Egyptian mysteries

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Sadly only one of these cards was posted, though the ‘Etla barra’ card has a laconic message on the back – ‘A request, or a demand’. ‘Come to the Caracol’ was sent On Active Service on 9 November 1916 from Algy to Miss Clare Colley in Pembroke, with a familiar impatient message asking for a letter. Neither Fraser and Gibbons, Brophy and Partridge, nor anyone else I can lay my hands on can help with what the Caracol was – any thoughts anyone? Obviously not an appealing destination for young people; though noting the relative sizes of the characters, they may not be young so much as of lower status. A semiotic coding of status by size was fairly common in British cartoons and comics at this time.


Garland Cannon and Alan S Kaye in  The Arabic Contributions to the English Language: An Historical Dictionary (1994) note how in The Island of Dr Fu Manchu two British characters use the phrase ‘Etla bárra! Gehánumm!’ as a shibboleth to make their way past people who would recognise, but not understand, Arabic. Quest Arabiya, a tv channel broadcasting in Arabic, has a ‘new adventure show’ called “Etla Barra”. Can any Arabic speakers help out here?


The intrusive H

It is a truism that sergeant-majors on parade when calling troops to attention say anything but ‘Attention’: the varieties generally are ‘ten-shun’, ‘shun’, or more interestingly ‘hattention’. Why the intrusive ‘h’, and how does it connect to other intrusive ‘h’ usages?


Barbara Fennell (A History of the English Language, Blackwell, 2001) gives a useful survey of /h/-loss in the Middle English period and later; it began to disappear between 1300 and 1600, ‘hlaford’ becoming ‘lord’, and ‘hlafdige’ becoming ‘lady’, and was probably a middle-class unstigmatised speech change. However, by the eighteenth century ‘h’-loss was a sign of vulgar speech, and a phenomenon which excited some comment. John Walker in 1791 reserved particular disapprobation for the people of London who sank their ‘h’s; by this time a clear class distinction had been associated to the usage, so much so that middle-class speakers strove to avoid it. This would certainly explain the class-aware intrusive ‘h’ in sentences such as /Hay thank you/, characterised as posh English used by the socially aspiring, a mid-twentieth century phenomenon now more or less obsolete.


Early-twentieth century music-hall comperes and mid-twentieth century bus conductors were also characterised as using intrusive ‘h’s at the beginning of sentences, most likely intended for emphasis in noisy environments; in both cases there may have been an ironic self-aware class-identification, a ‘listen to me’ aspect to the deliberate pronunciation with social class aspirations, pitching the speaker as having some authority, which would link to the sergeant-major on parade. All three, bus-conductor, music hall chairman, and sergeant-major, would often have been near the edges of the social class Walker eyes, ‘the people of London [who have the habit of] sinking the at the beginning of words where it ought to be sounded and of sounding it, either where it is not seen, or where it ought to be sunk. Thus we not infrequently hear, especially among children, heart pronounced art, and arm, harm.’ Walker’s influence on ideas of acceptable pronunciation was strong throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth; certainly ‘h’-loss was stigmatised until fairly recently, and still characterised as typical of London or estuary accents. The compensatory class associations of ‘Ha-ten-shun’ remain complex.

John Walker, A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, 1791


Today we look at the use of the word ‘pidgin’ in First World War memoirs written during the conflict.


‘Pidgin’ has long been used in two ways, to describe an untutored form of a given language, and more usefully to describe a language used between distinct language-speakers, often based on one of their languages, with adaptations and major losses or simplifications of inflexions (word-endings) or verb case forms. It derives from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word ‘business’, a strong indicator of its social origin and value. Thus you can have ‘Pidgin’ (for the Chinese-English based pidgin), ‘a pidgin’ (derived from any given two or more languages), or specific varieties such as ‘Pidgin-English’, describing a pidgin in which the main derivative language is English, ‘Pidgin-French’, and so on. The OED defines ‘pidgin’ as ‘a language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language’. The key point of this definition is that it is not a parody of a language, though that may often be a usage for the terms ‘pidgin-English’ or ‘pidgin-French’ – and often these terms debase the language and usually one of the speakers. A ‘creole’, by the way, is a language that develops from a pidgin, with its own grammar and syntax developing independently.


