Languages and the First World War: Interview with Julian Walker and Christophe Declercq

What is your own language and academic background?

Julian Walker: My first language is English; I studied French and Latin at school, and picked up conversational Spanish later. I can get by in German and Italian. Over the past ten years I’ve worked with the history of the English language, particularly etymology, and have been working on English during the First World War since 2010.

Christophe Declercq: I’m Belgian, so my native language could go either way between Dutch or French, but it’s the former. Let’s leave aside the whole issue about languages in Belgium or Dutch variety for the time being. I’m a translator by education, with English as my second language and Russian my third. I would consider myself trilingual English, Dutch and the Antwerp dialect J. I can get by in German, some Spanish and Italian. As an academic I’ve worked along two traits mainly. First on the use of language and translation technology to overcome language barriers, to facilitate accessibility and increasingly in contexts of conflict. The core of my second trait is shaped by the Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War and the cross-cultural aspects of that part-forgotten history. Belgian refugees fall well within the remit of Languages and the First World War and form a diachronic story to the growing research network at UCL and elsewhere that is looking into conflict and communication. Admittedly, although the story of the Belgian refugees is a different one from the current refugee crisis, there are parallels or relevant contrasting elements.

What should be the role of a language museum?

JW: apart form the role of a museum to preserve, particularly since the power of digital communication has increased the spread of a number of forms of English, to the detriment of lesser-used languages, museums have an extraordinary potential to create virtual collections. Sound collections can be stored easily and cheaply, while scans of printed and manuscript material allow a broadened access to material. As language is so central to cultures, language museums can be the collections of so much that could be otherwise ignored or lost.

CD: I could not have phrased it better. A language museum to me is the front end of digital humanities, the ultimate community platform for linguistic data, but presented to the general public, not kept in a vault on an academic server.

How did the Languages and the First World War Project get started?

Languages and the First World War grew from the book Trench Talk by Peter Doyle and Julian Walker. The realization that English slang reached out to other languages led to discussion about the idea of a conference to explore links between languages and developments within languages. The opportunity to hold a conference in Antwerp and London encouraged the multi-lingual potential; setting up a blog allowed us to publicise the ideas for the conference, to explore them further afterwards, and to provide a space for discussion.

What have been the results of the project so far?

We quickly realized that the nature of language as mediation meant that we should be considering not only first-hand documentation from the period, but also fiction, memoirs, hearsay, postwar interviews, press reportage, rumours, propaganda, songs, jokes, and words passed on through generations. All of these are part of ‘the language of the First World War’. So far we have had a very successful conference, which led to the publication of two books of essays, which have effectively established the subject as a discreet area of study. JW has recently been appointed a research associate at University College London, to further work on the project. The output is not merely academic, there are successful social media outlets such as Tumblr and Twitter, and involvement in official events such as those organized on behalf of the Belgian Embassy in the UK or Flanders House London in relation to the Centenary.

Why was a blog format chosen for the project?

The advantages of a blog are that single discreet ideas can be voiced, without the need for a fully worked essay (though some of the blogs have been extensive and heavily researched). We wanted to provide a space for people to publicise their own experiences of language relevant to the period, and for researchers to be able to react to and use this material. We also aim to make the blog a scaled down version of a peer-reviewed platform: before we publish posts there is a process of editorial support on the quality of the contribution.

What are the future plans for the project?

We are now planning a second conference for 2018, with another book planned. We are hoping to migrate the blog to an academic site soon. Languages and the First World War thus becomes part of other academic project, to which it feeds or from which it can draw. We’re looking into setting up a research group, with a UCL base but obviously open to non-UCL scholars; we are part of application for PhD funding on Conflict and Communication and are we involved in organising a Flanders-Wales conference in Cardiff on 9 November 2017.

In what aspect of this project have Americans been most helpful?

We had some great contributions at the conference from American researchers, on specific correspondences, propaganda and the use of a specific kind of French between French officers and Senegalese soldiers. American soldiers were very well catered for in the field of French phrasebooks and we are comparing these with the phrasebooks provided for British soldiers. There is a lot of work to be done on the case of Americans from German heritage – they were widely castigated as ‘hyphenated Americans’ – and how their skills were employed as interpreters both during the conflict and in the occupying forces afterwards.

We have had a fascinating contribution about the use of American Indian languages as codes at the Front, and this is a subject that challenges the non-use of minority languages by other nations.

What was the most important role of languages in WW1?

It’s very difficult to say that one role was the most important; several aspects are of major interest in sociolinguistic terms.

Codeswitching in various forms – lingua franca, what was frequently termed ‘pidgin’ but could be more clearly described as basic forms of foreign words transposed onto home-language grammar, adoptions of foreign words – was a product of people with a wide range of languages having to communicate. Slang grew and was shared between languages; the technical vocabulary developed enormously; and language served to both link soldiers to civilians and create divisions between these two groups.

Fundamentally we have to say that the First World War affected, to varying degrees, everyone in the world; and everyone was affected by how it was written about, spoken about, and read about – the experience of language was the one experience that was common to everyone, from the dying soldier in Gallipoli to the newspaper reader in Buenos Aires. Language also goes beyond linguistic boundaries and includes the language of signs and music for instance; and we are just beginning to look at codes such as semaphore, morse and what was known as ‘flag-wagging’.

What is the most surprising about the role of languages in WW1?

