Mark Twain, a fan of English As She Is Spoke. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ds-05448)

In the middle of the 19th century, a relatively unknown author named Pedro Carolino rapidly gained intercontinental popularity over a small Portuguese-to-English phrasebook. English as She Is Spoke (or O novo guia da conversação em portuguez e inglez) was originally intended to help Portuguese speakers dabble in the English tongue, but was penned by a man who spoke little to no English himself. And, instead of helping Portuguese speakers learn a second language, it became a cult classic for fans of inept and unintentional humor.

It quickly gained notoriety among English speakers, including author Mark Twain, who wrote the introduction for the first English edition, published in 1883. Twain endorsed the book, saying “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”

The cover for O Novo Guia de Conversação, em Portuguez e Inglez, em Duas Partes. (Photo: Public Domain)

It is presumed that Carolino wrote the book through the aid of a Portuguese-to-French dictionary and a French-to-English dictionary, using the former for an initial translation of a word or phrase from Portuguese, and the latter to convert it from French into English. The result, of course, is a mishmash of cloudy gibberish.

For instance, the second chapter is titled “Familiar Phrases,” and features sentences intended to help the weary Portuguese traveler in everyday conversation. These phrases include classics like “He has spit in my coat”; “take that boy and whip him to much”; and the oft-used “these apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth.”

The book opens with a preface written in an idiosyncratic style of English. It details the book’s intended audience, stating that it “may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especially of the Youth, of which we dedicate him particularly.” Perhaps predictably, English as She Is Spoke did not become popular among Portuguese-speaking students. In fact, it was never published in Portugal, although it did find an audience 133 years later in Brazil, when it was released as a comedy title. 

A photochrom of the Tower of London, 1890. The book, published in 1855, was intended to help Portuguese speakers to improve their English language skills. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ppmsc-08566)

Literary journals, small newspapers, and other niche groups helped spread the word about Carolino’s work before it was given its first proper release as a humor book, first in Britain in 1883, and then in the United States later that year. Endorsements by esteemed writers like Twain and James Millington helped the unusual phrasebook grow a fanbase, and it subsequently received many requests for republishing. The book is even rumored to be the inspiration for the popular “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The book itself is a guessing game of intention and phrases contorted in the unorthodox translation process. If English as She Is Spoke is to be believed, trade occupations might include Coffeeman, Porkshop-Keeper, and Chinaman. The list of aquatic life noted under the heading “Fishes and Shell-Fishes” features well-known sea creatures like the Wolf, the Hedge-hog, and a Sorte of Fish. The section entitled “Games” is even more open to interpretation: the listed games include Mall, Pile, and Keel. (The book is often falsely attributed to Jose Da Fonseca, a popular linguist of the time period, but many believe that Carolino listed him as a co-author to give the work more credibility.)

The title page for English As She is Spoke. (Photo: Public Domain)

There is also a section featuring potential dialogues for everyday situations, such as visiting the dentist, purchasing a book, or visiting a sick family member. Of course, the conversations are mostly incomprehensible, but the chapter closes on an ironic high note, in this discussion about learning a language:

“Do speak French alwais?”
“Some times: though I flay it yet.”
“You jest, you does express you self very well.”

Perhaps the most notorious section of the book is an aptly named chapter entitled “Idiotisms and Proverbs,” which again features phrases that careen between barely understandable and completely nonsensical. Examples of Carolino’s twice-translated proverbs include: “nothing some money, nothing of Swiss”; “friendship of a child is water into a basket”; “take out the live coals with the hand of the cat”; and simply “to fatten the foot.”

The translations of idioms and proverbs. (Photo: Public Domain)

A review of the baffling phrasebook in an 1860 volume of Harvard Magazine opens with a disclaimer stating that the magazine is not intending to insult readers’ intelligence by publishing such excerpts, asserting that they “speak for themselves.” The work in question “purports to be a ‘New Guide to Conversation in the Portuguese and English Tongues,’” the reviewer dryly comments, but “No one, I think, will feel disposed to question its title to novelty.”

English as She Is Spoke is a charming book created by a gentleman who only wanted to help teach the English language to his peers, but instead created a literary disaster that became a linguistic phenomenon. The book has been republished a number of times, the most recent edition printed in 2004 by Collins Library. (A scan of an 1884 pressing can be viewed for free at the Public Domain Review.) Sadly, this was Pedro Carolino’s only published work, although it is an accidental piece of transcendent art with a legacy that has lasted centuries.

One could ponder why Carolino took on the task of creating a phrasebook in a language he did not speak, but sometimes it is better not to look a gift horse in the mouth; or as Carolino says, “a horse baared don’t look him the tooth.”