Napoleon writing in English

This summer, a letter from Napoleon was auctioned, written in 1816 and addressed to his teacher. It was meant as an exercise, to practice his English. The article in NRC-Next which announced the news, suggests that he still had a lot to learn, as the letter starts off as follows:

“it is two o’clock after midnight, I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night with you.”

The comment was probably inspired by the unusual word order, but what strikes me is his use of enow, for enough: at this late date? Or would it be a spelling error? Also, he doesn’t use a capital for I. So yes, he does seem to have a lot to learn still. Any more comments on his skill in English?

I haven’t seen a full transcription of the letter yet: this would be most welcome.

The letter fetched €325,000: what an incredible amount of money.


Source image Napoleon’s letter: NRC Next.

This entry was posted in 19th-century letters, news and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Napoleon writing in English

  1. Diane says:

    I believe (though my French is not great) that French doesn’t have modals which explains the “I go” instead of “I will go”. I really liked that he wrote “I have enow sleep” too instead of “I have had enough sleep”. When I write in a language I’m not fully comfortable writing in due to lack of knowledge about the language, I write the infinitives as well, guessing that the adressee will figure out what I meant. I wonder whether Napoleon does this consistently when we would expect a modal+verb in English. Is he merely doing it out of lack of knowledge or is he incorporating French grammar into English but then without inflections because he is aware that French is a more inflectional language? Or maybe I’m just rambling.

    • Thanks, Diane! What we need first of all is a transcription of the letter. Would you like to do one?

      • diane1genie says:

        After trying to read his letter for quite some time I did a google search with what I found and tada! I found a transcription on this website:
        However, as you can see when you click on the link, this transcription does not show his use of the small letter i (I actually think he wrote i as j since it is clearly longer than all the other i’s). I will also show where I read something different than the person who transcribed it on the website.

        “Count Las Case (Carl láscose). it is two o’clock after midnight, j have enow sleep
        j go then finish the night into to cause with you.. he shall land above seven day a ship from Europe that we shall give account from anything who this shall have been
        even to day of first january thousand eight hundred sixteen (hundredsixteen).
        you shall have for this ocurens a letter from lady
        Las Case (lascose) that shall you learn what himself could carry
        well if she had co[n]ceive the your occurens.
        but j tire myself and you shall have of the ado at conceive my
        upon this j intercede god &c. &c. &c…
        Longwood (long wood) this nine march thousand eight hundred and sixteen after
        the nativity of our senior jesus (jesuf) at four hour (horar?) of the
        morning and half.”

        In the “shall have been even to day” part, does he mean that today is the first of january or that with “to day” he means “to the day” as in “untill the first of january”?
        It is funny that he writes occurence in two different ways “ocurens” and “occurens” and also first “hundredsixteen” together and then as three separate words, “hundred and sixteen”.
        While I was transcribing the “jesus” part, I actually thought the final letter was an “f”. I looked at the other instances of “f” and “s” and it clearly looks more like an “f”. I googled to find out whether “jesuf” was an accepted form of “jesus” but I couldn’t really find anything. When you go to google books I had a couple of hits one of them from a French source, “Crois de nôtre Seigueur Jesis Christ en MDCCXXVII) where if you search “jesuf” you have one hit: I chose this one because it is somewhat close to Napoleon’s time.
        And as for my first thought about the not using modals, I was sorely mistaken.
        As for something else which I absolutely loved to see was how he wrote his “w”. He actually used two v’s that crossed each other. Why I really liked it is because in French you say “double-v” to indicate a “w”.
        As for the “hour part at the end of the letter, I think there is something between the “ho” and “ur” part. That’s why I added my own version of “horar”, since I thought the “u” looked more like an “a” but then again he is not very consistent in his handwriting as far as vowels go.

        (I’m just going to check if I can add italics in a reply [i]tada[/i])

Thank you for commenting on this post!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s