Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about language in the past week. Language is my only window into the letters that I’m reading and I need to understand, somehow, what words mean.

Douleur, souffrance, chagrin, crainte…. all of these appear regularly in the letters and if I want to get inside them, I need to figure out what they mean, not today, but what they meant to eighteenth-century folks.

Words mean different things in different contexts. Words have histories, geographies, politics. Douleur today may be well removed from douleur ca. 1765, and that matters. It matters a lot. Luckily for me, I have easy access to early French dictionaries, through the ARTFL’s “Dictionnaires d’autrefois” database. This allows me to trace the trajectory of a word from the 1600s right through to the late 1800s. It’s a fascinating journey, sometimes [and just as much fun as poking through the Oxford English Dictionary Online, another of my favourite ports of call].

But language also matters at another level. During the eighteenth century, French was the language of choice among Europe’s elite. French was spoken at the Russian court, and at the Dutch court. It was also spoken in Denmark. Indeed, French was a requirement of elite social life, a mark of belonging among the “people of quality.”

But for so many of these individuals, French was a second language, a language they hadn’t “suckled at their mother’s breast” (to draw, once again, on the venerable Madame Necker), but something they learned and used through the lens of their fist languages: English, Dutch, Danish, Russian, etc. Adept as they were in French (and it’s abundantly clear that many were more than adept in French), they were still, essentially, thinking and seeing the world through their own languages, and in this I am reminded of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, whose short speech in Japanese, given sometime in the early half of the 1990s, was grammatically perfect (or at least, that is my assumption), but sounded curiously…. English. In tone, inflecion, timing, her speech was an English speech. But I didn’t understand a word of it.

What does it mean, then, to occupy the space of bilingualism, a functional bilingualism to be sure, but bilingualism nonetheless? And what might it mean to write from that position and to articulate your bodily self from that location?

An intriguing insight into this can be found in a series of three letters concerning the health of a Dutch woman living in Venlo. The first two letters function as “cartes de visites” of sorts, calling cards meant to establish our patient’s credibility and her social position. Both are in French, though both are obviously written by non-native speakers…how else to account for the word “guéé”? Sometimes, sounding out the letters is much more revelatory than reading them to myself….

More interesting, however, is the patient’s own letter. It’s clear from the outset that she has a strong command of the French language and its forms and conventions. She writes with confidence and is clearly comfortable not only with vocabulary, but also with the formal conventions of the letter genre.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the letter suddenly, and in the middle of a sentence, switched into Dutch. I looked again.

And again.

And again.

And there was no mistaking it. It was most definitely Dutch. By the next sentence, she was back in French. And two paragraphs later, there was another smattering of Dutch. And it happened a few more times.

The letter, as a whole, sat on the borderlands between French and Dutch, sliding seamlessly between the two as her needs changed.

Later in the letter, she offers the following explanation:

“Comme je suppose que vous savez toutes les langues, ce que je n’ai pu dire en francais, je l’ai mit en hollandais.” [BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

So very simple, really.

Of course she’d think that Tissot would speak all languages; after all, she was fluent in at least two (and likely a few more). And had she looked in his mailbag, she’d have seen letters in French, English, German, Italian and Latin. Why not Dutch?

Why not Dutch, indeed?

Think of how much better we’d all be able to understand one another if we each spoke numerous languages.


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