Napoleon’s Englich Lessons.

The Public Domain Review describes a phenomenon which, if I ever was aware of it, I had forgotten — Napoleon I’s grudging but dogged study of the English language:

The British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments, but he could not have what he most craved — family, power, Europe. To make matters worse, he had virtually nothing to read. Newspapers were banned, and those he did manage to get his hands on were nearly all in English. That was the main reason why, on January 16, 1816, three months after landing on the island, he decided to learn the language of his captors. For the following three months he studied nearly every afternoon. The daily labour produced a mixed bag of verbal fruit; a sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet taste of his time on the island where he would end his days, six years later, aged 51.

Far more than rote learning conjugations, declensions, and articles, Napoleon enjoyed scribbling his thoughts in French and then translating them into English. The results were often wistful:

When will you be wise
Never as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after having passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very content…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bottle of wine at dinner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever prety / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

His English teacher was Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, an historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena. The Count would later turn their fifteen months of conversations into a publishing sensation, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1822–23). The book recorded Napoleon’s day-to-day life on the island, his sentiments on religion and philosophy, his argument that the ideals of the French Revolution had lived on in the empire. It would be printed and reprinted throughout the century, and do much to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator — a slayer of tyrannical dynasties more than a founder of his own. It is also the primary window through which we can view the development of Napoleon’s English.

According to Count Las Cases, his pupil “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory: this latter particularly upset him.” As a result, Napoleon grasped English grammar with an impressive ease but vocabulary with a painful slowness.

When it came to speaking English, the Count relates, “The pupil wished only to recognise [French] pronunciation.” Perhaps the former emperor could not bear to do his vanquishers the honour of speaking their language their way. Perhaps his approach to English mirrored his general approach to foreign territory — he liked to make it his own:

Even in his own language, [he] had a way of garbling proper nouns; as for foreign words, he pronounced them just as he pleased. Once they left his mouth, whatever way he had pronounced them, they remained forever that, because he had, once and for all, lodged them in his head in that way.

Out of this situation arose a completely new language, Las Cases tells us, only comprehensible to pupil and teacher.

There are more examples of his English writing, as well as a copy of Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène open to a page where you can read about the ex-Emperor’s mathematical prowess as well as the beginning of the section on his English. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. So much for Napoleon’s legendary memory — or perhaps his memory simply happened to be non-verbal (facts, faces, places but not words).

  2. I assume “Even in his own language” is meant to refer to French, but of course Napoleon’s L1 was Corsican, and for a long time he spoke French with a pronounced accent.

  3. “Far more than rote learning conjugations, declensions, and articles, …”

    Napoleon didn’t enjoy memorizing English declensions?

  4. The image of Napoleon at Longwood, proudly scorning his hated rosbif jailers by deliberately speaking Franglais at them, is terrific. Brightened my whole day.

  5. marie-lucie says

    ajay: Le franglais is not English spoken with a strong French accent, it is French spoken with a lot of English vocabulary mixed in.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Napoleon’s English sentences: it sounds like when he learned a new structure (like the future with “shall”) he put it to work to express things he had not been able to express in English earlier.

  7. @marie-lucie: Franglais has a different meaning English, especially British English (the British still having a significant historical cultural dislike for the French). It means, roughly, “French accented English, probably peppered with Gallicisms,” and it seems to be rather pejorative.

    I remember it being used on the BBC/PBS reality show Manor House, during the debriefing session at the end, just before the master of the house and his family departed. (The servants got have free run of the house for one day after the family had left.) The French-born chef and the master got into an argument, and the latter referred to the chef’s agitated speech as “Franglais.”

  8. marie-lucie says

    The word franglais was coined decades ago by the French scholar known as Etiemble, as a protest about the “invasion” of the French language by English words.

  9. But it’s used differently in English, as Brett points out.

  10. ə de vivre says

    There’s something ontologically reassuring that the British and French disagree about the meaning of “franglais.”

