Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, WE all but confirmed that Sherlock Holmes included fluency in German among his many attributes. Today, in Part 2, we add evidence for his knowing French and Latin. Maybe even Norwegian and Tibetan. And certainly midwest ‘Merican. That is, it appears we can delete the “?” from the statement of his polyglotism.

Watson’s suggestion that Holmes knew French is referential, as opposed to canonical. In “The Greek Interpreter,” for example, Watson says to Holmes, “In your case, from all that you have told me, it seems obvious that your faculty of observation and your peculiar facility for deduction are due to your own systematic training.”

Holmes responds with a bit of family history, hitherto a topic undiscussed: “My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. [Note the distancing “their,” not “my.”] “But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

Horace Vernet, 1789–1863. French artist. Self portrait. Image from

Horace Vernet came from a long line of artists stretching back to late 17th-century Avignon (a city known for its earlier popes, 1309–1376, and the song’s ”Sur le pont d’….”). My favorite Horace Vernet quote is when he was asked to remove an obnoxious general from one of his paintings. He replied, “I am a painter of history, sire, and I will not violate the truth.”

Holmes evidently had good Vernet genes. And maybe, like many country-squire types, more than a smattering of French.

Other suggestions française are offered in Sherlockian Michael Harrison’s I, Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed, Harrison offers a threefer in one Holmes quote: “I decided that in New Orleans, my excellent French would serve better, in any case, than my indifferent Spanish would have served me in Cuba; and from the greatest city in New France, I proceeded in a small but seaworthy vessel to the supposed place of the Sophie Anderson’s disappearance.”

Thus, Holmes considers his French excellent, his Spanish indifferent, and he cites travel to America. More on this third fact anon.

Holmes’ proficiency in French is displayed in a footnote commenting on a multi-national exchange conducted, of course, in that language: “Going over this passage,” Holmes says, “I recall that Commander Oldekop’s actual expression, in French, was far less polite. What he said was, ‘Les anglais se sont barré immédiatement’—which, I suppose is best translated by the modern slang, ‘They skedaddled toot-sweet.’ Dr. Watson’s French was not sufficiently colloquial to appreciate the implications of the Commander’s slang phrase.”

Holmes’ familiarity with the midwest American tongue can be inferred from more than having visited New Orleans. In fact, Micheal Hardwick’s Sherlock Holmes: My Life and Crimes offers an image of a Chicago street scene with a compelling comment:

“A street scene in Chicago, a few years before my visit in 1879–1880 to study the tricks of the detective trade with the Pinkerton Agency.” Image and caption from Sherlock Holmes: My Life and Crimes.

In fact, Holmes’ knowledge of American English is corroborated in David L. Hammer’s To Play the Game: Being a Travel Guide to the North America of Sherlock Holmes: “… I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, and graduated in the Irish secret society at Buffalo.”

Other languages likely belonging on Holmes’ competency list include Latin, Tibetan, and Norwegian. As described in “Holmes and (Polyphonic) Motets,” Holmes “lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motels of Lassus.” Roland de Lassus, 1532-1594, was a Flemish composer of some 516 motets, choral works for interactive voices sung in Latin.

Roland de Lassus, 1532–1594, Flemish composer, one of the most influential musicians of his time.

As for the remaining two languages, Holmes had a sabbatical between “The Final Problem” and his return to London in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Upon his return, Holmes tells Watson, “I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head Lama.” Knowing Holmes, I suspect he picked up Tibetan readily.

221A Baker Street: The Adamantine Sherlock Holmes (Translated from the Coptic The Victorian Book of the Dead), by Hapi, ediited by J. Quincy Adams the Tenth and designed by Alexander Jack, Kaanthaka Press, 1974.

And whence his proficiency in Norwegian? Holmes says of his travels, “You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.” Surely he would have included well-spoken Norwegian as part of his disguise.

Quite the polyglot, Holmes. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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