“I got the name of a great linguist…and accordingly never pleaded ignorance”


An amusing trifle to entertain you on what in the Pacific Northwest is a crisp cold day:

I had never studied Spanish while at college, and could not speak a word, when at Juan Fernandez [Island, off of Chile]; but during the latter part of the passage out [from Boston], I borrowed a grammar and dictionary from the cabin, and by a continual use of these, and a careful attention to every word that I heard spoken [at Monterey, California], I soon got a vocabulary together, and began talking for myself.  As I soon knew more Spanish than any of the crew, (who indeed knew none at all,) and had been at college and knew Latin, I got the name of a great linguist, and was always sent for by the captain and officers to get provisions, or to carry letters and messages to different parts of the town.  I was often sent to get something which I could not tell the name of to save my life; but I liked the business, and accordingly never pleaded ignorance.  Sometimes I managed to jump below [decks] and take a look at my dictionary before going ashore; or else I overhauled some English [local term for anglophone] resident on my way, and got the word from him; and then, by signs, and the help of my Latin and French, contrived to get along.

R.H. Dana, Jr.  1969. Two years before the mast: And twenty-four years after.  New York: P.F. Collier & Son Corporation.  Page 81.  (The Harvard Classics.)