Napoleon’s first language was Corsican, an Italian dialect.
Later on, he learned French. And being an overachiever, he also made some progress with Latin and English.
Napoleon’s first language: Italian-ish
Napoleon’s first language was an Italian dialect called Corsican. He simply called his language ‘Italian.’ The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. (Photo: Soerfm/Wikimedia/CCBYSA4.0)
Napoleon’s first language was Corsican, an Italian dialect.
And that is the only language Napoleon spoke until he was nine years old.
It is hardly surprising since the future emperor was born and raised in Corsica, a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea.
And most of the people there, at the time, spoke Corsican as their first language. Including Napoleon’s relatives.
When Napoleon was already emperor of the French, he still used Corsican to speak to his mother Letizia. That is because Letizia spoke French poorly.
Want proof that Corsican was Napoleon’s first language? Here are two quotes from his friends:
Why did Corsicans speak an Italian dialect?
Corsica was an Italian colony for 800 years. Pictured Napoleon’s hometown Ajaccio, a city in Corsica. (Photo: bh-fotografie/Flickr/CCBYND2.0)
Corsica had been an Italian colony for 800 years. It first belonged to the Pisans, then to the Genoese.
Naturally, the conquerors brought their Italian dialects to the island.
So, in time, the Corsicans began speaking their own version of Italian: Corsican.
Read more: Was Napoleon French or Italian?
Did Napoleon also speak standard Italian?
Napoleon did not speak standard Italian, only Corsican. Here, Napoleon (in red) is shown as a Roman god or Roman emperor. Allegory of Napoleon as the liberator of Italy by Francesco Alberi, c. 1800. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)
No. Napoleon only spoke Corsican.
Back then, each region of Italy had its own dialect. Only the elites learned standard Italian on top of their dialects.
Now we respectfully call these regional variations ‘dialects,’ but in Napoleon’s time, most people considered them ‘impure’ Italian. Only the speech from the region of Tuscany was considered pure, the standard.
So Corsican was seen as impure Italian. Corsicans themselves called their language simply ‘Italian.’ And this is the language that Napoleon spoke.
But Napoleon did not. His older relatives were born when Corsica was an Italian colony, so they studied in mainland Italy. But Napoleon was born when Corsica belonged to the French, so he was sent to study to mainland France. Therefore, he did not learn standard Italian but French.
In the last years of his life, in St. Helena, Napoleon himself said he did not speak standard Italian aka Tuscan:
“Though I speak Italian very fluently [Corsican], it is not pure. Non parlo Toscano [I do not speak Tuscan], nor am I capable of writing a book in Italian…“
Only standard Italian (aka Tuscan) was used for writing. Writing in a dialect like Corsican was a big no-no, it came across as unrefined writing.
The lady-in-waiting of Napoleon’s first wife, also mentions his Italian was not the standard variety. She wrote:
“Spoken by him [Napoleon], Italian loses all its grace and sweetness. Whatever language he speaks, it seems always to be a foreign tongue to him…”
Corsican and Tuscan are very similar. The lady-in-waiting spoke Tuscan, so it was easy for her to understand him. But she did noticed the differences in pronunciation and grammar, which she perceived as ‘bad’ Italian.
Napoleon’s second language: French
Napoleon learned French when he was 9. Emperor Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1807. (Photo: Harvard Art Museums/Wikimedia/CC0)
Napoleon spent his childhood roaming around his island and speaking only Corsican.
But when he was nine, his parents shipped him to France to study. Napoleon had to learn French ASAP to survive in his new environment.
As seen above, his schoolmate and friend Bourrienne wrote:
“When he first came to the school [at Brienne], he spoke only the Corsican dialect… and Mr. Dupuis… gave him instructions in the French language. In this, he made such rapid progress…”
“As I still spoke French badly, and found it hard to accustom myself to a completely different mode of living…”
But nine-year-old Napoleon soon learned the language.
As an adult, Napoleon lived mostly in France, thus French became his main language.
How good was Napoleon’s French?
Napoleon spoke French fluently but made mistakes here and there. These flashy individuals are Napoleon’s parents, Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. Carlo learned French after the French invaded Corsica and mastered the language. Letizia, on the other hand, always spoke French poorly.
Well, there was room for improvement.
Adult Napoleon spoke French fluently and eloquently. But his French was not flawless.
People that spoke with him said the emperor made grammatical mistakes.
He also mixed up words and made-up words, mainly by trying to pass off Italian terms as French.
And Josephine’s lady-in-waiting wrote about his French:
“I have said that he [Napoleon] spoke [French] badly, but his language was generally animated and brilliant; his grammatical inaccuracies sometimes lent his sentences an unexpected strength, very suitable to the originality of his ideas.”
Napoleon never mastered French spelling, either. To give one example, he would write ‘otorize’ instead of ‘autorise.’
Many Frenchmen also complained about their emperor’s foreign accent.
His minister of the interior, Jean-Antoine Chaptal, wrote:
“When he spoke French, one could easily see he was a foreigner.”
“A foreign accent, unpleasant to the ear.”
Did Napoleon prefer Italian or French?
Some people said Napoleon preferred Italian, but Napoleon dismissed this idea. Napoleon at the Palais-Royal by MJ Blondel, 1834. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)
Some people said Napoleon preferred to speak in Italian (Corsican).
For example, an English official that visited the ex-emperor during his exile in St. Helena wrote:
“He is more fond of speaking Italian (which is his native language) than French…”
But Napoleon dismissed the claims that he was fonder of Italian or better at it.
And according to one witness, Napoleon did speak Italian fluently. But the witness also states that Napoleon would switch to French if he got too animated during a conversation or if he was “at a loss of word.” After all, he had spent many years living in France.
All in all, it would seem that Napoleon felt comfortable in both languages and that he could speak eloquently in both.
Did Napoleon know any other languages?
Napoleon only spoke Corsican and French fluidly. But he could read Latin and English. This is a letter he wrote in 1816 to practice his English. It has a few mistakes, but hey! he was still learning.
Yes. Napoleon could also read English and probably Latin.
English was a different story. Napoleon had been curious about the language for a while. And when he was in exile on the British island of St. Helena, he decided to learn it.
So Napoleon knew four languages. He spoke Corsican and French fluently; and Latin and English, he could understand.
Not quite the polyglot but not too shabby, either.