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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June 18, 2013 - 8:12am
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