29 August 2015

Clemens Notebook on Language: The book of the magicians

I am going to keep up a series of quotes from various sources on language and linguistics, just because it interests me. The first one is from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, A Novel, by Susanna Clarke. It is a description of a crazy old lady who was once brilliant with languages.

As a child she had learnt several languages and spoke them all perfectly. There was nothing she could not make herself mistress of if she chose. She learnt for the pleasure of it. At sixteen she spoke - not only French, Italian and German - which are part of any lady's commonplace accomplishments - but all the languages of the civilized (and uncivilized) world. She spoke the language of the Scottish Highlands (which is like singing). She spoke Basque, which is a language which rarely makes any impression upon the brains of any other race, so that a man may hear it as often and as long as he likes, but never afterwards be able to recall a single syllable of it. She even learnt the language of a strange country which, Signor Tosetti had been told, some people believed stilll existed, although no one in the world could say where it was. (The name of the country was Wales.)

[late in life she is forced to seek refuge in the Jewish Ghetto of  Venice where she is completely isolated.]

And a great deal of time went by and she did not speak to a living sourl and a great wind of madness howled through her and overturned all her languages. And she forgot Italian, forgot English, forgot Latin, forgot Basque, forgot Welsh, forgot every thing in the world except Cat - and that, it is said, she spoke marvellously well.



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