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Linguists
by [?]

There are two classes of people not a little thought of, and even caressed, in society, and for whom I have ever felt a very humble estimate–the men who play all manner of games, and the men who speak several languages. I begin with the latter, and declare that, after a somewhat varied experience of life, I never met a linguist that was above a third-rate man; and I go farther, and aver, that I never chanced upon a really able man who had the talent for languages.

I am well aware that it sounds something little short of a heresy to make this declaration. It is enough to make the blood of Civil-Service Commissioners run cold to hear it. It sounds illiberal–and, worse, it seems illogical. Why should any intellectual development imply deficiency? Why should an acquirement argue a defect? I answer, I don’t know–any more than I know why sanguineous people are hot-tempered, and leuco-phlegmatic ones are more brooding in their wrath. If–for I do not ask to be anything higher than empirical–if I find that parsimonious people have generally thin noses, and that the snub is associated with the spendthrift, I never trouble myself with the demonstration, but I hug the fact, and endeavour to apply it.

In the same spirit, if I hear a man in a salon change from French to German and thence diverge into Italian and Spanish, with possibly a brief excursion into something Scandinavian or Sclav–at home in each and all–I would no more think of associating him in my mind with anything responsible in station or commanding in intellect, than I should think of connecting the servant that announced me with the last brilliant paper in the ‘Quarterly.’

No man with a strongly-marked identity–and no really able man ever existed without such–can subordinate that identity so far as to put on the foreigner; and without this he never can attain that mastery of a foreign language that makes the linguist. To be able to repeat conventionalities–bringing them in at the telling moment, adjusting phrases to emergencies, as a joiner adapts the pieces of wood to his carpentry–may be, and is, a very neat and a very dexterous performance, but it is scarcely the exercise to which a large capacity will address itself. Imitation must be, in one sense or other, the stronghold of the linguist–imitation of expression, of style, of accent, of cadence, of tone. The linguist must not merely master grammar, but he must manage gutturals. The mimicry must go farther: in simulating expression it must affect the sentiment. You are not merely borrowing the clothes, but you are pretending to put on the feelings, the thoughts, the prejudices of the wearer. Now, what man with a strong nature can merge himself so entirely in his fictitious being as not to burst the seams and tear the lining of a garment that only impedes the free action of his limbs, and actually threatens the very extinction of his respiration?

It is not merely by their greater adaptiveness that women are better linguists than men; it is by their more delicate organisation, their more subdued identity, and their less obstreperous temperaments, which are consequently less egotistical, less redolent of the one individual self. And what is it that makes the men of mark or note, the cognate signs of human algebra, but these same characteristics; not always good, not always pleasant, not always genial, but always associated with something that declares preeminence, and pronounces their owner to be a “representative man”?

When Lord Ward replied to Prince Schwartzenberg’s flippant remark on the bad French of English diplomatists by the apology, “that we had not enjoyed the advantage of having our capital cities so often occupied by French troops as some of our neighbours,” he uttered not merely a smart epigram but a great philosophical truth. It was not alone that we had not possessed the opportunity to pick up an accent, but that we had not subordinated our minds and habits to French modes and ways of thought, and that the tone and temper of the French people had not been beaten into us by the roll of a French drum. One may buy an accomplishment too dearly. It is possible to pay too much even for a Parisian pronunciation! Not only have I never found a linguist a man of eminence, but I have never seen a linguist who talked well. Fluent they are, of course, like the Stecknadel gun of the Prussians, they can fire without cessation, but, like the same weapon, they are comparatively aimless. It is a feu roulant, with plenty of noise and some smoke, but very “few casualties” announce the success. The greatest linguist of modern Europe, Mezzofanti, was a most inferior man. Of the countries whose dialect he spoke to perfection, he knew nothing. An old dictionary would have been to the full as companionable. I find it very hard not to be personal just now, and give a list–it would be a long one–of all the tiresome people I know, who talk four, five, some of them six modern languages perfectly. It is only with an effort I abstain from mentioning the names of some well-known men who are the charming people at Borne and Vienna every winter, and each summer are the delight of Ems, of Berlin, and of Ischl. What tyrants these fellows are, too, over the men who have not got their gift of tongues! how they out-talk them and overbear them! with what an insolent confidence they fall back upon the petty superiority of their fluency, and lord it over those who are immeasurably their masters! Just as Blondin might run along the rigging of a three-decker, and pretend that his agility entitled him to command a squadron!