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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) (1622–1673)

A Language Lesson

From “The Gentleman Cit”


Prof. Phil.Now for our lesson. What do you wish to learn?

M. Jour.Everything I can, for I have the greatest desire in the world to be accomplished; and it vexes me more than I can say that my father and mother did not make me learn all the sciences thoroughly when I was young.

Prof. Phil.That is a praiseworthy feeling. Nam sine doctrina vita est quasi mortis imago. You understand this, as you have, no doubt, a knowledge of Latin?

M. Jour.Yes; but I act as if I had none. Explain the meaning of it to me.

Prof. Phil.The meaning of it is that, without science, life is an image of death.

M. Jour.That Latin is quite right.

Prof. Phil.Do you know any of the principles, any of the rudiments of science?

M. Jour.Oh, yes; I can read and write.

Prof. Phil.With what would you like to begin? Shall I teach you logic?

M. Jour.And what may this logic be?

Prof. Phil.It teaches us the three operations of the mind.

M. Jour.What are they, these three operations of the mind?

Prof. Phil.The first, the second, and the third. The first is to conceive well by means of universals; the second, to judge well by means of categories; and the third, to draw a conclusion aright by means of the figures Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, Baralipton, etc.

M. Jour.Pooh! what ugly words. This logic does not suit me in the least. Teach me something more cheerful.

Prof. Phil.Would you like to learn moral philosophy?

M. Jour.Moral philosophy?

Prof. Phil.Yes.

M. Jour.What does it say, this moral philosophy?

Prof. Phil.It treats of happiness, teaches men to moderate their passions, and——

M. Jour.No, none of that. I am devilishly hot-tempered, and, morality or no morality, I like to give full vent to my anger whenever I have a mind to it.

Prof. Phil.Would you like to learn physics?

M. Jour.And what have physics to say for themselves?

Prof. Phil.Physics are that science which explains the principles of natural things and the properties of bodies, which discourses of the nature of the elements, of metals, minerals, stones, plants, and animals; which teaches us the cause of all the meteors, the rainbow, the ignis fatuus, comets, lightning, thunder, thunderbolts, rain, snow, hail, wind, and whirlwinds.

M. Jour.There is too much hullabaloo in all that; too much riot and rumpus.

Prof. Phil.What would you have me teach you then?

M. Jour.Teach me spelling.

Prof. Phil.Very good.

M. Jour.Afterward you will teach me the almanac, so that I may know when there is a moon, and when there isn’t one.

Prof. Phil.Be it so. In order to give a right interpretation to your thought, and to treat this matter philosophically, we must begin, according to the order of things, with an exact knowledge of the nature of the letters, and the different way in which each is pronounced. And on this head I have to tell you that letters are divided into vowels, so called because they express the voice, and into consonants, so called because they are sounded with the vowels, and only mark the different articulations of the voice. There are five vowels or voices, a, e, i, o, u.

M. Jour.Yes, I understand.

Prof. Phil.The vowel a is formed by opening the mouth very wide: a.

M. Jour.A, a; yes.

Prof. Phil.The vowel e is formed by drawing the lower jaw a little nearer to the upper: a, e.

M. Jour.A, e; a, e; to be sure. Ah! how beautiful that is!

Prof. Phil.And the vowel i by bringing the jaws still closer to one another, and stretching the two corners of the mouth toward the ears: a, e, i.

M. Jour.A, e, i, i, i, i. Quite true. Long live science!

Prof. Phil.The vowel o is formed by opening the jaws, and drawing in the lips at the two corners, the upper and the lower: o.

M. Jour.O, o. Nothing could be more elegant: a, e, i, o, i, o. It is admirable! I, o, i, o.

Prof. Phil.The opening of the mouth exactly makes a little circle, which resembles an o.

M. Jour.O, o, o. You are right. O! Ah! what a fine thing it is to know something!

Prof. Phil.The vowel u is formed by bringing the teeth near each other without entirely joining them, and thrusting out both the lips while also bringing them near together without quite joining them: u.

M. Jour.U, u. Yes, you are quite right: u.

Prof. Phil.Your two lips lengthen as if you were pouting; so that, if you wish to make a grimace at anybody, and to laugh at him, you have only to u him.

M. Jour.U, u. It’s true. Oh! that I had studied when I was younger, so as to know all this.

Prof. Phil.To-morrow we will speak of the other letters, which are the consonants.

M. Jour.Is there anything as curious in them as in these?

Prof. Phil.Certainly. For instance, the consonant d is pronounced by striking the tip of the tongue above the upper teeth: da.

M. Jour.Da, da. Yes. Ah! what beautiful things, what beautiful things!

Prof. Phil.The f, by pressing the upper teeth upon the lower lip: fa.

M. Jour.Fa, fa. ’Tis the truth. Ah! my father and my mother, how angry I feel with you!

Prof. Phil.And the r, by carrying the tip of the tongue up to the roof of the palate, so that, being grazed by the air which comes out forcibly, it yields to it, and, returning to the same place, causes a sort of tremor: r, ra.

M. Jour.R-r-ra; r-r-r-r-r-ra. That’s true. What a clever man you are, and how much time I have lost. R-r-ra.

Prof. Phil.I will thoroughly explain all these curiosities to you.

M. Jour.Pray do. And now I want to entrust you with a great secret. I am in love with a lady of quality, and I should be glad if you would help me to write something to her in a short letter which I mean to drop at her feet.

Prof. Phil.Very well.

M. Jour.That will be gallant, will it not?

Prof. Phil.Undoubtedly. Is it verse you wish to write to her?

M. Jour.Oh, no, not verse.

Prof. Phil.You only wish for prose?

M. Jour.No, I wish neither verse nor prose.

Prof. Phil.It must be one or the other.

M. Jour.Why?

Prof. Phil.Because, sir, there is nothing by which we can express ourselves except prose or verse.

M. Jour.There is nothing but prose or verse?

Prof. Phil.No, sir. Whatever is not prose is verse, and whatever is not verse is prose.

M. Jour.And when we speak, what is that, then?

Prof. Phil.Prose.

M. Jour.What! when I say, “Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my night-cap,” is that prose?

Prof. Phil.Yes, sir.

M. Jour.Upon my word, I have been talking prose these forty years without being aware of it! I am under the greatest obligation to you for informing me. Well, then, I wish to write to her in a letter, Fair marchioness, your beautiful eyes make me die of love; but I would have this worded in a genteel manner, and turned prettily.

Prof. Phil.Say that the fire of her eyes has reduced your heart to ashes; that you suffer day and night for her tortures——

M. Jour.No, no, no; I don’t want any of that. I simply wish to say what I tell you: Fair marchioness, your beautiful eyes make me die of love.

Prof. Phil.Still, you might amplify the thing a little?

M. Jour.No, I tell you, I will have nothing but those very words in the letter; but they must be put in a fashionable way, and arranged as they should be. Pray explain a little, so that I may see the different ways in which they can be put.

Prof. Phil.They may be put, first of all, as you have said, Fair marchioness, your beautiful eyes make me die of love; or else, Of love die make me, fair marchioness, your beautiful eyes; or, Your beautiful eyes of love make me, fair marchioness, die; or, Die of love your beautiful eyes, fair marchioness, make me; or else, Me make your beautiful eyes die, fair marchioness, of love.

M. Jour.But of all these ways, which is the best?

Prof. Phil.The one you said—Fair marchioness, your beautiful eyes make me die of love.

M. Jour.Yet I have never studied, and I did all that right off at the first shot. I thank you with all my heart, and I beg you to come early again to-morrow morning.

Prof. Phil.I shall not fail you.