The first view given above of what a pidgin is can be seen in throw-away usages, such as that of J H Morgan in Gentleman at Arms (1918); here he is speaking of a sailor with a strong East Anglian accent: ‘I noticed that he used none of that truculent pidgin English which by a curious literary convention so many longshoremen of letters put into the mouth of those who go down to the sea in ships.’ Here ‘pidgin’ appears to mean ‘non-standard’. The origin of the term in ‘business’ is seen in the now less frequently used application of the word  to describe a concern or area of interest, the spelling deriving from the original use of ‘pidgin’ as ‘business’; the OED defines this usage as ‘a person’s concern, responsibility, or area of interest or expertise’. Thus in At the War (1916) by Lord Northcliffe ‘Spain is, from the German point of view, distinctly Germany’s “pidgin.”’


Neville Hilditch was aware of how pidgin operated as a specific language in colonial circumstances: ‘None of the natives, it is note-worthy, spoke German, even in Cameroon, but pidgin-English instead.’ (from Battle Sketches 1914-15, 1915). Previous colonial experience might be indicated in a writer’s awareness of the origin of Pidgin: in Sixteen Months in Four German Prisons (1917), Henry Mahoney wrote ‘The absence of the officers was explained a little later. They had been searching for an interpreter, so that I might be put through another inquisition. This interpreter was about the most incompetent of his class that one could wish to meet. His English was execrable – far worse than Chinese pidgin – and he had an unhappy and disconcerting manner of intermingling German and English words …’


However, this kind of awareness of pidgin’s use as a language in the colonial situation is often tinged with indications of the essentially patronising view of colonised peoples: when the AIF took over Neu Pommern (New Pomerania, now New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea) on 11 September 1914 the change of government was signified by a proclamation, reported in The Illustrated War News 30 December 1914 – ‘The proclamation was read by Major Francis Heritage … For the benefit of the natives an address was given in amusing “pidgin” English.’


Ivan Rossiter of the 1st& 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles saw how pidgin works, developing into a language with its own exclusivities: ‘It will be surprising after the war the number of prison soldiers who will be able to converse at least in French, and who will know something of German or Russian or both. A new “language” has been born of this war, in the German prison camps, and is a medium of conversation between the different nationalities, being made up of German, Russian, French and English, resembling somewhat pidgin-English. It serves the purpose admirably, although it would be impossible for any one but a prisoner in a German camp to understand it.’  In Kultured Kaptivity – Life and Death in Germany’s Prison Camps and Hospitals, Ivan Rossiter (1918).


Often the term is used to describe an attempt to create an intelligible statement, often in stressed circumstances, by reaching for words from any suitable language. When Wallace Ellison escaped from a German prison camp and knocked on the door of some Dutch-speakers he was immediately taken inside. ‘I told him in a sort of pidgin-German-English that I was an Englishman who had just escaped from Germany’. Escaped! Adventures in German Captivity (1918). Similarly, L W Crouch describes one of his colleagues:  ‘Our servants are very amusing here. There is a chubby and cheery daughter at this farm, about eighteen years old. Coy is awfully funny with her, talking pidgin French.’ (Duty and Service, Letters from the Front (1917). And Alan Bott, in Eastern Nights – and Flights, a Record of Oriental Adventure (1919): ‘I produced ten more banknotes, each of one Turkish pound. Again using pidgin-Turkish, with many an expressive gesture, I offered them to the guards.’ And John Reed, in The War in Eastern Europe (1916): ‘One spoke English, another harsh maritime French, a third Neapolitan, a fourth Levantine Spanish, and still another pidgin-German; all knew Greek, and the strange patois of the Mediterranean sailor.’


