Phrasebooks are dying out


Staff member
Phrasebooks are dying out
It is the end of a revealing literary genre
The Economist, 27.10.2022

The phrasebook had looked so helpful. When Eric Newby, a writer, set out to walk in the Hindu Kush in 1956, he knew he would be visiting places no Englishman had been since 1891. Nonetheless, he was hopeful of communicating. In his bag he carried “Notes on the Bashgali Language”, a phrasebook published in Calcutta in 1902. Opening it one afternoon in the high Himalayas, his hopes faded. Whereas most guidebooks explain how to order a small glass of red wine or a coffee, this offered phrases of more opaque utility.
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“Ini ash ptul p’mich e manchi mrisht waria’m” ran one which, it explained, meant: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning.” That was followed by “Tu tott baglo piltia” (“Thy father fell into the river”); “I non angur ai; tu ta duts angur ai” (“I have nine fingers; you have ten”); and “Ia chitt bitto tu jarlom” (“I have an intention to kill you”). Some struck a more conversational tone, such as “Tu chi se biss gur biti?” (“How long have you had a goitre?”). But on the whole the book left him with “a disturbing impression” of Bashgali life.

Newby’s guide was an eccentric but by no means unique example of a neglected literary genre: the phrasebook. These began in antiquity, gathered pace with medieval pilgrimages and flourished in the age of empires and, later, of aeroplanes. Once they were essential. Now the internet and machine translation are rendering them obsolete. Figures from Nielsen Book Research, a market-research firm, show that sales in Britain have fallen by 40% in three years. The phrasebook is dying.

Few readers will mourn them. The conversations they mapped out rarely ran so smoothly in life as on the page. But for historians they are invaluable. Newby thought his phrasebook was revealing about the Bashgalis; in truth such books reveal much more about their English-speaking authors. To sift through old phrasebooks is to study an unparalleled source on the assumptions made by Britons abroad. It is an archaeology of othering.

Two things quickly become clear. The first is that travel was seen as a troublesome, even perilous, pursuit. The other is that the now familiar form of the genre—books offering sentences that are practically and predictably useful—took some time to develop. The 1900 English-Welsh phrasebook “for the use of Travellers and Students” offers “Have you any apples?” and “Where is the butter market?” before adding the more unexpected: “They have cut off his arm.”

The savour of national stereotypes can be tasted on almost every page. J.B. Leek’s 1928 English-Italian Conversation Handbook shows that Italy has long been seen as a land of aesthetic indulgence. A section on hair care (“Shave my mustachio/ Kindly twist up my mustachio/ A little pomade on my mustachio”) follows a lengthy section on food. “Give me a bottle…of red wine/ of white wine/ of claret/ of Burgundy…” it runs. “Give me some Brie cheese/ some Camembert/ some Gruyere…”

The consequences of eating are of abiding interest to British travellers of old. After the food, Leek’s Italian offers the regretful: “I feel qualmish, sick.” No destination is without its particular intestinal anxiety. “After vomiting his food,” explains one physiologically intriguing entry in an old Korean manual, “his constipation was relieved.” A 1903 medical phrasebook for Luganda, a Bantu language, offers the unexplained but authoritative: “Keep everything you vomit.”

To judge by these publications, the Briton abroad must have cut a strange figure. Many position themselves as aids to conversation. The 1909 “Manual of Palestinian Arabic”, for example, explains that its sample sentences “will, it is hoped, be useful to the traveller in his hotel” and “may conceivably be of use in daily life”. The word “conceivably” is working very hard in that sentence. The book’s phrases include: “We reached the precipice and saw him fall down”; “He died before we found him”; and the gnomic “Gargle twice daily.” Conversation will have hung heavy in the foyers of Jerusalem.

Books from the colonial era are unintentionally telling. History books tend to concentrate on the obvious moments of imperial brutality—on war and rebellion. Phrasebooks offer the chance to eavesdrop on quieter colonial cruelties in the drawing rooms of empire. “Hold your tongue!” barks one phrase in a 1908 “Hindustani Self-Taught” manual. “Beat that lazy boy” snaps an entry in another guide.

Many phrasebooks remained in use for a surprisingly long time. When Elisabeth Kendall, the mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, studied Arabic at Oxford University in the early 1990s, she did so using grammar books that dated back to 1859 (“The cow’s tongue is long” was a typical phrase). She retains a linguist’s affection for their methodology. Some phrases may have lacked practical utility but often illustrated “a grammatical construction in the simplest possible way”—and they were memorable. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, agrees. A language, he says, “is not a list of phrases”. The impracticality of some entries may have been intentional so “speakers would not be locked into canned expressions in stereotyped situations”.

The fading genre of the phrasebook is unlikely to be missed. But something will be lost when it is gone. Poetry, Robert Frost supposedly said, is what gets lost in translation. Read these books’ dislocated phrases and poetry can be found in it, too. “Owing to the road being slippery I nearly fell / Ten years ago / Come here,” runs one T.S. Eliotish section in a 1894 Tai-Khamti Grammar. The last words go to entries in an English-Kashmiri manual: “I am now composing a grammar/ I don’t exactly comprehend this…/ It is time to conclude.”