James Bond has a licence to kill, though he is no butcher of foreign languages. But which languages exactly does James Bond speak?
By Alex Bragan
“Vous me pardonnerez j’espère mais le devoire m’appelle. Merci.” It was with this sleek turn of the tongue in the 1962 classic ‘Dr No.’ that moviegoers the world over were introduced to James Bond. Sat casually at a casino table in Monte Carlo, Bond excuses himself from a game of Chemin-de-fer in oh-so-cool 007 fashion, his broguish French lingering in the air with such gravitas that it must have overpowered even the thick cigarette smoke. Bond, portrayed there by Sean Connery, is of course an agent of Britain’s MI6. French is not his native tongue. As an international man of mystery, however, it is insinuated that Bond is something of a hyperpolyglot (someone who can speak, well, a LOT of languages). While his official dossier only lists him as fluent in French and German, across the 24-film corpus it is suggested that James is at least conversational in Russian, Danish, and unnamed “Oriental languages”, if we are to take his firsts from Cambridge University seriously.
Why does he speak so many languages and how realistic is it for Bond to be portrayed as a master linguist? Is this true to life or is it just another embellishment meant to add depth to a character on the big screen?
Bond was loosely based on the experiences of his creator, Sir Ian Fleming. (Curiously, the story goes that he named his infamous spy after a prominent ornithologist.) Fleming served as a British naval intelligence officer during WWII and had a strong command of French, German and Russian. This was crucial for the breaking and deciphering of coded messages as well as for communicating with allied counterparts. Aside from being impressive to the ladies, Fleming would have known that Bond’s linguistic abilities would serve a highly practical purpose. Jetting across the globe, he often employs the use of foriegn languages to investigate targets and leverage his position. In ‘Casino Royale’, the first Bond novel, the agent must face off against a mysterious villain who is variously referred to as Le Chiffre, Herr Ziffer, or The Cipher. This mirrors his own trilingualism and, throughout the novel, Bond and Le Chiffre trade verbal jabs in French, English, and German. The site of their showdown is a high-stakes poker game, a contest that demands of its players the ability to perceive the slightest nuances of both verbal and physical communication. Unsurprisingly, it is Bond’s effortless multilingualism that ultimately allows him to prevail.
Anyone who has spent serious time learning a foreign language will recognise just how gargantuan of an undertaking mastering upwards of four tongues is. Yet, as with everything else he does, Bond seems to switch between his learned languages with the utmost of ease. Is it yet another of his preternatural abilities? Unfortunately, the James Bond canon is rather inconclusive on this matter. Incongruence between the novels and the films has created a murky swamp of contradictory facts and anecdotes but many Bond purists prefer to consider the original texts gospel. It was clearly indicated in ‘Casino Royale’ that Bond is fluent in French and German. Surprisingly, it is possible that these are both something of native tongues for the spy. His mother, Monique Delacroix Bond, was French-Swiss (both French and German are official languages in Switzerland). Unfortunately for our investigation, it is never firmly established if Bond spoke these growing up or learned them after the fact. Also in ‘Casino Royale’, we are informed that he has a working knowledge of the Russian language. This is corroborated by a scene in the 1999 film ‘The World Is Not Enough’ in which he is shown speaking Russian. The only other concrete evidence of language learning is the mention of his studies of Oriental languages during his time at Cambridge which came in 1967’s ‘You Only Live Once’.
From there things start to get a bit… cinematic. The James Bond Fandom Wiki page states that, “Bond is skilled with languages, and speaks fluently without accent in Italian, French and German, and speaks, reads and writes a passable Greek, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese.” The assertion that Bond can speak these other languages is based upon sparse evidence from the films and woe be unto us should we divert from the holy Bond gospel. On the other hand, Hollywood always takes creative license and it is pragmatic that Bond be able to speak a language necessary to the plot of a film. He does speak Italian in ‘Spectre’ though it’s unclear where the evidence that he is fluent comes from. My hunch is that it is again related to the Swiss heritage, as Italian is Switzerland’s third official language. As for speaking Greek, it appears to stem from the fact that Greece features as a location in the 1981 ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Bond briefly speaks Spanish in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese are of course “Oriental” languages . Perhaps it is not the most airtight lore but at least it does not test the limits of belief.
It makes for riveting cinema but would any real spy be expected to have the ability to spontaneously switch between three or more languages? While the exact information pertaining to MI6 field agents is not readily available the expectations of a so-called “Language Specialist” are listed on the agency’s website. They only specify that applicants need to have some sort of formal language qualification and have spent some time in their region of interest. The languages MI6 lists as top priorities include Russian, Arabic and Mandarin. (Come to think of it, any 21st century Bond character would almost certainly speak Arabic.)
In 1997’s ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, Moneypenny refers to James as a “cunning linguist,” a clever double entendre that encapsulates his use of language quite nicely. Bond is a character pulsing with libidinal energy. Women are meant to see themselves with him, men are meant to see themselves as him. In both cases he is an object of desire. Let’s face it: speaking a foreign language is sexy. Language is the fundamental form of human expression, the only way in which our inner feelings can be brought forth into the world.
The fact that Bond is capable of such a broad panoply of expression only furthers the mystery of his character. Who is this man so lithely able to bring himself into the semantic fold of seemingly any situation? The audience is seduced, perhaps by the things he says or perhaps by the enigma that lies behind the things he doesn’t. It is but another reason why James Bond stands as one of film’s most venerated icons.