How do we assess these uses of the term? Given that in these circumstances they indicate that the usually monolingual speaker spoke poor French or poor German, are they describing the ‘business’ of escape or stressed negotiation? Is there an underlying sense of racial hierarchy in the implication of ‘non-standard’, ‘good enough to get by’ and ‘no need to try harder to learn the language of other people’? Or is ‘pidgin’ a real-life semantic shift to describe in extreme circumstances what in more leisured environments would be lingua franca?








Refugee Love

In 1920 a popular novel was published in Antwerp, Refugeeliefde. Een volksroman uit het leven der Belgische Vluchtelingen in Engeland (‘Refugee love. A romance from the lives of the Belgian Refugees in England’). The author, Paul Van Opstal, used an alias and was in fact Floris Prims (1882-1954), who became the main archivist of the port city of Antwerp in 1925. Prior tot he war he was deeply involved in the development of christian socialism (along with friar Rutten for instance). During the war, he had become one of the most prominent proponents of the Catholic Belgian community in exile, along with Mgr. Dewachter and fellow priests or canons such as Rutten, Michiels, Ingelbeen and Callewaert. Prims had been close to Catholic circles around the figure of Mgr. De Wachter – who was the head of the Belgian Catholic community in exile – and Frans Van Cauwelaert, the mayor of Antwerp. Van Cauwelaert established the first Dutch newspaper in Flanders right before the war, but this appeared only after the war. An important financial backer of that newspaper was Dr. Alfons Van de Perre, who was the main funder of a Dutch newspaper for Belgian refugees, produced, printed and distributed in Britain, the Stem Uit België (‘the voice from Belgium’), a weekly (more or less) that initially appeared in two languages (as in: a mixture of, not in parallel). Floris Prims was its editor-in-chief. The editorial offices of the Stem Uit België -mostly on Russell Square, London – became a hub for finding one another in a strange land (a temporary lodging place even), for financial transactions and for booklets and leaflets alike.



Floris Prims


The above description of a network that found a temporary translation in exile in Britain is the setting in which the tireless Prims managed to write and publish a serial, called Refugeeliefde. Its serial publication is a bit of an enigma as the first real episode, in the issue of 17 January 1917, was chapter five already. The main language of Refugeeliefde was Dutch, in both varieties. The dialogue was mostly mimicking a more regional dialect, whereas the narrative attempted to be more proper Dutch. The first episode contained the sentence “Nurse, somebody is asking for you downstairs” which appeared to be a trick by a Belgian who pretended to be British. The English utterance is part of the overall plot there. The seventh instalment slightly moves away from that device of including an English sentence and Prims slowly moves to code switching at a smaller level: “Chère Hélène, Dommage dat ge gisteren niet hier waart! De bijoux zijn teruggevonden”, “entre paranthèse” and “ineens werd ze gewaar que la fixais”. Latin was used to denote the gravity of a situation, such as the last rites: “Domine, non sum dignus…”. If Prims found his voice by mixing French into the Dutch/Flemish, it as only going to be a matter of time before he would start building dialogue on English snippets. On 16 February 1917 this next level happened: “Moi ici, if you please, moi malade, if you please, tout est rempli. If you please… Doe maar open…”, a first occurrence of both languages of the community in exile and the host community. Despite the war dragging on and Belgian refugees no longer being the heroes they were in 1914, Prims still tied in the English hosts with their ‘hourrah’ feeling when they spotted a Belgian. Whether this perception triggered his next action is a bit uncertain, but he printed a request alongside the episode, seeking inspiration from stories by refugees themselves. The subsequent issue of the Stem Uit België printed the conclusion of the episode. With the next chapter of the serial appearing 23 February, ‘verpleegsters’ turned into ‘nursen’, an amalgamation of the English plural word and the Dutch plural ending. Another English bit of dialogue appeared ‘Next, please’. Peculiarly the story now had a translator running around, but one who never actually showed any work being done as all he relayed to his fellow refugees was printed in Dutch already. An element from daily refugee life for sure, but not fairly presented. Increasingly double code switching was included (‘de tea party par Mrs Dining’) or outright borrowing, either with quotation marks (een nieuwe “bracelet esclave”) or without (‘terug komend van den Registrar’). Latin was presented in conjunction with the main stages of Catholic patrimony (birth, confirmation, marriage, death): ‘Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium’.


