Accidental Genius - Pedro Carolino and English as She is Spoke


Some of the best-loved writing in the world has been gibberish. Nonsense is as old as art itself, whether its practitioners are snot-nosed kids or the aging wonderful weirdoes like Carrol or Leer who entertained the self-same children by developing and codifying their abstract language. Writing for children is a good excuse for venting the inner gibber, but for nonsense to become adult and respectable it had to ally itself to a movement, not just nonsense but anti-sense. Leaving the nursery behind, the avowed aim of the Dadaists and Surrealists was to inspire a revolution in both the inner mind and the outer world by creating works that assaulted the status quo of sense.

"I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault." declared movement founder Andre Breton. But beyond the absence of straightforward meaning artistic output, crucial to the surrealist argument was that intent itself distorted art. The rational world of logic was held intrinsically compromised by the dead controlling hand of society. To have beautiful work created by accident was the state to which they aspired. This purity of random intent was in turn aimed at later by William Burroughs and his acolytes, whose "cut up technique" of montage aimed to "exterminate rational thought" from the process of creation. Something untamed and ecstatic was held to hail from the accidental, stroking those parts of the mind that stately logic could not reach.

By the anti-logic of the surrealists and the Beats English as She Is Spoke, a book written by Pedro Carolino on an unspecified date near the end of the 19th century, is work of beauty to place alongside the Naked Lunch and Tanguy's Indefinite Divisibility. Carolino had no intent to write a comic masterpiece. On the contrary, he intended to write an English/Portuguese phrasebook. Crucially, he didn't deem it necessary to have an English/Portuguese dictionary to do this. Or, for that matter, to be able to speak English whatsoever. On the sainted day he decided to enlighten the peoples of two great nations with The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English, (as it was originally known) something miraculous was born.

The book sets out its philanthropic mission in what soon becomes its trademark transcendent style.

The Works which we were conferring for this labour, found use us for nothing; but those that were publishing to Portugal, or out, they were almost all composed for some foreign, or for some national little aquainted in the spirit of those languages. It was resulting from that corelessness to rest these Works fill of imperfections, and anomalies of style; in spite of the infinite typographical faults which some times, invert the sense of the periods.

With this singular quest in mind, Carolino sets his Works out in stall. Firstly, simple works. In "Of The Man", we discover those basic building blocks which make us all

The brain
The brains
The fat of the leg
The ham
The inferior lip,
The superior lip

And of course

The reins

Already a wonderful inner logic has taken shape. Not too much later, the reader is plunged into more sinister realms, such as "Diseases", namely:-

The Apoplexy
The megrime
The scrofulas
The whitlow
The melancholy
The rehumatisme
The Vomitory

In full flow, Carolino expounds more categories, "Eatings" (which includes "Some sugar plum", "Some wigs", "A dainty-dishes", "Hog fat" and "A Little Mine") "Quadruped's Beasts",(including "Ass-colt", "Rocbuck", "Ram,aries" and "Dragon"), and "Fishes and shell-fishes" ("Calamary", "Hedge hog", "Wolf", "Torpedo", and the enigmatic "A sorte of fish.")

These words, at once familiar and alien, are the components of a fabulous new language, as vibrant as the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange. But in the book's next chapter "Familiar Phrases" the warped grammar takes on a whole new rhapsodic delight.

From the whimsically poetic whose actual meaning is not in doubt:-

Have you say that? At what O'Clock Dine him? Have you understanded? The thunderbolt is falling down No budge you there

Through the more arcane:-

Dress your hairs
Will you a bon?
Do not might one's understand to speak?
These apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth
He has spit in my coat
I am pinking me with a pin

To the eternally abstruse:-

He do want to fall
He do the devil at four
Dry this wine
He laughs at my nose, he jest by me

After "End First Part's" the reader, now fully equipped, is encouraged to be more adventurous and venture into "Familiar Dialogues", which include "For to wish the good morning", "For to dress him self", and "For to ask some news". One of the finest is "With a Hairdresser"

Your razors, are them well? Yes, Sir. Comb-me quickly; don't put me so much pomatum. What news tell me? All hairs dresser are newsmonger. Sir, I have no heared any thing.

The penultimate section, "Anecdotes", shows Carolino's invention at its most fluent and illuminating. The best rib-tickler is surely:-

A man one's was presented a magistrate which ad a considerable library "What you make?" beg him the magistrate. "I do some books" was answered. "But any of your books I did not seen its - I believe it so, was answered the author I mak nothing for Paris. From a of my works is imprinted, I send the edition for America; I don't compose what to colonies."

The sound of drumstick hitting cymbal.

Just when it can't seem to get any better, we have what could be a mere epilogue, but ends up as a thrilling climax:- "Idiotisms and proverbs". The cryptic wisdom of this new tongue finally reaches its zenith.

Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss. With a tongue one go to Roma. The necessity don't know the low.
A bad arrangement is better than a process.
Cat scalded fear the cold water.
Which like Bertram, love hir dog.
To build castles in Espagnish
To craunch a marmoset
To make paps for the cats
To come back at their muttons

Finally the reader can withdraw, delighted, sated, the glimpse of another universe in sight.

This whole book is of course, a "mistake", and a very extreme one too. But every progression of language develops from mishearing, from distortion. While undoubtedly funny, the undulating incongruity of the language is enough to stimulate realms of the mind previously unexplored. In this sense, English as She Is Spoke is not only a worthy heir of Lewis Carrol and portent of Dali, but also belongs to the tradition of warped wordsmithery which would include not only Anthony Burgess, but also Chris Morris and Mark E Smith too.

So then, in appreciating this great masterpiece of accidental humour, we are not simply laughing at the funny foreigner. Or not just that anyway.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2006]