Why Dracula learnt English

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Ever tried to communicate in another language? We all known it can be quite a scary experience, like a journey through the Carpathians. Mr Harker is the best person to tell you about both…

Dracula –one of the most famous Gothic novels– is not only written in English but also Romanian, German and Servian among others. The story starts with precisely with Jonathan Harker, a pragmatic man who travels all his way from England to the wildest part of East Europe… with his polyglot dictionary.

‘I found my smattering of German very useful here, indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.’

Jonathan probably read authors like Friedrich Schiller and Christian Heinrich Spiess, masters of schauerroman  –shudder novel– so he knew he needed German to survive his own Gothic plot.
In fact, he is exceptionally interested in the local languages of the places he visits:

‘I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd, so I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out. I must say they were not cheering to me, for amongst them were “Ordog” – Satan, “Pokol” – hell, “stregoica” witch, “vrolok” and “vlkoslak” – both mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire.’

Jonathan works as a solicitor, but  does he have the secret dream of being a linguist? His interest in foreign words is a bit morbid, although I have to agree that few things are more scary than listening to some spooky peasants praying in an unknown language. And when one looks in the dictionary… there lies the horror, like a monster hiding in the meaning of a word.

‘Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: “Must you go? Oh! Young Herr, must you go?” She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what German she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all.’

There are also characters who do not master English completely, like Count Dracula. I am pleased to say I share some connections with one of the best anti-heroes ever written as he –as me– does not seem able to lose his accent.

‘The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation. “Welcome to my house! […]’

Count Dracula is also an Anglophile –whose main interest in England is how to conquer it. He keeps English books and newspapers in his remote castle in Romania, so he might have learned English by reading The Daily Telegraph. As a student of English I was advised to read The Times, but I remember that  headlines – with those mysterious short words that seemed a war code – discourage me quite soon.

Count Dracula is also very aware of the minutia of learning a second tongue. The final proof is always practising in the country, or at least with a native speaker. Speaking a language is like sex – or falling in love, for the more romantics ones. You can read about it, but you need to experience it, to feel it.

‘“[…]As yet I only know your tongue through books. To you, my friend, I look that I know it to speak.”

“But, Count,” I said, “You know and speak English thoroughly!”

[…]

“[…] True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them.”

“Indeed,” I said, “You speak excellently.”

“[…] You shall, I trust, rest here with me a while, so that by our talking I may learn the English intonation. And I would that you tell me when I make error, even of the smallest, in my speaking.”’

When we are learning a language we hope our kind native speaker friends to help us fix mistakes and grammar. But are we always that lucky? I have been studying English seriously for six years, and recently moved to the English countryside, where I get the chance to see sheep everyday. I am – now – a bit ashamed to say that I called those grass-eaters clouds ‘sheeps’ when I saw them gathered in harmonious groups. Until a couple of weeks ago I discovered, by myself, that my plural was wrong – I was following the rules of my Spanish by adding ‘s’. Outraged, I went to my dear English friend.

‘Why you never told me that ‘sheeps’ is not the plural of ‘sheep?’

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ she said. ‘I thought it was kind of cute.’

I think Count Dracula had a similar problem all the book through. Jonathan was not precisely eager to correct his awkward grammar, not because he thought the count cute but scary – whit his hairy palms and his rank breath.

There is also Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam, a charismatic metaphysician – incarnated by Hugh Jackman in a questionable film who speaks a sophisticated broken English. All along the novel he travels from London to Amsterdam with amazing ease – considering there were not low cost flights at the time.

‘My dear young miss, I have the so great pleasure because you are so much beloved. That is much, my dear, even were there that which I do not see. They told me you were down in the spirit, and that you were of a ghastly pale. To them I say “Pouf!”’

He is also said to have a German accent, although this is something Dutch people may disagree with. To my Spanish ear, though, Dutch sounds quite similar to German – I noticed that last weekend when watching this video with my friends. A quick check in Wikipedia made me realise that it sounds like German because it belongs to the German family of languages. And apparently, it is the same language as Flemish – spoken in Belgium along with French and German. So I cannot leave without showing you my favourite Flemish composer from all the times.

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