I have heard it said that Finnegans Wake is a great work, and my impression is that every sentence has one or two words being a pun of an English word and at least one valid word of another language. What are the chief languages which those foreign words are mostly in? I know there are commentary books, but maybe it is best to know a little bit of those languages.

For example, if foreign words are mostly in German and French, then I may first need to have a basic understanding of both languages before I read Finnegans Wake, or at least know I am better suited to read it if I know both languages. It sounds too demanding to study the whole book, but likely I will examine an excerpt of it just to have a taste of it.


2 Answers 2


For example, if foreign words are mostly in German and French

No, the foreign words, when there are foreign words, are in all sorts of languages; learning one language won't help. By all means, learn a foreign language for the sake of learning a foreign language. But you don't need to learn a foreign language to read Finnegans Wake. Personally, I've been able to get by with just English and the footnotes (to clarify: Finnegans Wake doesn't have explanatory footnotes, you have to read along with a companion book if you want those).

Here's some general advice for getting the most out of Finnegans Wake, based on my experience:

  1. If you're only going to read part of the book, Chapter 8 is probably the best place to start.

  2. You can read it online, but you'll probably get more out of Finnegans Wake if you read it aloud from a print copy. The real meaning of Finnegans Wake comes from the sound of the words, and you won't get that looking at letters on a computer screen.

  3. If you don't get anything out of reading Finnegans Wake, don't be afraid to stop. Read it if you enjoy it, don't read it if you're only interested because it's a "hard" book.

  4. People might make fun of me for saying this, but I personally enjoy reading about Finnegans Wake more than I enjoy reading Finnegans Wake itself. Some of the academic papers/books are really, really interesting, even if you don't read a word of the actual book. There are also some really interesting blogs (1,2) out there.

  • Is Item 1 meant satirical or not, are you saying academics takes FW too seriously than it deserves (?) [I myself intend no offense, just cannot tell for sure from your tone] Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 15:32
  • 1
    @Aminopterin not being satirical. I got into reading Finnegans Wake because I started reading a Finnegans Wake blog.
    – user111
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 15:35

I found some quotes from Wikipedia about how to read it. They seem to suggest that you should appreciate the rhythm more than anything.

Eugene Jolas said:

Those who have heard Mr. Joyce read aloud from Work in Progress know the immense rhythmic beauty of his technique. It has a musical flow that flatters the ear, that has the organic structure of works of nature, that transmits painstakingly every vowel and consonant formed by his ear.

Patrick Watson said that the puns are best read by sound.

Those people who say the book is unreadable have not tried reading it aloud. This is the secret. If you even mouth the words silently, suddenly what seemed incomprehensible (Hubert Butler called it "Joyce's learned gibberish,") leaps into referential meaning, by its sound, since page after page is rich in allusion to familiar phrases, parables, sayings of all kinds – and the joyous and totally brilliant wordplay, over and over again imperceivable until you actually listen to it – transforms what was an unrelievable agony into an adventure.

Considering the article also states that the work involves over 60 languages

Joyce invented a unique polyglot-language or idioglossia solely for the purpose of this work. This language is composed of composite words from some sixty to seventy world languages

I would say just stick to English and read it out loud.

All bold marks are mine.

  • 1
    Who are Eugene Jolas and Patrick Watson, and should they be considered authoritative sources?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 23:06
  • Does it help to read it in an Irish accent (or at least, your best impression thereof)?
    – gidds
    Commented Apr 13 at 21:56

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