Tall tales and teaching tongues

13 Jun

I posted a few weeks ago about infuriating sources – the ones that hint at fascinating stories but never quite yield up their secrets. Now, while I don’t want this blog to turn into a place where I just lambast the dead for refusing to talk to me, here’s an intriguing find from today’s rummaging in early modern language-learning texts. It’s from the address to the reader at the start of Francis Cheneau’s French Grammar (London, 1685), and manages to sketch a gripping life-story before switching abruptly to talk about language pedagogy. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about seventeenth-century language pedagogy. But this one made me do a GOB Bluth and roar ‘COME ON!’ at the screen. Have a look for yourselves: 

“To the READER. 

You will be surprised that a man who has been a Traveller all his life, and in the mean time has been seven years a Slave in Turky, two years Governour of two great Islands, Naxos and Paros, in the Archipelago under his Pacha, Mazza-Mamma; then being escaped of many dangers, came hither to be a School-Master; But I tell you this short History of my Life, to give any one a good encouragement to learn the Tongues as much as he can, because they were the first Foundation of my Fortune in Turky; And to shew how that a Man who is ingenious, can live in all sorts of conditions God pleases to put him in.”

And that’s it.

Come on. 

It’s worth being very dubious about this. It’s a potentially great story, but Cheneau is remarkably coy about it – he used it in advertising Shortest way to write and speak Latin (1710?), which trumpeted him as “Mr. CHENEAU, Professor of Latin, English, French and Italian Tongues, these Two and Thirty Years in England; formerly a Slave, then Governor of NAXOS and PAROS”, and said broadly the same on the title-page of his Perfect French Master of 1716.  It’s a great hook – and my own research into captivity in North Africa suggests that he’s not wrong about the importance of linguistic competence for slaves. But until I get my hands on the records of Ottoman Naxos – which might be a while – I’ll stick to looking at Cheneau’s grammar. 

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