  11. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “franglais” applied to almost any kind of “mixture” of French and English, but I associate the term primarily with the macaronic humour of Miles Kington (a sample here), which doesn’t really match either Brett’s or marie-lucie’s sense. The Wikipedia article on Franglais covers uses in both languages and various locations.

  12. Google, urban dictionary, and m-w disagree with Brett and Hat.

  13. I’ve read somewhere that Oulipo produced a text consisting only of words common to English and French. I am not sure in which language it should have been read and cannot find anything about it online.

  14. @ə de vivre: I also found that amusing.

    @D.O.: While the other online dictionaries do not seem to have recognized the newer meaning (the OED online has only one definition for the word and its cites only run over the period from its first coinage in 1959 and 1969), the top definition from Urban Dictionary (dating from 2005) explicitly says, “Franglais can be either a French conversation peppered with English words, or vice versa.”

  15. Yes, you are right. Because Chrome appropriated for itself the right to complete search words for me, I looked up “franglaise” (notice e at the end) in the Urban dictionary.

  16. I am heartened to find generous portions of Miles Kington’s inspired and daft Let’s Parlez Franglais series available for preview on Google Books, e.g. here (“Seconde Volume—et About Temps, Too!”)

  17. One could in principle distinguish Franglais (French peppered with English) from Frenglish (vice versa).

  18. One could in principle distinguish Franglais (French peppered with English) from Frenglish (vice versa).

    I was about to disagree violently with @m-l. Then I saw the ensuing discussion, and checked wp.

    Up until that moment, Franglais was for me Miles Kington’s pieces in Punch magazine — English spoken with a lot of French vocabulary and faux amis thrown in, in as an excruciating French accent as you could manage, beloved of endless 1960’s/1970’s radio comedy, not to mention Inspector Clouseau.

    So no @Piotr, Frenglish is not a thing. Franglais in France is a faux amis of Franglais in the anglosphere. (Or do I mean the other way round?)

  19. Contra Brett, I’ve never come across “Franglais” as a rude word used by British people to talk about French people’s attempts to speak English. Franglais is, as AntC says, Miles Kington’s invented language, which is above all an attempt to make fun of British people’s attempts to speak French – basically it is to schoolboy French what “1066 and All That” is to schoolboy history.
    I didn’t know about the French having a completely different definition of le franglais, but that’s great.

    Actual historical Franglais: the proposal for an Anglo-French Union in summer 1940 got as far as issuing a spec to the Post Office for a joint Anglo-French postage stamp, denominated in both francs and sterling, to be referred to as either a “stambre” or a “timp”.

  20. Part of the art of Franglais is literal translation in both directions: si vous ecrivez une business lettre a un homme d’affaires franglais, it’s obligatoire to conclude the letter avec les words “You should wish to accept, sir, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments” ou peut etre “Fidelement votre”.

  21. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    Reminds me that the last time I undertook to look up Goethe’s juvenilia exercises in Anglophonism, I came back empty-handed. Can the Distributed Hattery perhaps assist?

    (I would totally be up for consuming an anthology of World Historical Figures’ Bad English Works, although it is undoubtedly greatly to my discredit.)

  22. “French in all its purity”, two samples of text, one in French-English code-switching, the other in pure French with a heavy concentration of English loanwords.

  23. January First-of-May says

    I would totally be up for consuming an anthology of World Historical Figures’ Bad English Works, although it is undoubtedly greatly to my discredit.

    I wonder which other (non-English) world historical figures wrote any works in English (bad or otherwise).

    I know Pushkin tried French (and, IIRC, not that badly), but I don’t think any English texts by him are attested beyond individual words and short direct quotes?
    (He did apparently know the language well enough to try translating from it, and is suspected to have been considering a major translation project shortly before his untimely death in late January 1837.)

  24. The Oulipo creation was “legal franglais” (l’égal franglais), invented by Harry Mathews. It used words spelled the same in French and English, but with different meanings. So, no borrowings or cognates. Here’s an example by Ian Monk; it’s either about cooking ganders or serving drinks: SEIZE JARS POUR FOUR.

