November 15, 2003

Words, foods, characters

Here's another post on linguistic aspects of Patrick O'Brian's novels. This time I'll retire quietly to the background and let O'Brian speak for himself.

The core of the books is the friendship between Jack Aubrey, an English naval officer, and Stephen Maturin, a half-Irish half-Catalonian physician. O'Brian is good at letting characters reveal themselves through their choice of words and foods, and his methods are nowhere more clearly displayed than in this scene early in the first book, set in Minorca, where Aubrey and Maturin, having narrowly avoided fighting a duel, share their first meal (From 'Master and Commander', pp. 34-35 in the 1990 W.W. Norton paperback):

They sat at a round table in a bow widow that protruded from the back of the inn high above the water, yet so close it that they had tossed the oyster-shells back into their native element with no more than a flick of the wrist: and from the unloading tartan a hundred and fifty feet below them there arose the mingled scents of Stockholm tar, cordage, sail-cloth and Chian turpentine.

'Allow me to press you to a trifle of this ragoo'd mutton, sir,' said Jack.

'Well, if you insist,' said Stephen Maturin. 'It is so very good.'

'It is one of the things the Crown does well,' said Jack. 'Though it is hardly decent in me to say so. Yet I had ordered duck pie, alamode beef and soused hog's face as well, apart from the kickshaws. No doubt the fellow misunderstood. Heaven knows what is in that dish by you, but it is certainly not hog's face. I said, visage de porco, many times over; and he nodded like a China mandarin. It is provoking, you know, when one desires them to prepare five dishes, cinco platos, explaining carefully in Spanish, only to find there are but three, and two of those the wrong ones. I am ashamed of having nothing better to offer you, but it was not from want of good will, I do assure you.'

'I have not eaten so well for many a day, nor' -- with a bow -- 'in such pleasant company, upon my word,' said Stephen Maturin. 'Might it not be that the difficulty arose from your own particular care -- from your explaining in Spanish, in Castilian Spanish?'

'Why,' said Jack, filling their glasses and smiling through his wine at the sun, 'it seemed to me that in speaking to Spaniards, it was reasonable to use what Spanish I could muster.'

'You were forgetting, of course, that Catalan is the language they speak in these islands.'

'What is Catalan?'

'Why, the language of Catalonia -- of the islands, of the whole of the Mediterranean coast down to Alicante and beyond. Of Barcelona. Of Lerida. All the richest part of the peninsula.'

'You astonish me. I had no notion of it. Another language, sir? But I dare say it is much the same thing -- a putain, as they say in France?'

'Oh no, nothing of the kind -- not like at all. A far finer language. More learned, more literary. Much nearer the Latin. And by the by, I believe the word is patois, sir, if you will allow me.'

'Patois -- just so. Yet I swear the other is a word: I learnt it somewhere,' said Jack. 'But I must not play the scholar with you, sir, I find. Pray, is it very different to the ear, the unlearned ear?'

'As different as Italian and Portuguese. Mutually incomprehensible -- they sound entirely unlike. The intonation of each is in an utterly different key. As unlike as Gluck and Mozart. This excellent dish by me, for instance (and I see that they did their best to follow your orders), is jabalí in Spanish, whereas in Catalan it is senglar.'

'Is it swine's flesh?'

'Wild boar. Allow me . . .'

'You are very good. May I trouble you for the salt? It is capital eating, to be sure; but I should never have guessed it was swine's flesh. What are these well-tasting soft dark things?'

'There you pose me. They are bolets in Catalan: but what they are called in English I cannot tell. They probably have no name -- no country name, I mean, though the naturalist will always recognize them in the boletus edulis of Linnaeus.'

[Note 11/16/2003: I've changed the title of this post to correspond better to its content...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 15, 2003 09:47 AM