Why are there so many foreign language quotes in literature?

I spend a fair amount of my time reading history, political science and the like. I have two master’s degrees, so, I’m not the dumbest guy on the planet (insert joke here). But there are always quotes in a foreign language that authors seem to presume that I know, which I don’t.
My question is this: Why are there so many Latin and French foreign language quotes in these books? It’s always yanked my chain that the author thinks a thought or quote is sufficiently important to include in their book, but is content to communicate with only a fraction of his/her audience. Is this just hubris on the part of the authors, or what? IS this a holdover when author’s wrote only for each other and didn’t care if “the masses” understood?

Often they want to show off and demostrate just how “smart” they are. And if they can also make you think you’re not as “smart”, since you need a translation, that’s just icing on the cake.

But you do have to realize that there is a fine line between a foreign language quote and a foreign phrase that has become part of the English language.

Is it old literature? I always found Poe frustrating, for example, for this very thing.

As a matter of style, foreign phrases should be (usually are) italicised. Phrases that have come to be accepted in the English language aren’t italics. So I guess you’d see “Hasta la vista, baby!” like that, and “Vete al diablo!” written like that.

Oh, it seems like back in the old days “educated” Americans were multilingual by default, so if it’s old stuff, that could be an explanation, as scheisslich as it is.

There are some literati who claim that English translations do not adequately convey the entire meaning of another language (usually the language that they happem to know). Everything loses something in translation.

I think that is true for some translations. For most, though, it is not necessary to get every nuance in order to appreciate the point being made.

OTOH, I can’t claim to enderstand all the nuance meant to be conveyed in lots of original English works.

I’ve been reading some stuff by someone McPherson abou the American Civil War for a university course and the guy just lapses into German, French, Latin, whatever at random interludes. And they’re not just quotes, either, but essential concepts. So the antebellum (at least I understand that) South was “somegermanword” whereas the North was “someothergermanword”. Gee, that helped.

Let me lay down a vote for “pretentious”.

Was it just me but I was reading “someothergermanword” before I realised that the forst word was “some german word”


Depends on the assumed reader. If you’re producing intellectual material on the order of coloring books and skin mags then, yes, you probably have some showing off to do and will only feel superior to those who are mystified by multilinguals.:rolleyes:

On the other hand, lots of writers have had their works idolized to the point where their creations are required reading. These are fair game for quotations no matter in what language the original was produced–idea being you eliminate the words, “Shakespeare said it best with” and move right ahead with, “the lady doth protest too much!” This strategy does more than just to show the reader you’re a Shakespeare person, it can invoke the entire sentiment of the piece/scene being quoted. If you haven’t read the quoted piece, then you are not the intended audience. Just like if I’m reading a book about advanced engineering concepts, it’s not the author’s fault if I get maxed out hanging sheetrock–I’m not the intended audience. I can get frustrated, *or I can become * the intended audience by finding out WTF was being quoted and trying to figure out how it is relevant to the rest of the writing.

Foreign language quotes are most often used with the assumption you will understand them. No sane author would continually alienate his audience. That’d be dumb, and it’s easy to settle for this assumption as opposed to admitting that, although well-educated you still have room to improve. If you don’t know much Latin or French I’m assuming your two Master’s Degrees are not in Humanities topics–else how could you have read many texts “in the raw?” These two languages in particular were “languages of culture” until about WWI–you needed to know them in order to call yourself educated. History begins well before the event, I don’t think an historian could be accused of Hubris by assuming you were familiar with world events & major powers preceeding the topic of the text. Whose fault is it if you are not the historian’s peer on the subject? You’re reading the book because you DON’T yet know what he’s talking about. And it appears that, in order to understand what he’s talking about, you need to gain HIS level of understanding of contemporary events, which may include reading some texts that have not/ can not be translated into your native language. Don’t grumble, seek to understand.

I dunno about you, but when I hear the words “…war” and “German” used in an historical context like the American Civil War, I recall the mighty contemporary Prussian armies and those who fought in the war for American Independence in the previous century. German words in this context are likely an attempt to invoke a concept surrounding the technically-adept Prussians (was a Prussian unit referred to in some German history text as “somegermanword” or “someothergermanword?”) with which the author assumes you would be familiar.

