‘What a British Soldier wants to say in French and how to pronounce it’

Delepine front covers x 2

What can be learned from the comparison between two editions of the same soldiers’ phrasebook from the early part of the war? Abbé H Delépine (possibly Abbé Henri Delépine, the composer, any information anyone?) wrote a small booklet titled What a British Soldier wants to say in French and how to pronounce it. This was published in 1914 with both Way, Agent de Journaux Anglais, 52 bis, Rue Thiers, Boulogne-sur-mer, and Simpkin, Marshall Hamilton, Kent & Co, 4 Stationers Hall Court, London, credited as publishers. The latter were a prolific publishing house whose products encompassed official publications, novels, manuals, history and religious books, and poetry. The booklet was subtitled as ‘An English-French booklet for the use of The Expeditionary Forces’, was priced at 3d, and contained the usual lists of words for food, clothing, parts of the body, objects and relationships, and the military, including the word ‘trench’, with their French equivalents, advice to be nice to horses (‘Be good to them. Remember that, being unable to speak, they cannot let you know their needs’), and the usual pronunciation guides, which allow a recreation of the accents to be heard at the time on the streets of Bermondsey and Bethnal Green rather than Boulogne-sur-mer: lah tran-chay (see above), lays arm (les armes), lay dwah (les doigts), ler moosh (war) der posh (le mouchoir de poche), oh rer-voar.

Delepine food list

A further edition, priced 4d, retained the same information on the title page, but now announced the editor, H Delépine, Rue Lépine, Wimereux (Pas-de-Calais), and printed still in Boulogne-sur-mer. Indicative of differences between the two editions is the cover miss-spelling of ‘booklet’, with an intrusive ‘c’ in the second edition.


Errors were one difference between the editions, corrected or committed as the booklet was partially reset. Thus on page 8 of the 3d edition, concerning clothes, we see ‘The Thousers’ and ‘The Handherchief’, both corrected in the 4d edition, which in turn omits the hyphen from ‘The Looking-glass’, present in the 3d edition, and changes the pronunciation ‘sah-vong’ to ‘sa-vong’.

Delepine p8 x 2

Occasionally an error is repeated – page 29 in both editions has ‘senenty-one’ (soixante et onze). Of more interest are inconsistencies in the pronunciation guide, which would be probably the most useful practical part of the book. Thus page 22 of the both editions gives the pronunciation of the French infanterie as ‘infaun-tree’, while two pages later a question using the word shows it transcribed as ‘in-fan-tree’. The first form is in brackets, following the practice laid out on the first page of the booklet, which states ‘it is impossible with some French words to express in English the exact sound. In such cases, the word is placed between parentheses, and the pronunciation given as nearly as possible’.

Delepine 4d infauntree


Perhaps the use of parenthesis here was related to the naval gunnery practice of bracketing, placing a shot beyond and before the target to establish the range. Parentheses appear again in pages 9 and 14 in two attempts to transcribe the French un, as ‘üng’ or ‘eung’ (both editions).


Delepine p9 ungDelepine eung


However, it is the back covers which show the greatest difference. The 3d edition addresses the home buyer, with exhortations to send copies ‘to your soldier friend’, or ‘to an Officer’, who will distribute them ‘at the Front or at the Camp’; or they may be sent to the Red Cross Society to be sent out in kit bags. It is good marketing, with scenarios to make the purchase seem more real and worthy.

Delepine back covers x 2

The 4d edition directs itself to the soldier wanting ‘that confident touch’ that will only come with knowing colloquial French; it is an advertisement for a further book, Familiar French, ‘an indispensable supplement to any ordinary French phrase book’ – even one that advises you, as do both these editions, to ‘always keep this Boocklet in your pocket’. Though there is a typo – ‘The price in 4d only’ – prospective buyers are told to ‘ask for the yellow booklet’, not ‘boocklet’. The possibility of acquiring colloquial French is advertised by the use of colloquial English: ‘When you are puzzled as to the meaning of a French word you can’t find in the dictionary, it’s probably because it’s an idiom, or slang.’ ‘Can’t’ and ‘it’s’ create the intimacy of speech, rather than the muddle of what appears on the first page of each edition, under the heading ‘Most Important Notice About The Right Pronunciation’: ‘if you pronounce the syllable as if you were going to say “ang” but prevent the back of the tongue from touching the roof of the mouth, which makes the “g” sound, you will have a correct pronunciation’.


