Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Charles V language meme

Another one via Yahoo! Answers: an enquiry into citation for the aphorism attributed to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558):

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.

This is widely repeated, including in scholarly works, but invariably without citation. Did he actually say it? The answer may be, at best, that he only said something like it.

One book I found gives a trackable citation. According to English Literature and Ancient Languages (Kenneth Haynes, Oxford University Press, 2007 ISBN 0199212120), whIch quotes it on page 2, it was first recorded in 1601, some 40 years after the death of Charles V. The footnote 3 on page 174 cites this detail to H Weinreich, Wege der Sprachkultur, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1985, page 190):

Diese Person ist in aller Regel Kaiser Karl V. Die älteste Fassung der Anekdote stammt, wie Erasmo Buceta berichtet hat, aus dem Jahre 1601 und findet sich in der Schrift De locutione von Girolamo Fabrizi d'Acquapendente. Der Autor stellt zwei Versionen der Anekdote vor. Die eine lautet: Unde solebat, ut audio, Carolus V Imperator dicere, Germanorum linguam esse militarem: Hispanorum amatoriam: Italorum oratoriam: Gallorum nobilem.

"'When Emperor Charles V used to say, as I hear, that the language of the Germans was military; that of the Spaniards pertained to love; that of the Italians was oratorical; that of the French was noble"

Die andere Version: Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse; Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem maiestatemque prae se ferat; si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit; si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice, quod illorum lingua nihil blandius; si cui minandum aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens.

"Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement"

(Translations kindly provided by user Ehrenkater at the Wikipedia Reference Desk - I've updated the corresponding Wikiquote page)

These quotations from Girolamo Fabrizi d'Acquapendente's 1601 De locutione, apart from being inconsistent, both differ from the modern version in the attributes ascribed to to each language. From that point, we can follow the 'Chinese Whispers' propagation of the story down the centuries.

The emperor Charles V. made almost the same observation, when he said, 'that if he were to speak to his horse, it should be in High-Dutch
- Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

The apophthegm alluded to runs thus;— "Charles V. said he would talk French to his friend ; German to his horse; Italian to his mistress; Spanish to his God ; English to his birds."
- The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 55, Part 2, 1785

Charles V, who spoke fluently several European languages, used to say, "We should speak Spanish to the gods, Italian with our female friends, French with our male friends, German with soldiers, Hungarian with horses, and Bohemian with the devil."
- The Ladies' Repository, 1808

CHARLES V. spoke five languages: the Flemish, the German, the Spanish, the French, and the Italian. He used to say, that to employ the vulgar languages according to the use for which they were most proper, he would speak Italian to the ladies, French to men, German to horses, and Spanish to God.
- The Cairn, 1846

What did Charles V. say of European languages? Charles V., who spoke fluently several European languages, used to say that we should speak Spanish with the gods, Italian with our (female) friend, French with our (male) friend, German with soldiers, English with geese, Hungarian with horses, and Bohemian with the devil
- New method of learning to read the French language, Heinrich Gottfried Ollendorff, 1850

The saying of the Emperor Charles V., characterising the European languages, is well known, but will bear to be again quoted. " Pray to God in Spanish, talk to ladies in Italian, chatter French with friends, twitter English with the birds, and swear German with the horses."
- Cassell's Family Magazine, 1888

"The great Emperor Charles V said that if he wished to speak to God he should speak to him in Spanish," he tells the little Philip. "If he wished to speak to his horse it should be in German ; if he wished to talk with his mistress it should be in Italian; but if he wished to hold converse with men it should be in French.
- Letters of Lord Chesterfield, review, The Literary World, 1890

Speak Spanish to God, Italian to your sweetheart, English to your birds, German to your horses, and French to your friends.
- Facts about France: brief answers to recurring questions, Émile Saillens, 1918

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, John Michael Cohen, M. J. Cohen, 1960


To be going for four centuries, it's an astonishingly durable meme, and it's well possible that Charles V, who had a multingual background, said something of the sort. But exactly what is ascribed to which language clearly mutates to reflect current stereotypes and prejudices (for instance, the wavering between whether French or Italian is the sexy language) of the time and the nationality of the author quoting it. It does look as if Swift invented the bit about talking German to horses (his "High-Dutch" = Hochdeutsch).

For those who read German better than I do, page 207 onward of Lingua et traditio: Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und der neueren Philologen has a section by Frank Lebsanft on the propagation of variants on this anecdote by German writers in the 1600s.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. I always knew English was for the birds

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