Finnegans Wake
James Joyce

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Linguistic Influences in Finnegans Wake

With the total number of uses of each language calculated, it is obvious that Joyce’s linguistic use was influenced by where in Europe the author had lived. We can see many of the major languages used in Finnegans Wake reflected in James Joyce’s four long-term hometowns throughout his life: Dublin (Irish Gaelic, Anglo-Irish), Paris (French), Zurich (German, with flourishes of Switzerland’s native Swiss German and Romansh), and Trieste (Italian, Serbo-Croatian). These are the languages Joyce had been working in and living under every day, it spills over into his work. Use of related languages in the Romance and Slavic families spoken in places where the author had spent little or no time usually drops off considerably, explaining the low occurrence of languages such as Spanish or Russian.

However, there are some anomalies. Across the board, many members of the Germanic family have high occurrences in the text, even when languages spoken in regions with no documented time spent by Joyce. Words with Danish or Dutch origins arise quite often in the first chapter, though Joyce did not spend time in Denmark or in the Netherlands. Further elaboration finds that Joyce did not view Danish, Swedish, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and Norwegian as separate languages; in his original note on the languages of Finnegans Wake, “Norwegian” is the only North Germanic listing. Indeed, when the North Germanic languages are compiled together, they become the 5th most used foreign language in the first chapter.

Latin and Greek also have a major presence within Finnegans Wake. As literary and intellectual staples of Western literature, it is not surprising that these languages were used in detail by the learned Joyce. Indeed, Joyce’s education is a detail along with Joyce’s travels that helps to ultimately explain the overall turnout of language use within Finnegans Wake. All languages with about 20 or more occurrences within the book can be attributed to either his time living within their areas (in the case of languages such as French, Irish Gaelic, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian), or his schooling, in which he would learn the aforementioned literary traditions of Greek and Latin in addition to Hebrew and the romantic notions of Germanic prose (where English, German, Dutch, and “Norwegian” are the principal contributors).


Within the actual texts, Joyce’s use of language can be chaotic and random in selection, but seems to follow general rules of application. Oftentimes, large chunks of text will be devoted to wordplay within one foreign language, with the exception of occasional puns to keep the reader on their toes. This single language selected for a section will usually relate, at least on some level, to the topic currently being discussed. Such is the case when Spanish and Portuguese are employed to speak of Wellington’s battles against Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula, or when Hebrew becomes the dominant language during a brief summary of ancient history at the end of the chapter.

Joyce also uses phrases as a medium for his wordplay. In addition to phrases straight and uncorrupted from other languages within the text (usually from Latin), oftentimes, words of different languages will be strung together to create a phrase in a language that resembles none of the constituents. This is done in two separate manners. Firstly, his spellings are frequently, but not constantly, mutated so that when read aloud, the new phrase can be heard (Such as when “Fieldgaze thy tiny frow” becomes the German “Wie geht’s deiner Frau?” or “How’s your wife?”). In other occasions, the meanings of each word within a phrase can be connected to create a translated version of a phrase within another language (i.e. when the Italian-based (“Dalaveras fimmieras” becomes the English and German (“deliver us forever”). “Order through chaos” seems to be the manifesto of James Joyce throughout his writing of Finnegans Wake.