Do You Parley Voo?: WWI French Phrasebooks
June 20, 2018
By: Haley Aaron, Manuscripts Archivist, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Alabamians who had never spoken French faced a steep learning curve as they prepared for overseas service. However, with pocket-sized phrasebooks and a little ingenuity, they found a way to communicate with French civilians.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History has examples of two popular phrasebooks carried by Alabamians during the war.
In 1918, The Kolynos Toothpaste Company published the “Kolynos Parley Voo Booklet,” which included a list of French and German phrases (along with advertisements for their toothpaste). A pronunciation guide included a phonetic spelling for each unfamiliar word. The common greeting Bonjour became “bong-joor,” while Adieu was spelled “ard-yeo.” One can only imagine the mispronunciations that the pronunciation guide inspired!
“The Soldiers’ French Phrase Book,” published by the Felt and Tarrange Company, was similar, although the guide included different phrases and used more traditional phonetic spellings than the “Parley Voo Booklet.”
Just like tourists, soldiers who had never spoken French used phrasebooks to ask for directions, order lunch in a local café, and buy souvenirs for their loved ones back home. Soldiers could even kindle romance with a little help from the books, which included ice breakers (“Do you dance?”), compliments (“You are very kind.”), and parting lines (“Don’t forget me!”).
The wartime phrasebooks also featured a variety of somber phrases that would never appear in a civilian pocket guide. The “Parley Voo Booklet” included an extensive list of phrases that allowed soldiers to describe how they had been wounded to ambulance drivers, doctors, and nurses. Soldiers could indicate if they had been wounded “by a shell splinter,” “by shrapnel,” or “by a bayonet.” “The Soldiers’ French Phrase Book” included the sentences, “He has been wounded in the chest,” and “A bullet pierced his lips.”
Even with the help of a phrasebook, miscommunication was common. In his sketchbook, aviator Penrose Vass Stout recorded this encounter between a doughboy and a befuddled French waiter. “This is not a Hula-Hula dance,” Stout wrote. “It is a picture of an American soldier ordering two-three minute soft boiled eggs by imitating a rooster.”