Language Addiction

We are pleased to publish Professor Haun Saussy’s new blog post for the CCL

“Comparative” often stands for “international,” but one book I have long cherished stages its language obsession within the British Isles: Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851. It’s a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer. But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”

“Irish!” said my father with a loud voice, “and a bad language it is, I have known it of old, that is, I have often heard it spoken when I was a guardsman in London. There’s one part of London where all the Irish live — at least all the worst of them — and there they hatch their villainies and speak this tongue; it is that which keeps them together and makes them dangerous. […] Irish—I liked the Irish worst of all, it sounded so horrid, especially as I did not understand it. It’s a bad language.”

“A queer tongue!” said I. “I wonder if I could learn it.”

“Learn it!” said my father; “what should you learn it for?”

There were no schools for learning Irish around 1810, so the narrator bribes a fellow student to teach him for a pack of cards. “It was not a school language, to acquire which was considered an imperative duty […] but a speech spoken in out-of-the-way desolate places, and in cut-throat kens, where thirty ruffians, at the sight of the king’s minions, would spring up with brandished sticks and an ‘ubbubboo, like the blowing up of a powder-magazine.’ Such were the points connected with the Irish, which first awakened in my mind the desire of acquiring it; and by acquiring it I became, as I have already said, enamored of languages.” This chance encounter seals the narrator’s fate. His father is worried. He finds his son a teacher of French and Italian—respectable languages, those. Father, mother, teachers—not a one of these well-intentioned people can understand that Borrow, like certain other Victorian explorers, has an absolute allergy to respectability and desires the society of outlaws. Irish is his gateway drug, followed by Welsh, Danish, Old Norse, Armenian, Russian, Spanish, and so forth. “Such an erratic course was certainly by no means in consonance with the sober and unvarying routine of college study.” “Erratic course” describes his narrative well enough too: always going off on a tangent, the narrator is lured off the straight path and into a new language study by the chance overhearing of a foreign word or the chance meeting with a foreign book (in one episode, it is a Danish ballad collection washed up from a shipwreck). Every word of an unknown language is like the footprint of Friday on the sands.

Borrow has the ethnographer’s talent for collecting and transcribing stories. Here he is eliciting a narrative from his Rommany friend Jasper:

“When my father and mother were bitchadey pawdel, which, to tell you the truth, they were, for chiving wafodo dloovu, they left me all they had, which was not a little, and I became the head of our family, which was not a small one. I was not older than you when that happened; yet our people said they had never a better krallis to contrive and plan for them and to keep them in order. And this is so well known, that many Rommany Chals, not of our family, come and join themselves to us […]”
“And you are what is called a Gypsy King?”

“Ay, ay; a Rommany Kral.” […]

“And you are not English?”

“We are not Gorgios.”

“And you have a language of your own?”


“This is wonderful.”

“Ha, ha!” cried [Jasper’s mother-in-law]… “Ha, ha!” she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes, which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity, “It is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own? What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves? That’s just like you Gorgios, you would have everybody stupid, single-tongued idiots, like yourselves.”

Jasper’s people are still unwelcome in most parts of Europe. George Borrow learned enough from them, despite the opposition of Jasper’s mother-in-law, to merit the title of Lavengro, that is, “word-master.” I have never lived with the “people who dwelt amongst thickets and furze bushes, in tents as tawny as their faces, and whom the generality of mankind designated, and with much semblance of justice, as thieves and vagabonds,” as Borrow puts it, but Borrow’s book has helped to make me a little less of a “stupid, single-tongued idiot.”

Haun Saussy is University Professor at the University of Chicago, teaching in the departments of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages & Civilizations as well as in the Committee on Social Thought. He is a member of the CCL Advisory Board.