  25. marie-lucie says

    an anthology of World Historical Figures’ Bad English Works

    Before the US became a world power as a result of taking a crucial part in two world wars, English was not the de facto second language expected of educated people. Depending on the century, “world historical figures” (meaning mostly Europeans) were more likely to study French, scientists German, and artists Italian. Tourism was much more likely to bring Britishers to “continental” Europe than any Europeans to the British Isles.

  26. Doug Skinner, thanks!

    War and Peace, as is well known, contains many a French passage. As a direct speech of course. It even has an amusing scene with a Russian aristocrat trying to tell a story in Russian and succeeding miserably. Anyway, modern sensibilities require that movie actors produce dialog in the language their characters speak. AFAIK it is not yet the standard expectation for books because of obvious difficulties. Though with e-readers there is a possibility to leverage sound+text to produce some effect. Which makes me think, are there combined text/audio books where the reader/listener reads the narrative, but listens to the dialog? There are some difficulties in doing things this way, but they might be not insurmountable.

  27. Wow, that’s a great idea!

  28. Incidentally, that’s basically how visual novels are played around the non-Japanese-speaking world.

  29. English was not the de facto second language expected of educated people.

    In Europe, anyway. It was quite another matter elsewhere, not only in the British Empire, but in other parts of the world as well. Quite a change from 1582, when Richard Mulcaster’s Elementarie, an early grammar of English, where (in defending the necessity of having such a thing at all) he writes:

    But it maie be replyed again, that our English tung doth nede no such proining [priming, improving], it is of small reatch, it stretcheth no further then this Iland of ours, naie not there ouer all. What tho? Yet it raigneth there, and it serues vs there, and it wold be clean brusht for the wearing there. Tho it go not beyond sea, it will serue on this side. And be not our English folks finish, as well as the foren I praie you? And why not our tung for spaking, & our pen for writing, as well as our bodies for apparell, or our tastes for diet?

    But our state is no Empire to hope to elarge it by commanding ouer cuntries. What tho? tho it be neither large in possession, nor in present hope of great encrease, yet where it rules, it can make good lawes, and as fit for our state, as the biggest can for theirs, and oftimes better to[o], bycause of confusion in greatest gouernments, as most vnwildinesse [unwieldiness] in grossest bodies.

    But we haue no rare cunning proper to our soil to cause forenners studie it, as a treasur of such store. What tho? yet ar we not ignorant by the mean[s] thereof to turn to our vse all the great treasur, of either foren soil, or foren language. And why maie not the English wits, if they will bend their wills, either for matter or for method in their own tung be in time as well sought to, by foren students for increase of their knowledge, as our soil is sought to at this same time, by foren merchants, for encrease of their welth? As the soil is fertile, bycause it is applyed, so the wits be not barren if theie list [choose] to brede.

  30. I gather “What tho?” was the Elizabethan equivalent of “So what?”

  31. Can the Distributed Hattery perhaps assist?

    A Song Over the Unconfidence
    What volupty when trembling in my arms

  32. marie-lucie says

    JC: I read something similar elsewhere, from the same period, to the effect that “our language is of no use to us as soon as we cross the Channel, nobody there knows it”.

    This was still a time where people in different European countries now had access to printed works and realized not only that it was possible to read and write their own languages (as the vaunted Greeks and Latins had been able to do) but they could be proud of being able to do so and to produce works worthy of being circulated and studied. In England, with French no longer being spoken by the upper class, English was now claiming a strong position as the language of the nation. In the various countries, a written grammar would demonstrate to all – natives or foreigners – that the national language was as worthy of respect as Latin or Greek.

  33. By the way, that “Iland” is sans-serifese for “i[s]land”, not a typo for “land”. Allow me to administer a gentle hint to Hat’n’Songdog that sans-serif is not the best sort of typeface for a language blog.

  34. David Marjanović says

    tung […] forenners […] foren

    Once again I weep for the sanity of spelling that could have been.

  35. marie-lucie says

    The mix of English, Latin and French traditions did not help.

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