In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward: invading France after making a claim on French territories, a vastly outnumbered King Henry (Harry) dispatches them at Agincourt, uniting the two kingdoms through his subsequent marriage to the French princess. In terms of language, however, the play has a lot of texture – not to mention the Bard’s ambivalent depictions of power and war that complicate this historical drama.
With its extensive cast of characters, Henry V features a range of linguistic registers. The lofty commentary of the Chorus frames the historical action of the play. The clergy’s academic discourse convinces Harry to mount his siege. Simple peasants malaprop in prose while the King rallies his troops with impassioned battle cries: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And the French princess, Catherine, says cunt.
…and it was delicious.
Alright, there’s no coprophagy going on here, but I can’t resist sharing a scatological–and multilingual–anecdote with our readers.
In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.
As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.
Which brings us to multilingualism.