Thursday, 10 September 2009

Conrad’s Polish English

In the Newsletter of Campania ELT (Association of Teachers, Learners and Speakers of English in Campania, Italy, I read this by Roy Boardman, the editor (

“ is the end of a story by a non-native speaker.

I approached him with extended hand. His eyes, not looking at me, had a strained expression. He was like a man listening for a warning call.
‘Won’t you shake hands, Ransome?” I said gently.
He exclaimed, flushed up darkly red, gave my hand a hard wrench – and next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.”

Not reading his intro carefully I thought Roy was making a point about the fact that even the best non-native writers of English sometimes betray themselves, and I detected a foreign feel to the passage, particularly the last sentence.

But then I read Roy’s following comment: ‘Yes, you will be saying, but I recognise that as the end of The Shadow-Line by Joseph Conrad, one of the masters of the English novel’ (and, of course, a non-native speaker -- NNS). His point being that Conrad’s English was faultless.

Now I'm not sure. I recall F R Leavis saying somewhere that on practically every page of Conrad there’s some sign of his NNS language origins, so perhaps my instinct was right.

But it’s so hard to say. Even in my own writing I'm not always sure whether my constructions are ‘quite English’. The thing is, it’s a feature of written language that we can, precisely, construct it, as if it were engineering, and then can find ourselves, while breaking no rules of sound construction, generating sentences that work technically but don’t feel right.

No comments: