“I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture”: a historical perspective on ESL

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

The life of Joseph Emin (1726-1809) gave us a historical perspective on learning and using English in the 18th century.
Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 129.

A busy month for ELFA seminars came to a close Oct. 31 with a visit from Anni Sairio from the VARIENG (Variation, Contacts & Change in English) research unit here in University of Helsinki. As a historical sociolinguist, she’s investigating the experiences of English as a second language (ESL) learners and users in earlier centuries. In a similar vein, English as a lingua franca (ELF) research investigates second- and foreign-language users in contemporary settings. Our parallel research interests made it an insightful look into language learning and global English in the 1700s.

Anni’s latest project-in-progress is the Corpus of Historical English as a Second Language (CHESL). Now in the planning stages, it will provide a welcome perspective on the historical roots of ESL, linking today’s diverse Englishes with a time when English was one of several global lingua francas. To give a sense of the type of data she’s working with, Anni presented a case study of Joseph Emin, an 18th century multilingual. An Armenian born in Persia, Emin moved to Calcutta in his youth, where he learned English with determined enthusiasm.

Nothing drives learning like learner motivation, and Emin was driven to learn English and acquire the English cultural knowledge that was famed in its day – how to efficiently kill people. He was determined to liberate Armenia from Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and he knew it would require military training and discipline. He couldn’t let his father know that he intended to travel to England, and Emin’s autobiography describes how he concealed his enthusiasm for studying English from his father.

It’s interesting to note from Emin’s account that English wasn’t his father’s first suggestion for a foreign language that Emin ought to know. Perhaps as a merchant in Calcutta, Emin’s father had his own linguistic priorities, but English was his third suggestion after Portuguese and French. There could also be some dramatic flair in this late-life recollection, but it shows that then as now, English was just one option in a multilingual toolkit.

Climbing the social ladder

Emin’s dreams of liberating Armenia were never realised, but he succeeded in journeying to London in 1751, joining the military, and obtaining the experience of battle he was seeking. But his most impressive accomplishment might be his incredible rise up the ranks of English society. After arriving to London, Emin spent four years doing hard and menial labor before meeting the famous Edmund Burke. Emin must have made a good impression, as Burke hired him as a copyist, likely an honor for a second-language user in the 18th century.

Most importantly, Burke provided the contacts and introductions that opened the doors of London’s learned and literary circles. Emin became known among the Bluestocking society, and his correspondence with Elizabeth Montagu, the celebrated hostess and patron of the arts, has been preserved. This correspondence, among other surviving letters, provide a private glimpse into the linguistic and social identity of an 18th century second-language user of English.

An extract of one of Joseph Emin's letters.Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 96.

An extract of one of Joseph Emin’s letters.
Source: Emin 1792[1918]: 96.

One of the interesting findings that Anni discussed in our seminar concerned the creative style that Emin often employed in his correspondence. He was clearly aware of the conventions of the day for singing the praises of the letter’s recipient, but he intensifies these in a style of his own. For example, his salutations to “my dear dear, and dearest of all Mrs Montagu”, the “Queen of the Universe”, as well as his description of himself as her “faithfull Slave” can be seen as somewhat over-the-top, even by 18th century standards. And nobody seemed to mind.

“I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture”

Both Emin and his friends in high society were aware of these “colorful” qualities of his personal style. Anni described how other correspondence within the Bluestocking network make 3rd-person reference to Emin and his somewhat extravagant praises. But rather than being a problem, these qualities seem to be part of his social identity, which had no shortage of extravagant adventure. Emin also portrayed himself with a heroic flair, even addressing his Bluestocking readers as “my Noble Friend Ladies who are my Patroness & who are so fond of Heros”.

It can be seen from these writings that both Emin and his acquaintances saw his style as a hybrid between English conventions and his own “Asiatic style”. It seems this was not a limitation in his skilled use of English, nor did it deter him from writing his autobiography in English. However, Emin described this style as something that arises naturally, despite his efforts to avoid it. Late in his life in 1791, Emin was complimented by Montagu on the level of his English, and this was his reply:

I am proud that you think I retain my English, but sorry that I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture in my writing, I indeavour much to naturalize my sentiments to the English, but to no purpose, I am like a pack-hors, sure enough (for I was a porter) trying to copy after an antelope, I find I forget my own Gate; for it is not very easy to make a fierce-Tyger to become as tame as a Lamb; nature is a great obstacle, and it’s power undaunted neither Art nor skill can alter it, till in time it fals in pieces and turns to the humble dust again.

(Emin 1792[1918]: 495, spelling from the original)

Thus, Emin uses two metaphoric contrasts to depict his use of English: first, an image of striving toward agility and grace, with a pack horse imitating an antelope; and second, that of taming a wild beast in the form of a “fierce-Tyger”, trying to make it a lamb. Although they are described in negative terms of inevitability, these metaphors of the durable pack horse and ferocious tiger appear to be evoked quite deliberately here, and it seems the “asiatic tincture” described by Emin is just as much a part of his identity as his heroic military adventures.

Learning from the recent past

These accounts of 18th century second-language learning might seem like old times, but they’re hardly ancient history. Many of the prescriptive views we have about English were born during this same period, including notions of “proper English”, “polite language”, and the idea that certain grammatical structures can actually be offensive. Likewise, the modern standard-bearers such as English language teaching and authoritative dictionaries gained strength in this recent century. So, learning about the past will also shed light on modern views about English.

In addition to providing perspectives to complement our ELF research, the historical sociolinguistic approach of Anni Sairio and her VARIENG colleagues have a lot to contribute to our understanding of English in the world today. Thanks to Anni for an interesting seminar, with hopes for future collaboration between variationists spanning the centuries.


Thanks to Anni Sairio for the interesting examples from her presentation. The complete autobiography of Joseph Emin – The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, an Armenian – was originally published in 1792. A second edition was released in 1918 by his great-great-granddaughter Amy Apcar, who included several of Emin’s letters. This second edition is available online from archive.org.

Anni has also reported her findings from the writings of Joseph Emin in the following conference presentations:

  • Sairio, Anni. 2012. ‘Eighteenth-Century English as a Second Language: The letters of Joseph Emin (1726-1809)’. A paper presented at the workshop Development of extraterritorial varieties: Migrants, women, and other providers of “bad data” in the 43rd Poznan Linguistic Meeting (PLM2012), University of Poznan. September 8-10, 2012.
  • Sairio, Anni. 2013. ‘Historical ESL: the case of Joseph Emin (1726-1809)’. A paper presented at the School of English research seminar, University of Sheffield. 13 May, 2013.

Finally, have a look at the blog from Anni’s previous project, Dynamics of Change in Language Practices and Social Meaning (1700–1900), which also applied a historical sociolinguistic approach.


2 thoughts on ““I cannot avoid mixing an asiatic tincture”: a historical perspective on ESL

  1. eflnotes says:


    this is a fascinating account are there more cases like this?


  2. Ray Carey says:

    Hi mura, not that I’m personally aware of, but they must be out there. I would also be interested in learning about other centuries’ second-language learners/users from different “levels” of society, so to speak, since Emin’s story seems to have been preserved (at least partially) due to his famous friends. But I would guess this is an exceptional case.

    I think this is the goal of Anni’s CHESL project, to bring more of these accounts together as well as to document early English-language learning/teaching materials. I can imagine some grand fun digging around in archives. Since this project is just getting started, we’ll hopefully get to learn more in coming years.


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