The episode of 1 March 1917 concluded with an announcement that the “Bracelet Esclave” would become a serial in its own right from the subsequent week. Refugeeliefde itself continued well for another year (1 March 1918), and eventually got published in Belgium in 1920. “Bracelet Esclave” did not start until a fortnight after that, packed with code switching, much more so than its predecessor. Most of it being English. The friction along the linguistic divide that also ran through the Belgian community in exile in Britain (Flemish vs. Walloon) was omitted, instead focus lay with the language of the host community, like Dutch a Germanic language as well.


Doughboys and Sammies

Jonathon Green, ever generous in passing on information relevant to this project, alerts us to a column by Damon Runyon in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 25 July 1917, concerning the origin and validity of the various nicknames given to American soldiers in the First World War These included ‘Sammies’, ‘Doughboys’, and ‘Teddies’, the last deriving from Theodore Roosevelt. Runyon’s historical perspective points out that in 1898, when the US was engaged in a colonial war against Spain, one name used was ‘Jonny Green’, though he did not know why; ‘the fact that the average reader probably never heard of the title as applied to our soldiers shows how successful was the attempt, yet it was frequently used in many newspapers for a spell’, a trope that applied equally during the First World War. The newspapers themselves were certainly aware of what was happening: the Scottish Daily Record for 12 June 1917 carried a syndicated story that stated ‘Our own troops arebound give their Transatlantic colleagues a nickname; but whether the one suggested will meet with their approval remains to seen.’ Other syndicated articles around the time reckoned that ‘it was generally agreed that the old name of the Regular infantryman, Doughboy, would fail to carry any conviction’. The journalists were said to be ‘casting around’ for a name, and ‘Sammy’, presumably from Uncle Sam, was their choice.‘Sammy’ is described by Runyon as a name that ‘evolved after profound thought’, noting that names that tend to stick are ‘extemporaneous’ – Runyon himself in The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown (1933), the basis of Guys and Dolls had some good ones: ‘The Sky’ (later Sky Masterson), Brandy Bottle Bates, Dobber. Punch on 13 June 1917 claimed to be proposing the name ‘Sammy’, though the Sheffield Evening Telegraph (12 March 1918) reckoned that ‘They [the soldiers] do not know what the word means’;  E. T. Cook in Literary Recreations, (1918),  noted that the New York Sun urged that the American soldier’s nickname ‘must be Teddy’. For Runyon the name ‘doughboy’ was the obvious name, and one that he believed was in wide use, and not resented. He had heard of the use of the term ‘wagon soldier’ for field artillerymen, and ‘flapper’ for aviators. ‘Doughboys’ is supposed to come from the shape of the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms, or connected ideas – see Notes and Queries November 1918 carried a letter from ‘ATM’ supporting the idea of ‘doughboy’ as a name given by American cavalrymen to the infantry.


‘Tommy’ was resented by many British soldiers, as pointed out in Words and the First World War, who were more likely to address each other as ‘Bill’ or ‘chum’ (‘chum’ rather than ‘mate’); the lengthy article and glossary compiled by A Forbes Sieveking in Notes and Queries published on 29 October 1921 included ‘Erb. Substitute used when a man’s Christian name is not known’. Now more or less ignored in First World War mythology, ‘Erb appears frequently in wartime memoirs; Ian Hay has an ‘Erb who is killed while playing cards in the trenches (Carrying On – After the First Hundred Thousand, 1917); Ward Muir in Observations of an Orderly (1917) has “Same ol’ ‘Erb”; and Songs & Sonnets for England in War Time (1914) has both ‘Erbert and ‘Erb in the poem ‘The Vindication’ by Philip Bussy, which ends:


So, ‘Erb, my hero, march along and win :

The God of Wars stand by you !


