On 20 February 1915 The Illustrated London News referred to a contraption which appears in every film set on the Western Front, 1917 being no exception; the ‘trench-periscope (or, to give it its correct name, a hyposcope)’. The word ‘hyposcope’ was used in 1902 by the Daily Chronicle, which described the apparatus as having ‘the peculiarity … that, by an optical contrivance, the marksman, completely under cover, may fire round a corner, so to speak, at an enemy’. The Illustrated London News described the hyposcope as being ‘on the principle of the camera-obscura’. The Illustrated War News  23 December 1914 clarifies the workings, slightly, perhaps not wanting to be seen giving away any secrets that might be useful to the enemy.


Periscopes and hyposcopes attached to rifles were used during the war, notably the Youlten hyposcope, tested originally in 1903, and the later Beech’s periscope rifle. The word ‘hyposcope’ seems to have disappeared during the conflict; it does not appear in Farrow’s American Dictionary of Military Terms (1918), nor does the OED have any postwar citations. The British Newspaper Archive suggests the word had disappeared by the middle of the war, with only three mentions in 1916, and only three since then.


The image here shows, we hope, a hyposcope being tested.











A cryptic find

This little gem turned up in a copy of Speak French – A Book for the Soldiers published by The Goldsmith Publishing Co, Cleveland, Ohio, in 1917. There is no indication as to its origin.

EPSON001 copy




We wish we had come across this in time to set it as a Christmas quiz. Translation, if that is the right word, please.

Christmas 1916 words

As we move towards the festive end of the year, a look at ‘The Bookman’ issue for Christmas 1916 gives an indication of how the reading public were affected by nearly two and a half years of war.




Immediately noticeable is the use of ‘Xmas’, first cited as such in the OED as used in a letter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1801. There are the expected books on the war, books of poetry and advice, novels and memoirs.




Though there may not be something for everyone in our selection, there are items of linguistic interest. First up is an article on the translation of Belgian poetry.






Then an article on Russian characteristics, as displayed through the language.




A specialist interest is the linguistic mediation of the war to children, and particularly how this was done indirectly; two books here, one for the very young:






Note in this cartoon by Heath Robinson, known for his ramshackle devices, there is the equally improbable invention of the ‘War Inventions Board’; except that there was a Board of Invention and Researchinitiated by the Admiralty in 1915. It became the Scientific Research and Experiment Department in 1918, remaining thus until 1946. According to a well-known internet information site, the Board of Invention and Research received over 41,000 submissions.




At this point, while the work of the site co-ordinators moves more toward editing the third volume of the Languages and the First World War series of essays, we had better accept and affirm that this will now be an occasional blog, rather than a weekly, fortnightly, or at all regular event. Contributions are welcome, as always.

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.