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15 Weird Sample Dialogues from Old English Textbooks

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For hilarity, no book intended for English learners will ever match English As She Is Spoke, the unintentional viral hit of the 1880s, written by a non-English speaking Portuguese man armed only with a French-English phrasebook and a French-Portuguese dictionary. The examples in the book are so outrageously incorrect, there is no way anyone could possibly learn to speak English from them. (How do you can it to deny? The meat ist not too over do. I am catched cold in the brain. Why you no helps me to? It must never laugh of the unhappies.)

But there were also plenty of useful, competently written books on English that held their own kind of strangeness within. The practice of learning through example dialogues from everyday life was new in the 19th century; before that people generally studied other languages by reading and translating passages from literature. Someone had to decide what situations to represent and come up with these dialogues. Sometimes they didn't quite hit the mark. Here are 15 dialogues from old English textbooks that are not so much ridiculously wrong, as weirdly off.

1. On Declining an Invitation

You shall stay and dine with me.
Though ever so willing, I cannot.
What prevents you?
An engagement on an important business.
Do you say the real truth in speaking to me this?
I give you my word for it.

2. On Skill in English

You have much disposition to learn English very well. As to your cousin, he is not a great proficient in it.
It is but a year since I began.
I wonder at it.

3. On Germans and English

How do you like my pronunciation?
Indifferent, but you will soon learn the language; for I have observed that all Germans are able of learning our language in a short time.
I know the reason of it: because in the English are a great many words and phrases resembling the german, and they originally derive from it.

4. On the Difficulty of French

The French is far more difficult to Englishmen.
I am persuaded of the contrary. I can hardly believe it.
Experience shows it us every day.

5. On Reading

I spend the greater part of my time in reading.
You are then every day pouring upon the books.

6. On News

Well met, Sir, for I can tell you some very interesting news.
Have you read them in the Gazette or got them by private accounts?
By the last, but they are founded upon good authority.
Pray, satisfy my curiosity you have excited.

7. On Validating the News

There is talk of a siege…
That news wants confirmation. Who have you it from?
I have it from good hands. Mister N___ is my author.

8. On Trust and Authority

Do you believe it in good earnest?
Yes; for a credible person has told it me.
I assure you that it is an untruth.

9. On Sightseeing

I should like to see everything remarkable in this town.
Is there a guide-book to the remarkable objects in this town?

10. On Taking Lodging

Madam, have you any rooms to let?
Yes, Sir. Will you be pleased to see them?
I am come on purpose.

11. On Choosing a Room

Madam, you have a good room (any rooms) to let?
Yes, sir, will you have it forwards or backwards? Below or up one pair of stairs?

12. On Attending the Theater

They say there is a new play acted tonight…
Shall we go and see it?
With all my heart.
Shall we get into a box?
I will do what you please, but I had rather go into the pit.
Why?
Because we may pass away the time in talking with the masks, before the curtain is drawn up.

13. On Appreciating the Theater

The part of Macbeth could not have been better acted, as those parts of Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Malcolm were also very well represented.
I wised to have been present, but a vehement head-ake kept me from the pleasure of seeing this my favorite Tragedy represented.
I saw the first time the famous new actress upon the stage, and if I am to speak my mind freely, she has not at all pleased me. Her shape is very enticing, to be sure, and she sings like an angel, but her action is not to be born.

14. On Appreciating the View

What a fine sight to see from the mountain of Rathsberg down in the vale and in a great distance!
Pray, see what a clock it is.
My watch don't go. It is down; I must wind it up again.

15. On Getting Acquainted

His shape is free and easy.
One may call him a handsome man.
He dresses very well.
He is very genteel, he has a good air. He has a fine presence, and a noble gait. He is civil, courteous, and complaisant to every body. He has a great deal of wit, and is very sprightly in conversation. I shall make you acquainted with him.
I shall be obliged to you for it.

Sources: English-Japanese Conversations for Those Who Learn the English Language. K. Ooi, 1886 (1,2,5,8,9); English Dialogues Upon the Most Common Subjects of Life. Dr. Johann Christian Fick, 1813 (3,6,11,13,14); Élémens de la Langue Anglaise. Louis-Pierre Siret, 1815. (4,7,10,12,15)

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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