Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Little Background, Part 2: French Lessons

       It turns out that Twain studied French when he was young—and not in school or because his mother made him but by choice.   According to Paine, when Sam Clemens learned about Joan of Arc, he was also taken with a desire to learn not only history but another language.  As Paine puts it, starting out with a dubious claim, “He seemed likely to become a student.  Presently he began to feel the need of languages, French and German.”   Paine then tells a funny story about Sam’s first attempt to learn a second language that sounds as if it came straight from Twain’s mouth (which it probably did).
     In those days, Hannibal wasn’t the sort of place with a language school, so Sam and a friend came up with a plan. There was no one to teach them French but there was a local German shoemaker they thought might be willing to teach them his native language.  He agreed, but his English was so bad it led to confusion. Here I’ll pick up the story from Paine (or should I say Twain?)

Their teacher had some sort of “word-book,” and when they assembled in his little cubby-hole of a retreat he began reading aloud from it this puzzling sentence:
“De hein eet flee whoop in de hayer.”
“Dere,” he said, triumphantly; “you know dose vord?”
The students looked at each other helplessly.
The teacher repeated the sentence, and again they were helpless when he asked if they recognized it.
Then in despair he showed them the book.  It was an English primer, and the sentence was, “The hen, it flies up into the air.”
They explained to him gently that it was German they wished to learn, not English—not under the circumstances.

     Sam then tried to teach himself Latin from a book, coming to the conclusion that “that language is not for me.  I’ll do well enough to learn English.”
Sam Clemens as a young printer's apprentice
     But he had better success about ten years later—and this time it was with French.   Clemens had given up printing--though he was good at it and fast--to follow his dream of becoming a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, which he was not only good at but loved. [Link to audio file of opening chapters of Life on the Mississippi]  By then, he was going about in patent leather shoes, fancy striped shirts, and blue serge suits, and sporting a mutton-chop beard.  Once again, he decided that learning another language would add to his cachet.
     On his travels, he came across a language school offering a deal on French, German, and Italian lessons: $25 for one language or 3 for $50.  Sam, of course, went for all three.  The student got a set of cards for each language and was supposed to walk through a succession of three rooms, changing languages as he went.  After a couple of frustrating trips, Sam decided just to do French, then quit altogether.  But when he did, he took his French cards with him—and evidently hit the books pretty hard for some time.
     “He must have studied pretty faithfully when he was off watch and in port,” Paine writes, “for his river note-book contains a French exercise, all neatly written, and it is from the Dialogues of Voltaire”—not exactly an elementary primer of the sort the shoemaker had used.
     That river journal is from 1860-1861, when the young man who would soon become Mark Twain was about 25. 

No comments:

Post a Comment