Which languages did James Joyce know?
November 1, 2010 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Which languages did James Joyce read, write, and/or speak? I've heard that he was quite the polyglot.
posted by WalkingAround to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: From this book (James Joyce: 1907-27 By Robert H. Deming p.384):
His knowledge of French, German, modern Greek and especially Italian stood him in good stead, and he added constantly to that stock of information by studying Hebrew, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Finnish and other tongues.
posted by XMLicious at 12:23 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ostensibly he was also fluent in Gaelic.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:35 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pretty sure he was into Esperanto too, IIRC from a Joyce class a few years back...
posted by johnnybeggs at 12:35 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple more... from a timeline in Joyce: Ulysses, A Student Guide by Vincent B. Sherry, p. xv
1902 - Graduates from University College with a degree in modern languages (proficiency in Latin, Italian, French, German, and literary Norwegian)
And from James Joyce by Harold Bloom, p. 60
In a typical 1928 explanatory letter to Weaver, he points out puns in Norwegian, German, Old English, Latin, Italian, French, Polish, and German... Declan Kiberd, another critic, believes Joyce's deteriorating vision led to an increased substitution of a "sentient ear for an imperial eye," resulting in what Joyce himself called "a jetsam litterage of convulvuli of times lost or strayed, of lands derelict and tongues laggin' too." More directly, he told one friend "I'm at the end of English."
posted by XMLicious at 12:36 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He also had a reading proficiency in Norwegian, which he acquired as a teenager in order to read Ibsen in the original. As the link notes, Joyce grew up during the height of the Celtic Twilight, and while that particular tradition didn't interest him as much as some of his literary peers, he appears to have taken a wider interest in Europe's linguistic margins.
posted by holgate at 12:39 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

From Ellmann's major biography on Joyce, it seems clear that he was pretty solidly fluent in French, German, and Italian, but his modern Greek was probably not quite on the same level. In a 1921 letter to Harriet Weaver, he wrote:
I forgot to tell you another thing. I don't even know Greek though I am spoken of as erudite. My father wanted me to take Greek as third language, my mother German and my friends Irish. Result, I took Italian. I spoke or used to speak modern Greek not too badly (I speak four or five languages fluently enough) and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.
He certainly continued to study numerous other languages for use in his work, but it doesn't appear he attained a working fluency in them.
posted by scody at 12:40 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, I left out Latin -- according to Ellmann, that's the other language he was fluent in. (The same passage also mentions that "he recited passages from the liturgy interspersed with comic irrelevancies in Triestino, French, German, Greek, and even Russian, in which he was now taking an interest.")
posted by scody at 12:45 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know I had read that Joyce's daughter Lucia was severely hampered in life due to her inability to speak any language but the Triestine dialect when she reached adulthood. It supposedly differs from regular Italian enough that it is not easy for Italian speakers and Triestine speakers to converse.

I would assume that Joyce spoke this dialect in the years he lived in Trieste and to his children.
posted by readery at 12:49 PM on November 1, 2010

I know I had read that Joyce's daughter Lucia was severely hampered in life due to her inability to speak any language but the Triestine dialect when she reached adulthood.

Lucia did pick up Triestine as a child, but was definitely also fluent in standard Italian (it was one of the main languages the family spoke at home); the letters to her father in later years, for example, are in Italian. Based on Brenda Maddox's book Nora (which was also a close study of the family as a whole), it seems she also had some French and English (and possibly even some German), but they weren't strong.

But it's a good point about the Triestine -- the Joyces as a family seemed to use multiple languages/dialects among themselves as a way of bonding to each other, especially during their semi-nomadic years, but in practice it created a sense of isolation for both Giorgio and Lucia not only as children but as adults (particularly for her as her mental illness progressed, I would imagine).
posted by scody at 1:27 PM on November 1, 2010

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