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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > English

During a sojourn of some weeks in Rome, in the summer of 1841, I had the honour of conversing with his eminence several times ; at the Propaganda; at the Roman Seminary ; at a meeting of the Acca-demia della Religione Cattolica ; and more than once in his own apartments. In the course of one of these interviews I heard him speak in several languages, to different acquaintances whom he met, and with each of whom he conversed in his own tongue— English, German, French, Spanish, Romaic, and Hungarian. With myself his conversation was always in English.

His English, as we have seen, has been variously judged. Herr Fleck describes it as " only middling :" by others it is pronounced to be undistinguishable from that of a native. The truth, as in all such cases, lies between these extremes.

All visitors, with the single exception of Herr Fleck, (certainly a very questionable authority,) concur in admitting at least the perfect fluency and strict grammatical accuracy of the Cardinal's English conversation : but some have hesitated as to its idiomatical propriety. M. Crawford, ex-secretary of the Ionian Islands, told M. d'Abbadie last year, that Mezzofanti appeared to him to use some un-English constructions. To Dean Milman, who was introduced to him several years ago by Mr. Francis Hare, his English appeared "as if learned from books, grammatical, rather than idiomatical." And Lady Morgan even determines the period of English literature on which his English appeared to be modelled.

I cannot fully concur, nevertheless, in this opinion. My own impressions of the Cardinal's English, derived from many conversations on different occasions, agree with those. already quoted from Mr. Stewart Rose, Lady Blessington, Mr. Harford, Bishop Baines, Cardinal Wiseman, and others, who attest his perfect accuracy both of grammar and of idiom. Mr. Badeley, the eminent lawyer, who saw him but one year before his death, told me that " he spoke English in a perfectly easy and natural manner;" and Mr. Kip, whose visit was about the same time, declares that, " in the course of a long conversation which he held with the Cardinal, his eminence did not use a single expression or word in any way that was not strictly and idiomatically correct." It is true that I should hardly have been deceived as to his being a foreigner ; but the slight, though to my ear decisive, foreign characteristics of his English, were rather of accent than of language; or, if they regarded language at all, it was not that his expressions were unidiomatical, or that his vocabulary was wanting in propriety, but merely that his sentences were occasionally more formal—more like the periods of a regular oratorical composition than is common in the freedom of every-day conversation. Nor did the peculiarity of accent to which I refer amount to anything like absolute impropriety. His pronunciation was most exact; his accentuation almost unerring ; and, although it certainly could be distinguished from that of a born Englishman, the difference lay chiefly in its being more marked, and in its precision being more evidently the result of effort and of rule, than the unstudied and instinctive enunciation of a native speaking his own language. If I were disposed to criticize it very strictly, I might say (paradoxical as this may seem,) that, compared with the enunciation of a native, it was almost too correct to appear completely natural; and that its very correctness gave to it some slight tendency to that extreme which the Italians themselves, in reference to their own language in the mouth of a stranger, describe as caricato. But I have no hesitation in saying, that I never met any foreigner, not resident in England, whose English conversation could be preferred to Mezzofanti's. The foreign peculiarity was, in my judgment, so slight as to be barely perceptible, and I have myself known more than one instance similar to that already related from Cardinal Wiseman, in which Irish visitors meeting the Cardinal for the first time, without knowing who he was, took him for an English dignitary mistaking the slight trace of foreign peculiarity which I have described for what is called in Ireland, " the English accent."

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