Phrasebooks and social direction

Continuing with Dagelyksche Hulp Voor Belgen in Engeland published in October 1914 by Leopold B Hill, Langham Place, London.


E V Bisschop’s book is subtitled:

Eene Versameling van Woorden en Zinnen

voor dagelyksch gebruik

alsook eene korte krygskundige woordenlyst.


A little familiarity with any Dutch or German might compensate for a lack of Flemish here: a collection of words and sentences for daily use, also a short list of military terms.

The introduction states that:

Het doel dezer korte versameling van alledaagsche woorden en zinnen is, Belgen te helpen gedurende de eerste dagen van hun verblyf in Engeland. Elk woord hier inbregepen werd gekozen omday het te pas viel in de gevallen die den reiziger in een vreemd land byna onfeilbaar ontmoet. De laatste bladzyden bevatten de vertaling van eenige krygskundige woorden die nu in dagelyksch gebruik zyn.


Bisschop’s selection of terms does not fall from the sky, but is selected for the use of Flemish speakers, ‘from the first days of their stay in England’. Though the word ‘refugee’ does not appear, the use of the word ‘verblyf’ indicates staying temporarily – there was no reticence generally about the use of ‘refugee’ for the plight of the Belgians in Britain, but there was a widespread tasteful use of ‘guest/host’ phrasology. But ‘verblyf’ equally proposes optimistically that the situation is temporary, and will be ultimately resolved by a return home. The book ends with a list of military terms ‘now in daily use’, to allow an up-to-date discussion of the war.


Bisschop’s selection appears at first neutral, a list of numbers, days of the week, salutations, but closer observation proposes a developing situation of need. Included in the section on money, the suggested questions and sentence with their close attention to money indicate the need to economise:


How much have I to pay? Hoeveel heb ik te betalen?

How much remains? Wat schiet er over?

Is this correct? Is dit juist?

This doesn’t seem correct. Dit schynt niet juist te zyn.


‘Requests and Thanks’ immediately proposes a situation of need and obligation:


With your leave. Met uw verlof.

May I trouble you? Mag ik U lasyig vallen?

Will you render me a servive? Wilt gy my een dienst bewyzen?

Will you do me a favour? Wilt U my een genoegen doen?

I am much obliged to you. Ik ben U zeer verplicht.


‘Travel’ includes sentences indicating a situation of impotence:

Where am I? Waar ben ik hier?

Which is this station? Welke is deze statie?

Is this London? Is dit London?

Where is the station? Waar is de statie?


The distressed traveler, even the implication of the refugee, is seen in:


Where is my luggage? Waar is myn reisgoed?

I have no luggage. Ik heb geen reisgoed.


A mood approaching desperation appears in the finale of the ‘Arrival and Departure’ section:




‘Engaging Apartments’ sees the phrasebook-user again worried about money:




As the phrase-book progresses from ‘Usual Expressions’ to ‘Hospitals, Church, Etc’ the phrases provided indicate repeated disadvantage:


Do you understand me? Verstaat gie my?

How is it possible? Hoe is het mogelyk?

We have lost our way. Wy zyn verloren geloopen.

Will you show me the way? Wilt gy my den weg wyzen?


And finally:


Will you help me? Wilt gy my helpen?

May I get up soon? Mag ik weldra opstaan?


We have seen through looking at many phrasebooks published in 1914-15 that the use of the model of the invented conversation proposes that the reader might find themself in something similar to the portrayed situation, whether it be asking for help with directions, finding out the disposition of enemy troops, or trying to get fodder for horses. This model derives directly from phrasebook conversations which imagine buying a train ticket, ordering a meal, or buying a shirt. Bisschop’s phrasebook for Belgian refugees imagines by its selection of phrases that the user might address an English-speaker frequently from a position of disadvantage. It is in this sense usefully pragmatic, more so than the many phrasebooks for soldiers that tried to paste military campaign terminology onto a model designed for a holiday in France.


Comparing Bisschop’s book with the phrase-books published for the use of soldiers, these latter seem much less pragmatic. Generally their development from travellers’ phrase-books is seen in indicators of the social structure of foreign travel: ‘when will my laundry be ready? Porter, get my luggage and take it to a cab. Show me a gold watch’ (from The Briton in France, 1906 and still in print in 1918). French Conversation by G F Harnden (‘including military and hospital phrases’), published in 1914, retained the French for silk handkerchief, soup-tureen and morocco-leather.


Which raises the question: do phrasebooks direct as much as reflect social milieus (milieux?). Do they say ‘this is for our sort, but not for for you over there’? And particularly, how does this relate to the relationship between the French language and the English language? French adopted into English has mostly retained connotations of higher social status, but how did this impact on the class differentials within the BEF? Upper-middle class young men with commissions may have not blinked at the appearance of the cousin of a marchioness in a lesson 7 of a French language learning book published in 1909, but how would this have looked to the clerks, farm labourers and factory-workers who enlisted, attested or were conscripted?




A proposal then: the reference in a phrasebook, published in 1912, to evening gloves, Russian lace, suggests that in using this phrasebook, and by implication travelling to France at all, the reader should be of a social class that would feel comfortable moving in a world of such stuff. For the phrase-book-writer working at this time, the model of travel to France was less the trip to Boulogne than the world of opera and dressing for dinner. Early nineteenth-century phrase-books, such as Elements of Conversation by C Gros, published in several editions, suggest no doubt of the social class of the traveller to France, and this background to travel to France continued up to 1914, and arguably later.


the picture dealer



What would the appearance of references to soup-tureens and silk handkerchiefs in a phrasebook have meant to a soldier of Kitchener’s army brought up in a Birmingham back-to-back? Would it be ‘not for the likes of me’, or a taste of high living? For many soldiers in the BEF, serving in France or Flanders would be their only visit abroad; did phrase-books perhaps add to the sense of this being ‘the Great Adventure’?

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