The usefulness of French 100 years ago

On Friday 20th June I went to a conference on Languages and the First World War at the British Library. This combination of subjects interested me not only as a linguist but also as a family historian. A few years ago I researched the life of a great uncle who was killed in the Great War. He was a public school boy, if only for three years, and had won school prizes for French. I therefore wondered how useful he would have found his knowledge of French while serving in France. To a certain extent the conference answered this question but it also gave me plenty more food for thought.
On arrival in France soldiers soon found that they needed French in order to buy food in the shops and bars or even to chat up the local girls. There was no specific language training for those going to France and it seems that even the officers found their French was not up to the task. This does not surprise me as there is a wealth of difference between book learning and actual speaking. Nevertheless I am sure that for daily needs even a little French was better than none. In due course it appears that a kind of pidgin developed that was used by both soldier and native French alike. This again does not surprise me, as language is about communication, and I have often seen people getting by with poor language skills and making themselves understood. At the same time we are familiar from films with native speakers resorting to a pidgin of their own language in an effort to simplify communication so that another can understand.
At home some national newspapers tried to satisfy the need by producing phrase books, which were carefully targeted to suit the perceived requirements of soldiers in France. This was an interesting surprise for me because my great grandfather, who was reputed to have known several languages including Latin and Greek and must surely have counted French among his better languages, worked as a printer’s reader on one of the national papers. If his paper was one of those that produced a phrase book then great grandfather would almost certainly have read and corrected it.


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