08 June 2009
George Orwell's Linguistic Struggles
Today after all my distractions, I finally finished Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War from his point of view in the trenches in 1936. He went there initially to report on the war but soon was a militiaman himself on the side of the Republic opposing Franco.
Orwell has been an insiration to me in an unanticipated way. He went to Spain with no Spanish. In the beginning he says:
All the time I was having the usual struggles with the Spanish language. Apart from myself there was only one Englishman at the barracks, and nobody even among the officers spoke a word of French. Things were not made easier for me by the fact that when many of my companions spoke to one another they generally spoke in Catalan. [A regional dialect.] The only way I could get along was to carry everywhere a small dictionary which I whipped out of my pocket in moments of crisis.
How well I myself know about the small-dictionary-in-the-pocket trick!
Later he attempts to talk a friend out of a political prison. Of the story he told to that official, he says, “But it must have sounded a strange tale, in my villainous Spanish which elapsed into French at every crisis.”
I confess that I, too, on occasion have attempted to make a French word do in Spanish when I have been at a loss. It does not work.
Orwell was only in Spain for six months at that time, but he did learn to speak Spanish. It may have been “villainous” Spanish, but he did speak it in the end. And so will I.