How familiar was Familiar French? Did it actually contain current Army slang, as claimed, and if so how did the author/editor, presumably Abbé Delépine, acquire this? Certainly more work was put into getting a colloquial tone for the advertisement than into proof-reading the rest of the book – though even here typos remained, perhaps the sign of a rushed publication hoping to exploit the New Armies’ language concerns.


Here again is the programme for this year’s LFWW conference:


Europe House, London, Mon 10 September

9 – 9.15 Introduction
9.15 – 10.45 Session 1 – (post-war considerations)

·       Mark Connelly, Professor of History, University of Kent – The language of memorials

·       Lucinda Borket-Jones, Open University – Warring tongues: ‘Kultur’ versus ‘culture’ in writing of the First World War (Ford Madox Ford)

·       Ugo Pavan Dala Torre, independent scholar – The language of the Italian disabled ex-servicemen

10.45 – 11 Coffee break
11.00 – 12.30 Session 2   (Language and identity)

·      Keynote     Amanda Laugesen, Director, Australian National Dictionary Centre – War words and the evolution of Australian remembrance of the Great War, 1919-1939

·       Julia Ribeiro, Université Paris Nanterre – The choice of poetic language and the establishment of identities and communities in the First World War

·       Mādālina Serbov, Ovidius University of Constanţa, Romania – The Lipoveni community in the Danube Delta

·       Fiona Houston, University of Aberdeen– Lexical development of the word ‘propaganda’

12.30 – 13.15 lunch
13.15 – 14.45 Session 3  (Violent language)

·       Chris Kempshall, University of Sussex – Insults between the entente powers at the end of the war

·       Gegely Bodok, Clio Institute, Budapest – Laughed Death – Humour and jokes in Hungary during the First World War

·       Jonathon Green, independent scholar – Swearing in T E Lawrence’s The Mint 

14.45 – 15.00 Coffee
15 – 16.30 Session 4  (Language and literature)

·       Cristina Rogojina, University Ovidius of Constanta, Romania – Romanian writers who fought in World War 1 and how the war influenced their writing

·       Dr Helen Brooks, University of Kent – Horror on the London Stage: The Grand Guignol Season of 1915

·       Professor Nevena Dakovic, Dept. of History and Theory, FDA/UoA, Belgrade  – Multimedia language of the great war: Stanislav Krakov

16.30 – 16.45 Coffee
16.45 – 18.15 Session 5 (Away from the trenches)

·       Dr Anne Samson, The Great War in Africa Association – Language in the East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918

·       Guido Latré, Professor of English Literature and Culture, Louvain-la-Neuve – Languages and cultures in Van Walleghem’s war diaries

·       Meic Birtwistle, independent scholar – Welsh impromptu songs for soldiers on leave



KU Leuven, Brussels Campus, Weds, 12 September

9.15 – 9.30 Introduction
9.30 – 10.25 Keynote

Marguerite Helmers, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh – The rhetoric of avoidance

10.30 -10.45 coffee
10.45 – 12.15 Session 1  (Language to language)

·       Gwendal Piégais, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest/University of Western Brittany – Russian interpreters operating in France during the Great War

·       Luc Vandeweyer, Belgian National Archives – The role of the language border in Belgium in the expansionist plans of the German occupier

·       Stefano Banno, University of Trento – Italian in the Berliner Lautarchiv

Lunch ·       Signalling in the First World War – Vintage signals team demonstration

·       Iaroslav Golubinov, independent scholar – Slang words for food in 1917 Russia – video presentation

1.15 – 2.10 Keynote 

Alison Fell, Professor of French Cultural History, University of Leeds – Culture clashes: Belgian refugees in Yorkshire

2.10 – 3.40 Session 2  (Voices of calm)

·       Miguel Brandão, Faculty of Arts of Porto – Humour in Portuguese newspapers  (1914-1918) – what could war-related humour tell us about the Great War?

·       Dr Sarah Duncan, independent scholar – ‘Dear Little Scalliwag’:  Letters from a father to his children, 1915-16

3.45 – 4.00 coffee
4.00 – 5.00 Session 3 (Voices of contention)

·       Fabian van Samang, senior editor of the ‘Journal of the League for Human Rights’ – Armenia and the language of genocide

·       Harun Buljina, Columbia University – Bosnia’s Polyglot Pan-Islamists between Empire and Nation State, 1914-1920


5.00 – 5.10 Final break
5.10 – 6.10 Session 4     (Hope and resolution)

·       Javier Alcalde, University of Barcelona – Esperanto during the First World War

·       Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums & Galleries – Museums, languages & commemoration: a case study from Leeds




Booking can now be done for the two days separately via:



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