No Comment — October 28, 2007, 10:59 am

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.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.


= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A documentary about climate change, domain names, and capital

The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today