It is now 2003. No longer before WWI. English has become the Lingua Franca of the world, and no amount of anything will change that. Our eduacation system does not value Multilingualism. I think books that have entire passages written in Language X will find themselves doomed to irrelevancy unless someone who knows Languange X goes out and prints new editions with those passages translated. And BTW, knowledge of world events and major world powers is not learning an entirely new discipline. Maybe they just had bigger brains back in 1840. WWI was in 1850, right?

Again, what books are we talking about, and published when?

I’m with Matchka here. Quoting from works that the intended audience is supposed to know reinforces the bond between author and reader. The same way a Simpson episode can refer to current (US) news stories (- which can be rather obscure if you’re watching them 10 years later in Europe, without having heard the original story), I find it perfectly ligit to add a quote from Einstein in a physics paper, or from Machiavelli if discussing politics.

The Author simply assumes that the reader knows some of the background. Two hundred years ago, that was a lot easier, as the volume of printed books was much smaller, and the intended audience for a learned work was limited to a smaller circle of people who could be expected to have at least read ‘the classics’.

It can also be used for jokes. It is said that in order to fully appreciate Finnegans wake one would need to understand some fifteen languages. Now, that is rather extreme (and some people mean that it was meant as a joke), but some linguistic puns can liven up the setting quite a lot.

Well, I think we can safely say that these books were not intended for you. Don’t feel slightened by that; you don’t have to read them. There is still CNN and South Park on the TV.
Some of us, however, DO understand and appreciate other languages and cultures. Those books were written FOR US.


I guess you don’t spend a fair amount of time reading history, right?

Oh, I don’t know. I guess there’s just a certain je ne se quoi that comes from selecting the right bon mot when writing a story, whether it be a fin de secle or the definitive roman à clef.

Seriously, though, there are certain foreign words and phrases that have simply been adopted into common English usage. The assumption is that any educated reader will know these words and phrases. It’s the same assumption that authors make when they use “big” or "complicated " words that are standard English; it’s not a deliberate attempt at obfuscation, and I’m always a bit nonplused when I see supposedly well educated people complaining about the practice.



In Britain at least, Latin was part of any serious humanities education until well into the 20th century, but outside of highly obscure writers like TS Eliot, its use is rare in works for the reasonably-educated reading public.

As far as I can tell, extensive Latin quotes were common in the 17th and 18th century (see Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy). Most nineteenth century literature I have read did not use much in the way of Latin, although educated readers would probably have studied the language which was probably still more widely taught than other foreign languages. By the 20th century, it was only self-consciously difficult people like TS Eliot who expected that sort of knowledge of a reader.

I guess people nowadays are just too lazy to bother with foreign literature, though: 50 years ago a philologist like Erich “Mimesis” Auerbach could have a fluent knowledge of tens of languages, but now that depth of knowledge seems lost from the education system and many educated people these days know more than 1 or 2 foreign languages.

It depends on when the book was written. Up until at least 1920, an author could simply presume that any English speaker who wasn’t an uneducated clod would have some smattering of French and Latin.

People have explained the older education model already, where any semi-educated person would have some Latin, etc. With more recent lit I think it depends on the target audience (and you are talking about scholarly works, and not popular fiction). Higher level art historical essays, for example, will frequently use French and German, while depending on the subject there might be a lot of Latin Greek or Dutch or Spanish, etc. The people who these things are written for usually DO have those languages (anyone at a PhD coursework level in that field, for example, has to have those languages). There will be references to other authors: “Whan Panofsky explains his concept of Andachtsbilder. . .”; well, most people for whom this essay is intended have read this essay he refers to and knows exactly the concept he means (and for which there is no English equivilant, really). There’s an assumption of some common ground with scholars of a background in the same field, and if you are ambitious enough to jump into the literature without the assumed background you can expect to need to slow down a bit. There’s nothing show-offy about it-- some of you are sensing elitism where there is simply pragmatism of a sort. A humaities author writing about a certain culture’s history might assume that his principal readers have that language, since most of who he’s imagining that he’s talking to, do. And there is a certain level of basic knowledge that humanities graduates are assumed to have-- to know what ‘logos’ means, or 'Zeitgeist," telos, raison d’etre, or “In principia erat verbum”, “cogito ergo sum.”