The long influence of the trench journal

The influence of the First World War trench journal carried on into the Second World War, though regimental examples are less well-known. This example was created by an unlikely group – in FWW terms that is – conscientious objectors.


Flowery cover


Noticeable is the continuation of the word ‘conchie’, and apart from the introduction by Fenner Brockway, its contributions are anonymous, though Brockway identifies some contributors. Another similarity is the anti-authoritarian stance, The Flowery being a compilation from a total of 17 individual handmade magazines, one copy per issue, made secretly, each issue/copy being handwritten and bound using the thread issued to conchies in prison for the purpose of sewing mailbags. In this they echo some of the most precious FWW trench journals, those written by hand, just as much as they echo the barely-known ‘conchie trench journals’ of 1914-1919.

Brockway describes the making process, the writers and artists preparing their handwritten and hand-drawn copy out of sight, the sheets then being bound either in cells or inside a mailbag as it was supposed to be being worked on. It was as secretive as the comparable processes had been in the First World War.





Other similarities are the wordplay of the title, explained by Brockway; and the alphabet, familiar to all who have looked at trench journals for 1914-18.


Flowery alphabet


Borderlands and crossovers


Figure. Memorial stone at the entrance of Aquileia’s war cemetery.


The language of maps and their organisation of nations and regions over time can be very challenging to understand when touring the very areas or visiting specific sites that have had several cartographic adherences and different constitutional belongings in the past. If maps really help constitute the world they represent, then this is most certainly true for the larger area that gives onto the Gulf of Trieste: east of the Tagliamento river, south of the Friulian pre-Alps and west of current-day Postojna.

Some of it was part of Austria-Hungary, not least the maritime port of Trieste, whereas other parts belonged to Italy. But most areas shifted several times in the past 200/300 years. By 1920, however, large parts became Italian. Subsequently, thousands of Slavs, mainly Slovenes, had to endure forced Italianisation. Or simply left. The area’s history of the 1920s and 1930s is quite complicated in terms of fascist influences, Slovenian unrest, anti-fascist terrorism and anti-Semitic campaigns. The Second World War, British and American occupying forces along the Morgan Line after the war and the emergence of the nation state of Yugoslavia continued a much complicated understanding of this Adriatic corner of Europe.


Figure. The areas around the Gulf of Trieste and the Morgan Line (1945-1947). Zone A was managed by western forces, zone B by Yugoslav ones. (source: the dreaded W)


The area which was the most complicated after the Second World War (the tiny part of Zone B included in Zone A, the orange and yellow parts) coincide with the pre-First World War Austrian Littoral, a crown land of the Austrian Empire. It had previously belonged to the Republic of Venice. In this entire region the population nearly always consisted of the same main ethnic groups, even though prominence and presence shifted considerably between 1849, when the Austrian Littoral was established, and 1947, when a treaty sealed the border between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Part of the area are cities like Udine and Pordenone. Pordenone, in fact located beyond the Tagliamento, was an Austrian enclave until it was acquired by the Republic of Venice and after the Napoleonic period included in the Austrian possessions in Italy, only to become Italian again in 1866. Further to the east, Udine was the seat of the Italian High Command during the First World War and even called “Capitale della Guerra”. The city is now more aptly referred to as the Capital of War and Peace, the latter addition because resistance was strong after Germany had taken the city in 1917 (and also because the war-related title passed on to Padova in 1918).

Just south of Udine lies Comune di Santa Maria la Longa. Referred to as a resting place for troops during the First World War, the municipality also remembers the war in a more poetic manner: the renowned Italian war poet Guiseppe Ungaretti wrote three war poems while at la Longa. Still, as ever with claims to fame, Udine believes it is the prime location where Ungaretti’s war poetry started.[1] Slightly more to the east, north of Monfalcone, lies the Parco Ungaretti, in Sagrado. Il Parco Più Bello includes a villa, where soldiers produced graffiti on the walls between June and August 1916.[2] The memorial parc is itself very near to Redipuglia Memorial, the largest military memorial in Italy, housing the remains of over 100,000 Italians.


