Anaïs Nin Myth of the Day #4

Myth #4: Anaïs Nin was fluent in three languages: French, Spanish, and English.

Fact: When Anaïs Nin’s father, Joaquín Nin, abandoned his family in Arachon, France, in 1913, she, her mother and her two younger brothers went to Barcelona and stayed with Joaquín’s parents. During the year or so they spent in Spain, Anaïs learned her Spanish. When the fatherless family arrived in New York in 1914, French was the spoken language at home. Although Anaïs’s mother, Rosa, was fluent in English (as well as Spanish and French), she had determined the family’s “mother tongue” was French. Her philosophy was that since her children would learn English soon enough in school and in their social interactions, and that Spanish would be spoken with their Cuban relatives, the only way to keep the French alive was to speak it exclusively at home. When Anaïs began her diary on the trip to America, it was in French.

Although her English was improving over the next few years, Nin continued her diary writing in French, partly because she longed to retain her identity, and partly because she intended the diary as a long “letter” to her estranged father, who did not know English. As her English grew, her French withered. Her father chastised her for her misuse of words and accent marks, leading Anaïs to close one of her letters with all the accent marks at the end: “Put them where they belong,” she told him. Sometimes Anaïs would transcribe letters to English-speaking friends into her diary, and it was clear that she was better able to express herself with English. She began reading the English-language classics, and by 1920 had switched her diary to English. Her English was by far a better vehicle for her self-expression, but was still a work-in-progress, and would be for years to come.

As Anaïs began to attempt to write fiction in English after returning to Paris in 1925, her young husband, Hugh Guiler, in the name of helping her, criticized her incorrect (as he saw it) use of words, or the use of words that were considered archaic or odd. Later on, Henry Miller would do much the same (see Myth #2).

Consider this passage Miller corrects from “Djuna” in The Winter of Artifice (sometime in the mid-1930s):

“Are you afriad to forget your name and who you are, and where you live? Have you not played with the idea of amnesia, which only meens a somanabulistic condition of the ideal self. The conscince goes to sleep and then the critical self too, and you can walk the streets and act as you please without calms.”

Miller blasts her misspellings, and when he criticizes her use of “calms” for “qualms” he says: “Look it up!!!” He adds: “Bad sentence structure” and “Watch all your ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ etc. Weakly used!” (See Benjamin Franklin V’s introduction to The Winter of Artifice: a facsimile of the original 1939 Paris edition.)

At times, Nin felt hopeless—she had Guiler and Miller criticizing her English, and she admitted to Miller that writing in French to her father was “like trying to create a river with twigs” (see “Prelude to a Symphony: letters between a father and daughter,” A Café in Space, Vol. 6). Her Spanish at this time was almost non-existent…her father occasionally wrote to her in Spanish, but Anaïs did not respond in kind.

As Nin developed artistically through these trials by fire, her writing became stronger, more economic, and possessed an exotically distinct quality. It is often described as “English written in the French style.” There is no question that Anaïs Nin became one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, and to this day one of the most oft-quoted…but during the transitions between her three languages, arguably caused by her constant resettling, she was fluent in none of them.

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  1. Anais’s Spanish improved while she was growing up since she spoke it with her Cuban relatives in New York. By 1917, she spoke it well enough to actually give lessons to a woman for $1.50 a week, according to her childhood diary. In 1919, she mentions the great care she took in speaking Spanish and only was embarrassed when talking to an early flame, Enric. Later that same year, she said in her diary: “Today I made a pleasant discovery. I didn’t make a single mistake in the long letter I wrote to Emilia in Spanish. I am very sure of myself in English, so it’s only my French that isn’t good. But I wouldn’t give up studying it on my own and using it in the only thing I write–my diary–for anything in the world.” But less than a year later, she did give it up and began writing her diary in English.

  2. What language did she prefer to write or was published in? Are her quotes that are most widely published, translated from French? I would like to begin collecting her works but only in the language that she preffered to write in.

  3. James, after Nin began using written English in 1920, she never went back to French. The only exceptions were necessities, such as writing to her father and others who didn’t know English. Other than a few French or Spanish phrases thrown into her diaries and novels, all of her published work written after 1920 is originally English. So, then, her quotations are from the English unless they come from ‘Linotte’ (the diaries from 1914-1920 translated to English) or the ‘Journaux d’Enfance’ (the same diaries in French). If your or anyone else knows of any exceptions, I’d be grateful to hear about it.

  4. The mother tongue of her father, Joaquím Nin, was catalan, not spanish. When she lived in Barcelona, in her father parents home, the language spoken there, was catalan. Her grandfather, Joaquím Nin i Tudó was a famous catalan writer. Catalan is the language typical in Catalonia and of course, in its capital, Barcelona.
    Her brother, Joaquím Nin-Culmell, a very famous pianist and composer, always declared his own catalan condition, until the moment of his death. He spoke catalan. Lived between Berkeley (CA) and Barcelona. An important part of his work is about catalan folcloric music. His relation with Anaïs was always intense and deep.

    Would it be possible that Anaïs Nin had like mother tongue french and catalan?
    Would it be possible that has a confusion between the conceps “spanish” and “catalan”?

    By the way, the name of that early flame of Anaïs mentioned, “Enric”, is the catalan name for “Richard”. In spanish would be “Enrique”.

    A thousand pardons for my disastrous english.

  5. Joaquin Nin, as far as I know (I’ve seen a large collection of his correspondence with Anais), wrote in one of two languages: French (primarily) and Spanish (not as often), never Catalan (or English, which he didn’t speak). Anais spoke Spanish fluently but rarely wrote it, as she did French and English. All her letters I’ve seen to her father were in French. Joaquin Nin-Culmell told me that after the family (minus the father) moved to America, French was the mother tongue in the household–they all spoke Spanish to their Cuban relatives, and they all spoke English to their neighbors, etc., but the mother wanted them to hang onto their French. Nowhere have I found any evidence that Catalan was spoken or written amongst the family members, but then again, that doesn’t mean that it definitely wasn’t.

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