Appreciate all of the responses and effort in the replies. I certainly understand that there are different levels of writing with the requirements and expectations of them being different. I fully expect that if I gave my 10 year old the article on Intriguing Properties Put Sodium Cobalt Oxide in the Spotlight, that he wouldn’t understand it. And if he did, the author would be doing as disservice to the true audience of the work. I’ve usually view narrowly focused specialized journals for this purpose of one intellectual in a highly specialized field speaking to another. I don’t believe that the vast audience of books is comprised of fellow Ivy League professors and their students. Various posts to the contrary, it appears to me that the goal of many of these quotes is to appear pretentious or psydo-intellectual.
Here is a case in point. I recently purchased Yanks : The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I by John Eisenhower for my father. This book is not an intellectual study of World War I; it’s a mass-market book. Just flipping through it a noticed several quotes, two direct quotes of Generals in French and one other quote of a concept in Latin. No footnotes of explanation. There is no way that the perspective audience will know these quotes. Stating that the average American who wants to read a history book shouldn’t because he isn’t fluent in two or three foreign languages is ridiculous and pretentious, IMHO.
I know a fair amount of people with advance degrees, including many PhDs. None of them have sufficient background in “Latin Greek or Dutch or Spanish,” to be fluent. I disagree with the premise that level of knowledge is required of all PhDs.
I remember asking one of my professors at grad school the same question when we were discussing one of his German history books in class. I hadn’t seen this guy so much a crack a smile in a year and a half. When I asked him this very same question, he said, “You just have to know it.” He actually started to giggle. I though he was going to pee his pants he was so excited that he was able to show how intellectual his discipline was.

I pulled out the text so now I can actually give some useful information about my cite.

It’s James McPherson, “The Differences between the Antebellum North and South”. It was printed in 1983. Far after French and Latin could be “assumed knowledge”.

The quote in particular:


(Itallics both mine)

I have no idea what either term means, but in context you can get the idea. The point is, why? Why use fancy German terms when you’re going to follow it up with English explanations? Why use the term “antebellum” when “prewar” is shorter and more immediately understandable?

There was no “Obscure German Words 101” prerequisite for my “The American Civil War” class. The point of writing in a language is to convey meaning to others who share that language. Perforating it with terms from half a dozen different languages is limiting your audience at best, and overly smarmy and pretentious at worst.

“Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft” are standard terms that any sociologist or historian is supposed to know. Here’s one page that defines them:


If McPherson’s book was aimed at a level below that of history grad students, then he certainly should have defined those terms in a footnote at least, and perhaps he should have had a paragraph in the text itself with an explanation of the distinction. But the point is that those words are standard terminology. There are no other English words that convey exactly the same distinction. Using standard terminology is not being pretentious. It’s the proper way of being precise in your writing.

There’s something wrong with complaining about any of these words:

je ne sais quoi
raison d’etre
fin de secle
roman a clef

These can be found in an English dictionary. They were borrowed into English from French, Latin, or German long ago and are well known. They have precise meanings that don’t exactly match any other word in English. A writer shouldn’t be pretentious, but that doesn’t mean that he has to simplify his terminology because some people don’t like to use the dictionary.

I’ve got a few additional remarks to what has already been said. There is a perfectly good use for foreign quotes and words.

There is a difference between using foreign words and giving quotes in a foreign language. As was noted by Wendell Wagner and capybara, many social sciences have developed a certain jargon that involves specific words. If you want to read this stuff, you can be expected to put in the effort required to learn the meaning of these words. You might as well complain about all these physicist insisting on using formulas and strange Greek letters, while there are perfectly good Latin letters available. :slight_smile:

Quotes in a foreign language are not a bad thing in themselves. I’m very wary of English-only speakers who quote a German philosopher and attribute all kinds of nasty thoughts to him based on that single quote. Quite often the original passage has a rather different meaning that is lost in the translation.

However, if there is only a reference to the English translation, it can be quite hard to find the corresponding passage in the original edition. It is much easier if you can immediately check the translation. What is irritating, however, is if there is no translation next to the quote. When writing for an English audience you should provide important quotes both in the original language and in English. At least, that’s how it is mostly done in philosophy. I’m not sure about other social sciences.

That said, it is true that there are people who needlessly use foreign words and/or quotes, or use them in an article aiming at a more general audience. But this is not necessarily because of a desire to show off. It may just be lack of regard for the target audience, or lack of talent for popularizing. Many experts in their field find it difficult to explain something without taking recourse to the handy short-hand that such jargon provides.