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Lavengro, or the Value of Learning Languages


George Henry Borrow, Lavengro: The Scholar, The Gipsy, The Priest, 2 vols. (Harper’s 1851)

Borrow’s Lavengro is a curious relic of the early to mid-Victorian period, but like many of those Victorian relics, there is something unmistakably modern about it. This work stands a bit apart from the Romantic literature that marks the age. Lavengro is part autobiography, part novel and part travel book. In composition and style it might fit more easily into the German genre as a cross between a Bildungsroman and a travel journal of inner discovery, such as were crafted by Goethe or Seume. But it would seem idiosyncratic even in that book case. It’s certainly a minor masterpiece in terms of style and language, though it has struggled for recognition and never quite obtained it. Is Borrow just another English eccentric, of the sort that could have been profiled by Lytton Strachey, or that Strachey actually represents himself? Perhaps, but if so, as an eccentric he is more than an entertainer. He is an educator. Moreover, while Lavengro was at best a modest success in England, in America it bombed completely, notwithstanding some efforts on the part of Harper’s on its behalf. But some works are unjustifiably obscure. And Lavengro falls into that category.


The book was published simultaneously in America and England, and Harper Brothers was the publisher. It was reviewed in the magazine in an unsigned review, in the March 1851 issue. The reviewer makes a fairly strained case for the book:

Among the many things which he professes to have aimed at in this book, is the encouragement of charity, and free and genial manners, as well as the exposure of humbug in various forms. The incidents related are in accordance with this design. Borrow’s early life was filled with strange and startling adventures. With a taste from the cradle for savage freedom, he never became subject to social conventionalisms, his soul expanded in the free air, by the side of running streams, and in the mountain regions of liberty. He received the strongest impressions from all the influences of nature. He was led by a strange magnetism to intimacy with the most eccentric characters. An ample fund of material for an interesting narrative was thus provided. He has made use of them in his own peculiar and audacious manner. A more self-reliant writer is not to be found in English literature.

He has no view to the effect of his words on the reader, but aims only to tell the story with which his mind teems. Hence his pages are as fresh as morning dew, and often run riot with a certain gipsy wildness. His narrative has little continuity. He piles up isolated incidents, which remain in his memory, but with no regard to regular sequence or completeness. On this account he is sometimes not a little provoking. He shuts off the stream at the moment your curiosity is most strongly excited. But the joyous freedom of his consummate skill as a story teller, and the startling eccentricities of his life, so little in accordance with the tameness and dull proprieties of English society, give an elastic vitality to his book, and make it of more interest to the reader than almost any recent issue of the English press.

In the May 1914 issue, William Dean Howells came back to Lavengro and its author and and concluded that the work merited being read if nothing else for its qualities of fantastic flight:

[Borrow] was a splendid liar, too. Not in the ordinary domestic meaning of the word. But he lied largely, picturesquely, like Baron Münchhausen.

Of course, what most reviewers value in literature is stern honesty, especially the writer whose critical eye takes into account the facts which don’t fit into the pattern he is attempting to trace. Howells’s review is the only case I know in which a work is praised as a manifestation of the Münchhausen syndrome.

I read these reviews right after finishing Lavengro and found that they hold up. Borrow has a rambunctuous spirit, always seeking to come loose from its social moorings, always eager to come into contact with something new and to learn from it. He was a polyglot figure. The hallmark of his book is a passion for languages. In the course of the book he explores in very short order all of the languages of the British isles (Scotch, Irish, Welsh—and indeed shortly after its publication, Borrow makes a trip to the Isle of Man to learn the now virtually extinct Manx tongue). But that’s just the beginning. He develops a passion for the Romany people, or Gypsies, and their tongue. In fact the title Lavengro is a name given him, which might be rendered as “philologist.” Borrow’s interaction with the Romany people provides the work’s plot line (though, as the critics note, a plot line barely emerges from the work). And in rapid succession, the title character is establishing proficiency in French, German, Spanish and Russian as well. And in Armenian.

Borrow had a prodigious capacity for languages, no doubt. But the Münchhausen syndrome sets in pretty quickly, as when we find him claiming to converse fluently with Highlanders in Scots Gaelic, or Welsh, or Romany, all within a matter of days. The process doesn’t run so quickly, of course. Here’s a typical passage in which the young narrator, who has accompanied his father, a military officer, to Ireland, begins to think about learning Irish:

“A queer tongue,“ said I, “I wonder if I could learn it?”

“Learn it!” said my father; “what should you learn it for?—however, I am not afraid of that. It is not like Scotch, no person can learn it, save those who are born to it, and even in Ireland the respectable people do not speak it, only the wilder sort, like those we have passed.” (ch. ix)

But he does learn Irish, and in the process his attitudes toward the people change dramatically. The English prejudices he brought with him on the boat from England are slowly erased. He comes to understand the Irish, and what they find objectionable about English rule.

This is not to say that the narrator is an altogether liberally minded person devoid of prejudices. To the contrary, he has more the liberalism of the English squiredom so humorously portrayed by Mrs. Gaskell–they know their ethnic prejudices are wrong, but find it so entertaining to have them, anyway. Borrow is often very hasty to voice opinion and to label an entire race. Witness this passage, right after the school-boy narrator gets a whipping at the hands of a Scottish schoolyard bully in Edinburgh:

The Scotch are certainly a most pugnacious people; their whole history proves it. Witness their incessant wars with the English in the olden time, and their internal feuds, highland and lowland, clan with clan, family with family, Saxon with Gael. (ch. vii)

That those engagements were fought largely on Scottish soil, fending off English invasions goes, of course, unobserved.

