American go crazy.” Which leads me to believe that language can be nonsense or mere telephone play.
Bio: Ricardo Maldonado is a poet and translator. He works at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City. His translations from the Spanish of Rafael Acevedo appeared in Guernica’s April 2009 issue. Read his last recommendation of Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge! here.