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Queen Victoria and the German language

Victoria and her mother | Young Queen Victoria
© Henry Bone (1842) | Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1824)

Although English was the predominant language, German was spoken with various members of the family – it was by no means an uncommon language at Buckingham Palace in the late nineteenth century.

Queen Victoria’s mother was originally from Germany, so Victoria spoke only German for the first three years of her life. Furthermore, she was raised by the German baroness Louise Lehzen and also received private German tuition during her school years. The catalogue of her private library records a whole host of books in German from her younger years. As a result of her political standing, Queen Victoria later spoke primarily English, though she also spoke fluent French, as well as some Italian and Latin. Although Victoria spoke English fluently, she nonetheless had a German accent, so two tutors were engaged to help her get rid of it. Since Victoria hardly ever spoke German outside her German lessons from the age of three until she met Albert, she was not accustomed to using the language and expressing herself in German in her everyday life. Initially, she found German to be difficult and complicated. Her experiences of speaking German will sound familiar to many learners of foreign languages.

07.06.1837

I like Gustav very much; he is very mild and quiet. As he speaks French very badly and English not at all, I kept up the whole conversation in German, which was wonderful for me, as I have never talked it hardly to anybody, much less kept up a long conversation, except with M.Barez; it went really much better than I expected, though I have no doubt I said many stupid and odd things.”

She quickly developed a liking for the language as a result of her relationship with Albert, however. Furthermore, through her relatives Victoria was exposed to various German dialects and variants, including for example Austrian:

20.03.1836

I sat between my dear Cousins. Little Ready came to breakfast. We had a very merry breakfast. Both Cousins speak Austrian German which is very singular & funny.”

Queen Victoria spoke German almost all of the time with her husband Prince Albert, even when the latter’s English became increasingly proficient. As Victoria’s mother felt that English was more politically appropriate, Victoria and she later spoke only English together. All nine of Victoria and Albert’s children received tuition in German, with the result that they were able to speak the language fluently; German was also spoken within the family. A large number of children’s books in German were acquired for them. The diaries of Queen Victoria and other members of the family were digitized and published in 2012. This is how we know that Princess Beatrice and indeed Queen Victoria made their diary entries in English rather than in German. Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter Victoria (“Vicky”) wrote to one another almost daily for 43 years; comprising nearly 8,000 letters, their correspondence was conducted not in German but chiefly in English.
 

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