“The need for supplementing the average Briton’s extremely fragmentary knowledge of French and German- has led to the formation of language classes for recruits of the new army, and many pocket dictionaries and conversation manuals have been published from time to time for the use of the men already in the field. Amongst the latter it would be difficult to find anything better than Captain Keyworth’s Easy French and Easy German. Small enough to be carried inside an ordinary pocket-book, these leaflets contain phrases and words most likely to be required by the soldier…” – The British Medical Journal, February 13, 1915.
This little 12 page pamphlet has probably seen the world. It caught my grandmother’s eye as she sifted through momentos working on yet another scrapbook rewriting history and she passed it along to me on a recent trip to Canada. It belonged to my great-grandfather who in his latter years, was a composer and band leader for the 1st British Columbia Regiment Band in Vancouver (Lieut C.J. Cornfield) and who spent 12 years in India with the British military, likely as part of a regimental band. And that is all I know about the origin of this pamphlet, or my great grandfather to be honest.
I place this here as an object of interest, or for those who like to solve mysteries, something with an undetermined provenance. It is also an interesting artefact in what it can reveal about how the military (or at least the publishers) of the day expected language to be learned and used in the context of war and in the context of the times. What follows are a few examples.
The pamphlet employs three categories: English, French, and Pronunciation (and in case one doesn’t know what pronunciation means, it is annotated with ”(say it like this)”! The above is exemplary of the kind of military terms included, along with phrases such as ”Where is the enemy?” and ”Where is the calvary?” – a stark contrast to military communication today. In fact, the placement of phrases can almost read like an imagined narrative, take the following for example:
Straight out of a movie, pre-GPS. And yet the reality of war was quite stark, thus the inclusion of a great deal of ”In Hospital” language. Morbid, realistic, hopeful to indeed believe that one might be able to speak at all ( ”I am wounded in the neck/nose/head/mouth”) considering the battlefield medical treatments at the time were rather rudimentary, particularly in regards to pain management.
This is quite a different medical vocabulary from present day. Unable to figure out what ”lint” or ”la charpie” could be other than the stuff that comes off my clothing and is collected in the lint trap of a dryer – looking it up in the dictionary revealed that scrapings of linens would be used to dress wounds at the time. And despite all of this practical language there are few glimpses of the poetic, or at least I like to think that naming the sun, moon, stars and earth in another language might be considered frivolous or romantic.
The twelve page pamphlet doesn’t give any terminology for speaking on an interpersonal level, there are no words for expressing feelings; would one really expect to find the expression for, ”I am scared!” What about the language of love? What would such a guide contain today? What does this say?
”Of any class”- Yes, these were different times indeed. And finally, this last example shows the only words the printer chose to have underlined in this text. Countless children are taught that these are the two most important words in English: ”please and thank you”.
The final page of the pamphlet advertises other ”Books for our Soldiers, Sailors and Red Cross workers” and leaves me pondering the easy use of ”our” both here and in the title…The use of ”our” expresses patriotism and unity characteristic of war time, completely unfamiliar and out of keeping with today’s world where allegiances, membership, and belonging seems much more complicated. It is amazing how a single word can leap off a page and express quite a lot.
It is July, it is hot, and the corridors of this university are dark and echoing. But if you are reading this post and feel compelled to jump in and talk about it, please do. I welcome comments, ideas, discussion, anything that comes to mind.