Figure. Monumento alla poesia “M’illumino d’immenso” (Giuseppe Ungaretti) di Santa Maria la Longa (source Tourism FVG)[3].


Further south of Udine is the fortified town of Palmanova (currently UNESCO World Heritage), which had been Austrian between 1815 and 1866, when it was returned to Italy. During the First World War, however, it became one of the most eastern outposts of Austria-Hungary. Just south of Palmanova lies Aquileia, a small city with a proud past as one of the main cities of the Roman Empire. Aquileia is one of the main archaeological sites in Italy and still attracts the crowds, although much less so that Rome, Ostia or Pompei. Just behind the Aquileia Cathedral, behind a 9th century campanile and apse, many soldiers of the First World War lie buried alongside the town’s saint, Hermagoras (who actually hails from Carinthia). The Cemetery of Heroes of Aquileia is noted site for several reasons, not least because it has maintained its original shape since 1915.


Figure. A cemetery of heroes, Aquileia.


The cemetery also holds the very first casualties of the wider region. Also, the Unknown Soldier buried at the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome left this cemetery in 1921. It was Don Celso Costantini, a local priest, who took care of providing a resting place to the fallen soldiers. A number of trees and plants were sent from Florence. Each modest tomb features an iron cross that is decorated with laurel and oak leaves. The crosses were created by sculptor Alberto Calligaris and donated by the association “Dante Alighieri”.


Figure. Oak and laurel leaves, Dulce et Decorum. Aquileia cemetery.


Each cross carries the name of the deceased and the words Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori. [4] Much has been written on Owen’s inclusion of the phrase in his war poetry and how the old lie had indeed been exposed in his drafts (end of 1917 / early 1918), but the line is above all one from the Roman lyrical poet Horace’s Odes. At Aquileia no critique can be sensed, this is the ancient ode to the fallen.

On the back of the Cathedral wall, facing the soldiers, there is a quote by the other key Italian war poet Gabriele d’Annunzio that equally echoes the Dulce et Decorum of early war graves.


Figure. Inscription by Gabriele d’Annunzio at the back of Aquileia Cathedral.


O Aquileia, donna di tristezza, sovrana di dolore tu serbi le primizie

della forza nei tumuli di zolle all’ombra dei cipressi pensierosi.

Custodisci nell’erba i morti primi, una vergin ità di sangue sacro

e quasi un rifiorire di martirio che rinnovella in te la melodia

La madre chiama e in te comincia ilo canto. Nel profondo di te

comincia il canto l’inno comincia degli imperituri quando il

divino calice s’inalza. Trema a tutti i viventi il cuore in petto

Il sacrificio arde fra l’alpe e il mare.

O Aquileia, woman of sadness, sovereign of pain, you keep the first traces of force

in the turf mounds in the shadow of thoughtful cypresses.

Safeguard the first dead in the grass, a virginity of sacred blood

and almost a flourishing of martyrdom that renews the melody in you.

The mother calls and in you begins singing. Deep within you begins the song,

the hymn of the everlasting begins when the sacred chalice is raised.

The heart in the chest trembles to all the living

The sacrifice burns between the Alps and the sea.[5]


However, the cemetery also had a statue of a woman-like person, clearly mourning the dead, but also looking pitying. No clear identity of the statue and its sculptor was obtained by the time of writing/publishing online, but the cemetery and the statue sensibly echoed the language that supersedes the language of maps and territorial gain.


BandC7Figure. Mourning statues, Aquileia / Vladslo.


More on La Grande Guerra in Fruili-Venezia-Guilia via an interactive map on







[5] Draft translation, with many imperfections.