If there is one lesson that emerges from Lavengro, then it is the value of learning languages. In fact, I’d say that this is the work’s central message. Borrow is very clear: it is not the mechanical process of mastering a foreign language, its grammar, intonation and vocabulary. The real learning process is something different from what happens in a university language laboratory. It requires exposure to a foreign culture; a different way of thinking and experiencing the world. And this process of learning, Borrow tells us, moves the learner to a more detached and philosophical perspective on the world.

To start, it makes the learner more conscious of his own language. As Goethe says, “He who has learned no foreign language cannot hope to have mastered his own.”Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, pt. ii, § 91 (1821), in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 17, p. 737 (Munich ed. 1991)(S.H. transl.) I experienced this myself in the course of my own education. In fact perhaps I identify a great deal with Borrow because I am also the son of a military officer who grew up being dragged around the world and being required constantly to sink or swim in different linguistic and cultural environments. I became conscious of the internal logic and working of the English language by studying and acquiring foreign languages. For the first time, I came to realize that there were certain perceptions and paths of thought which were tied quite peculiarly to language. A language’s grammar and style shape the mind, not just the mouth. It must be difficult for a purely monolingual person to grasp this fact.

And indeed, in America today, we face a growing wave of xenophobia that manifests itself not only in disparagement of foreign peoples and cultures, but also fear of their tongues. And a desire to suppress the use of any foreign tongue. The “English only” movement seeks to avoid the use of foreign languages in any public place, and would preclude their use in any official process. Those who embrace it are driven by ignorance and fear (more particularly, a fear born of ignorance).

Of course in some places in the world, nations find their own languages dying out and they take special measures to protect them against extinction. So when Latvia and Lithuania legislate the mandatory use of their language on their soil, the measure is an act of self-preservation and not just self-assertion. But English is the globally ascendant language today. In countries around the world, the spread and acceptance of English is certain and unstoppable. English has emerged as the modern era’s lingua franca, as travelers to Africa, Asia and Europe certainly appreciate. Traveling in Europe today, I frequently am stunned to discover that billboards, advertising and even the daily chatter on the street is flooded with English and with Anglicisms. This process is most advanced in nations such as Ireland, Scotland and the Philippines and India, where the language has deep colonial roots. There is already widespread speculation that English will shortly drive out and replace local idioms as the means of commercial communication in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries. Even in more established and larger cultures like Germany, the presence and power of the English idiom grows year-on-year. In sum: there is no threat to English in the world today. Rather, English presents a potentially mortal threat to other languages around the world, and with those languages, the cultures that spring from them.

The monolingual mania in America has another source. It is fundamentally an act of intellectual impoverishment. And Goethe is right: people who speak only English can rarely show that they have achieved mastery over that language. Just listen to the “English only” crowd. What best characterizes them is an astonishing inability to function competently in English. If they set themselves to learning Spanish, that might change. And it would have benefits beyond that. Languages are the synapses of the larger consciousness of humanity. By learning them, we truly learn more about our great collective communa naturis (as the man who brought philosophy to Oxford, the Scots philosopher John Duns Scotus, would have said. Duns Scotus, moreover, would have been amused at the idea that any serious intellectual discourse could occur in the English language. For him, of course, only three languages were suitable for such purposes: Arabic, Greek and Latin).

The second, closely related, and unpolished gem in this rambling work can be found near the close of the first volume. It’s one of the most transparently autobiographical passages of the work, and it focuses on Borrow’s engagement with German and German literature. Borrow left a mark on Victorian England in a few ways, and one of them was as a conduit for and critic of German literature of the period, especially Goethe, Klinger and the early Romanticists. The stylistic traces of the German writers of the decades just before and after Napoleon are very clear in Lavengro. And he offers a number of interesting takes on some of this literature, especially Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust.

“Goethe is a drug; his Sorrows are a drug, so is his Faustus… It is good to be a German [because] the Germans are the most philosophical people in the world. ” (ch. xxxiii)

Borrow is describing here his encounter with his fellow East Anglian William Taylor, who numbered, along with Coleridge and Carlyle, among the most important of the British advocates of German literature in the age of Goethe. It was under Taylor’s influence that Borrow undertook a translation of Friedrich Maximilian Klinger’s Faust novel (Fausts Leben, Thaten und Höllenfahrt, 1791), a dark and scandal-filled reworking of the old material that stands very much wide of the Goethe tradition and seems more an Romantic attack vehicle on the Enlightenment. This choice is characteristic for Borrow’s rather doubtful literary taste, which inclines to the tempestuous as opposed to the cerebral.

Lavengro is a masterpiece on the margins. It is filled with flashes of genius set in a matrix of much duller stuff. It lacks a coherent plot, but it has no shortage of fascinating ideas in the raw, never worked to any great conclusion. But in the end the narrator’s character, and Borrow’s, have something very rewarding about them.

The whole book in fact seems to be an exercise in a sort of Talmudic wisdom, particularly of the mishnah in Pirke Avos 4:1, which presents the four questions vital to the growth and development of humankind:

Who is the wise man? The one who learns from everyone. Who is the strong person? The one who conquers his negative impulses. Who is the wealthy person? The one who has joy with what he has. Who is the honorable person? The one who honors others.

These four questions wind like a thread through Lavengro and help it to literary immortality.

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