The Home Front was as much a scene as the military Front for the considering and digesting of words. The press fed information to a public eager for news, and as the citizen army encountered new place-names in France and Flanders, so the families at home dealt with the same for novel place-names in eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
The fortress town of Przemysl came to attention of many readers of the news in 1914 and 1915. Then in the Austro-Hungarian province of Eastern Galicia, now an area in both Poland and Ukraine, Przemysl was by the end of September 1914 isolated behind the Russian advance, and though for a while the siege was lifted, after much fighting it surrendered to the Russians on 28 March 1915. The German army retook it in early June 1915. Readers of The Great War, published by the Amalgamated Press (Vol 4 in 1915), would no doubt have struggled with many of the place names presented to them, but Przemysl, as a locus of stationary conflict, appeared frequently, and was a significant example of the difficulties of place-name pronunciation.
As the news of the investment of Przemysl came through to the west discussion of the pronunciation became important enough to feature in the correspondence of Notes and Queries, the long-running academic forum. On 21 November 1914 Robert Pierpoint asked what must have been in many people’s minds:
How is this name pronounced? Is the language of Galicia Polish or Russian, or neither? A Russian friend of mine who lives in the Crimea, writing in French, spells the name “Premisle”. As, however, “Cracovie” occurs in his letter, it may be that “Premisle” is merely a French rendering of the name.
His query was addressed by H. H. Johnson of Torquay on 5 December with:
Mr Robert Pierpoint will be sorry to know that we British cannot get our tongue to fashion aright this word. I consulted lately a Bohemian, who tried vainly (and smilingly) to make me pronounce the r, which apparently is something like tch, so that the whole word runs nearly P’tchz’m’sl. Galician, Polish, Russian, and Bohemian are all allied phonetically, and are all Slav.
Francis Marchant in Streatham gave more information:
The Polish compound consonant rz corresponds to the Bohemian ř (rzh, or trilled r). In grammatical lists the sound is described as that of French g in logis, and the letter ż has the same sound. Přemysl was the first legendary Bohemian prince, and Přemysl Ottakar one of the greatest kings. Etymologically, the name would appear to mean forethought.
‘L. L. K.’ followed this with
The name of this town is pronounced Pshe-missl. As regards the query about Poland, the predominant language is , of course, Polish, but nearly as large a percentage speak Ruthenian, i.e. “Little-Russian”. The Yiddish element is also well represented.
And H. Krebs offered
The name of Przemysl (meaning originally, in Polish, perception, invention, industry) is pronounced nearly Pshemeesle in English. The languages of Galicia are partly Polish (chiefly in Western Galicia, having at Cracow its centre); partly Ruthenian or Malo- (i.e. Little- or Southern-) Russian, with the capital of L’vov (i.e. Leopolis, or Lemberg) in eastern Galicia. Ruthenian, or Malo-Russian, differs as widely from Veliko- or Great-Russian as from Polish.
The readers of an article published in the Home Circle magazine on 13 March 1915 might have been struck dumb when confronted with this, but effectively engaged in the same activity; the parents and two children bicker over pronunciations of places in the news. After Herbert and Mr Jones have disagreed over ‘Crarcow’ or ‘Crak-ko’ (see above), the family sets to over another ‘great Austrian fortress on the borders of Poland’.
“They don’t seem to have surrounded that other place yet,” said Mrs. Jones. “I mean that town near those mountains, the Carpet-something.”
“The Carpathians,” said Mr. Jones. “The town you mean is Pr-Pr-Prz-z-”
“That’s got him!” grinned Herbert, giving his sister a nudge. “Go on, father; keep up the bombardment! P-r-z-y- I don’t know how to spell it!”
Mr. Jones cleared his throat and looked severely at his son.
“I dare say” he said, “that none of you would recognise the place if I gave it the proper pronunciation. When the natives speak of it –”
“I know” said Bert. “They purr first then spit like a cat.”
“It says here,” said Dolly, reading the evening paper, “that the Germans hold a fortified position on the Strykow-Zgierz-Szadek-Zdunska-Wola line. It must be a difficult place to hold with names like that …”
No doubt the multilinguism of the armies on both sides on the Eastern Front added to the mix, as much as the evident ‘funny foreign place-names’ attitude.
All this makes for an interesting comparison of approaches that combines both the negotiating of place-names between languages, and the forcing of the foreign place-name into phonetic units convenient to English-speakers; but which rather assumes that all English-speakers, even then, spoke alike – a fair proportion of the population of east London in 1914 would have not had much difficulty with Przemysl, though H. H. Johnson in Torquay may not have been aware of this. To a certain extent negotiating foreign place-names and forcing them into English speech overlap, suggesting that pronunciation, like geography, lies along a two-dimensional continuum – Robert Pierpoint seems to have been more comfortable with the French ‘Premisle’ than the local ‘Przemysl’. But the changes between L’vov, Leopolis and Lemberg are not only to do with cultural and imperatorial associations – the sound changes from ‘their sounds’ to ‘our sounds’ are part of the process too, and were very much part of the experience of troops anywhere during the First World War.