Again, several phenomena can claim this description. Tamara Scheer’s work on the Austro-Hungarian armies’ use of several languages pinpointed the essential pragmatism that emerged – including cases of using an ‘enemy’ language as a lingua franca within units, as this was the only way they could communicate. At the same time, one of the ‘home’ languages within the Austro-Hungarian empire was seen as of suspect loyalty; and within Germany there were strong moves to remove adopted English vocabulary from German. Language was simultaneously a political issue and a sphere where practicality was of prime importance.

Misunderstanding and confusion inevitably caused problems, some of which developed into bureaucratic nightmares, such as the confusion between ‘une vierge’ and ‘la Vierge’ in R H Mottram’s The Crime at Vanderlynden’s, the third novel of his Spanish Farm trilogy, based on his experiences in France – our study of language is not limited to first-hand documentation during 1914-18.

The mythology of language too is very important: three phrases, ‘meat-grinder’, ‘ladies from hell’ and ‘plonk’, are all contentious. ‘Meat-grinder’ is widely supposed to have been used at the time to describe the campaigns of Verdun and the Somme, yet there is no written documentation of this term till much later (not that specifically written documentation has to be the only determinant). There was a misunderstanding of the German slang Kadaververwertungsgeseelschaft, or ‘carcase-grading factory’, used cynically to described the grading of German soldiers; somehow this developed into the idea among Allied soldiers, and then the soldiers’ press, that the German army was boiling down corpses for glycerin and fat. The nearest we have come to ‘meat-grinder’ is a report of the Germans using a ‘sausage-grinder’ as part of this supposed process. ‘Ladies from hell’, supposed to be a German epithet for Scottish and Canadian kilted soldiers, survives only as English reportage; and ‘plonk’, supposed to be British and Allied soldier’s French for vin blanc is not reported as a stand-alone term until ten years after the war. These terms survived (‘meat-grinder’ and ‘plonk’ into common usage), though two of the actually most frequently used slang expressions – napoo and san-fairy-ann – faded away within a couple of years of the Armistice.

How did WW1 influence the English language? 

Paul Fussell noted that the war made irony the dominant rhetorical device in English, and cynicism, irony and a wider acceptance of slang and swearing, particularly among the middle classes, became noticeable in English. The massive amount of correspondence flowing between Britain and the Western Front (15,500 bags of mail from Britain to France alone every day) meant that people who would not otherwise have written so much became regular writers, adapting their thoughts to the written language. Self-censorship was a major part of this; it can be equally analysed as writers falling into clichés about health and the weather, or carefully controlling their words to suit their readers. As the archetypal soldier came to be portrayed as a working-class man from London, there was a spread in the use of cockney expressions and accent; this is documented as pushing out local accents from Scotland particularly.

Which side, the Allies or the Central Powers, held the “language advantage?” in WW1?

Possibly the Central Powers, since they were so well-linked by German. French was widely used throughout Europe as a second language, which would have helped the French and their allies. The British Army had decades of experience in dealing with other languages in Asia, and less so in Africa, but were less well-equipped when it came to European languages – British soldiers particularly expected soldiers of other nations to be able to speak English, but were prepared to have a go at other languages. Army regulations had however, made provisions for officers to study German, French and Russian. What is curious is that so few nations used their minority languages – the Americans stand out as using American Indian languages as codes, while other nations could have acted similarly.

The German occupying authorities in Belgium under General von Bissing used language as a political tool, pointing out that since Flemish was a Germanic language, the Flemings were culturally linked to the Germans. This drove a wedge between the two linguistic cultures of Belgium, the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speaking people of Flanders; linguistic support for Flemish separatism, it was hoped, would lead to closer feelings towards Germany. This was compounded by the fact that French had been the language of status in Belgium pre-war; von Bissing’s decision to make Flemish the language of teaching in the University of Ghent caused major upheavals.

What was the state of languages in the world during WW1?

Eric Hobsbawm has shown that the idea of nation being determined by language rather than religion became dominant only in the late-nineteenth century; for France, the German invasion sparked off a re-affirmation of a form of “national spirit” in the national language, while for the German-speaking countries the so-called purification of the language was an aspect of the struggle for dominance. Language as identity within nations caused problems where there were minority languages – as in Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Russia, and others; widespread use of dialects or accents that were mutually unintelligible, in for example Britain, Italy and Belgium, were another aspect of the nation/language/identity relationship. The post-war division of parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire along linguistic boundaries marked the increased political status of language as a marker of identity.

As well as the worries about the standard of English (elementary schooling in Britain had introduced the idea of ‘language-failure’), the standard of the teaching of French in British schools was rather limited, and there are references to soldiers’ frustration at finding that phrases they had been taught to learn by rote, such as la plume de ma tante, did not help much. In fact, many officers who had gone through French teaching in supposedly good schools were no better off that the ‘Tommies’ who struggled with phrasebooks that offered  pronunciation guides such as ‘bhong-zhoor’. Some of them found that it was easier to understand French spoken by Flemish-speakers, as that was nearer their own pronunciation of the language.

What other language projects are under consideration?

There have naturally been suggestions that we should continue the discussion into the Second World War, which we are considering. Certainly 1939-40 in Britain saw many examples of the revival of many cultural and linguistic tropes from 1914-18. And indeed, for so many nations it can be argued that the First World War created the context for the interwar years which in their turn created the Second World War. In Flanders, for instance, cultural emancipation increased dramatically during the war years, to the lead to popular movements in the 1930s. How these then relate to the Second World War still resonates in Flemish society today. The legacy of the First World War in the Middle East is of an entirely different scale and its complexity resonates today as well. And there is so much unchartered territory in the Far East, or Latin America. And of course more integration of things German.