LONDON (Reuters Life!) - New analysis of a series of love letters from Anglo-Irish satirist and “Gulliver’s Travels” author Jonathan Swift to two women shows that the strange, juvenile language he employed reflects the way babies talk.
Abigail Williams of St Peter’s College, Oxford University, who has been editing the early 18th century letters which constitute “The Journal to Stella,” said her own three-year-old son had helped her solve some of the mysteries of Swift’s text.
“If I am really struggling to understand a phrase, I ask my three-year-old son — who has an excellent lisp — to say it aloud for me,” she said.
Williams argued that the letters could only fully be understood if they were read out loud, because Swift developed a special baby language with which to address the two women.
In this “little language” he attempted to imitate the speech of small children by changing the consonants in familiar words.
For example, he wrote: “I expect a Rettle vely soon; & that MD is vely werr, and so Nite dee MD” which translates as “I expect a letter very soon, and that my dears are very well, and so night dear my dears.”
Alternatively, he wrote: “I am sorry for poo poo ppt, pray walk hen oo can,” meaning “I am sorry for poor poor poppet, pray walk when you can.” The bizarre style appears in letters from Swift to “MD,” or “my dears,” meaning Esther Johnson (“Stella”) and her companion Rebecca Dingley.
According to Oxford University, the author and clergyman usually met the women together, and his contemporaries claimed that he was never once in his life alone in a room with Stella.
But since the 18th century, many scholars and readers of his works have also claimed that Stella and Swift were secretly married, and debate continues over whether that marriage was consummated or not.
Some of his letters are sexually charged. In a letter dated February 5, 1711, he wrote: “tis still terribly cold.- I wish my cold hand was in the warmest place about you, young women.”
And along with the pet baby language, he employed less-than-flattering descriptions of the women, including “saucy sluts,” “agreeable bitches” and “rogues.”
Although Swift is known today as the author of sophisticated satires like Gulliver’s Travels, for much of the 18th and 19th century he was most famous for being an Irish clergyman who had a secret relationship with two women simultaneously.
That was not Johnson and Dingley, but Johnson and a third woman.
Williams, who is working on the letters as part of the Cambridge University Press edition of his collected works, also discovered that Swift himself crossed out some of the most intimate phrases before sending them as a kind of game.
“Until now, scholars thought that prudish 18th century editors had crossed out the most intimate parts of Swift’s letters to preserve his reputation,” she said.
“The women he was writing to needed to undress the text before they could fully enjoy it. This disguising of affectionate endearments is clearly part of a secret code of intimacy that characterizes the Journal as a whole.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato