Phrasebooks for the Silk Road.

The International Dunhuang Project has an enjoyable post about phrasebooks “popular with travellers on the Silk Routes in the first millennium AD”:

For example, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like the following:

And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I’m going to China, then I’ll return.

The conversations also cover practical matters:

Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I’ll go with one or two horses.

There are more examples and a short bibliography if you want to learn more.

And while we’re on the subject, Christopher Culver has a post on “Guides to little-known languages from the French publisher L’Harmattan”; if you read French and have any interest in little-known languages, you’ll want to bookmark it: “If you are interested in the Finno-Ugrian or Turkic world, you can enjoy Yves Avril’s Parlons komi or Saodat Doniyorova’s Parlons karakalpak. The best (well, usually the only) guides to West African languages are written in French, and L’Harmattan covers this part of the world with such titles as Parlons baoulé (Ivory Coast), Parlons éwé (Togo) and Parlons mooré (Burkina Faso).” (Book links at Culver’s post.)


  1. David L says:

    The first example you quote puts me in mind of “Boots of Spanish Leather”

  2. Sam van Schaik, author of that post, has a wonderful (if infrequently updated) blog at

    Internet loves pictures of cute animals, so here are some: (though they are a bit old).

  3. GeorgeW says:

    I thought this was very interesting. Maybe, I shouldn’t be embarrassed by my collection phrase books, including one I just got for a upcoming trip to Poland. Phrase books often give a nice overview of the language along with stabs at pronunciation, restaurant guides, etc.

  4. Hell no, don’t be embarrassed! There’s nothing wrong with phrase books; I’ve got stacks of them myself.

  5. GeorgeW says:

    I have an Arabic phrase book from years ago in which the ‘phrase’ is in given in Arabic script and English. The written Arabic is Modern Standard Arabic with the English transliteration being the colloquial. They write one thing in Arabic and render something completely different in English.

    I suppose this is because the colloquial is so seldom written that the phrase book translator is uncomfortable writing the actual colloquial phrase. But, the translator also recognizes that one would not speak MSA and would sound very strange to interlocutors.

  6. Rodger C says:

    My introduction to foreign languages was a set of US Army phrasebooks that my uncle gave me as a boy. I look at them now and see that they summarize his war experience: Language Guide to North Africa; Italian; French; German.

  7. Last time I was in Paris, I stopped by one of L’Harmattan’s bookstores, the one that has the Asian/African stuff, I think. A great place; feels like a warehouse a bit. They do a lot of mail order and don’t pay much attention to you, which was fine by me. I picked up a big Tahitian dictionary, and a Tahitian phrasebook, too, and a few other things I couldn’t afford. Then I went across the street to a movie theater in a basement which showed some ridiculous 1950s American movie.

  8. To you, that was “some ridiculous 1950s American movie,” but to the French it is a revelation, a baring of the device, a source of memes yet unborn! Which reminds me, Godard has a new movie out, and I really hope I get the chance to see it.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    When I was a student of English in Paris (late 50’s – early 60’s), I took advantage of cheap movie houses in the Latin Quarter which showed older English and American movies in original versions with subtitles.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Phrase books: I too have a small collection of phrase books in various languages. One year I taught a class on language classification and used the Lonely Planet Central Asian phrasebook for examples separating (at least) Indo-European from Turkic language families.

  11. I have an Arabic phrase book from years ago

    I have a small “English-Arabic Conversational Dictionary with a Grammar, a Collection of Phrases and an Arabic-English Vocabulary” published in London by Hirschfeld Brothers at 263 High Holborn, W.C.

    An explanatory note says “both the Syrian and Egyptian dialects are given, the latter in Italics . . . [t]he Arabic is transcribed in English letters.”

    Despite searching, I’ve been unable to determine the year of publication. One clue: Lots of terminology related to horses, but nary a mention of the motor car. I purchased it in Israel and presume it was left behind by a departing clerk or other official of the British Mandate. Of course there’s always the outside chance it was at one time the personal property of the man after whom Tel Aviv’s Allenby St. is named.

  12. That’s Jaschke! I posted about it here, and it was determined the year of publication was 1909.

  13. I love it so much I’m pretty sure I have two copies.

  14. GeorgeW says:

    Paul Ogden: Your Arabic phrase book predates mine by many years. Yours is a real keeper.

  15. If you want one, it only costs a couple of bucks.

  16. (It has no Arabic script whatsoever apart from the alphabet table at the start.)

  17. 1909! That certainly explains the lack of motor vehicles.

    I don’t see a reference to Jaschke in my copy, but the phrase “Ho there! you! boatman! put me ashore” appears on page 71, the first of the phrases in the Arrival and Departure chapter. And yes, as noted in the SaudiAramaco World article, it’s buckram-bound, although mine is green, not blue.

    In the 2005 posting, MMcM wrote that the book is cataloged at Oxford University with the note “From the serial Nutt’s conversation dictionaries.” The Oxford site seems to be down right now (sandstorm?), but my copy doesn’t mention this. I just noticed that the book’s preface says “This little book is, like its predecessors, an adaptation from Meyer’s Sprachführer.” ‘Meyers Sprachführer’ appears to have been a series of bilingual dictionaries, which, judging from the Google hits, was particularly popular in Sweden and Denmark. (Maybe Norway hadn’t yet become independent.) And just before the preface it says “Printed in Great Britain by T. and A. Constable Ltd. at the University Press, Edinburgh.”

    There’s a smallish English Wiki entry on ‘Meyers Konversations-Lexikon’ and a much longer one in German.

  18. GeorgeW says:

    “Ho there! you! boatman! put me ashore”

    I love it.

  19. The Arabic (since I’m sure everyone wants to know) is “hê! int! yâ baḥri! khudni ῾albarr´!” That’s the Syrian; the Egyptian is identical except it has “inte” for “int.”

  20. My hovercraft is full of eels.

  21. “Ho there! you! boatman! put these eels ashore!”

  22. Perhaps a more appropriate link to a post at my blog for this discussion of antiquated phrasebooks would be this one. “Well, get ready hare or some ducks or pigeons or quails or any kind of game that you can procure. There must be a very good and plentiful dinner to-day, for I have asked some of my friends.”

  23. Excellent! Someone should put together an anthology “Best of Antiquated Colonial Phrasebooks”; the market would be limited but enthusiastic.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    A few years ago when the topic of phrasebooks was mentioned, I remembered an old French-English phrasebook with sentences for every occasion, such as “I need new shoes. Do you have ready-made ones? Show me several pairs in different sizes”. And for the ultimate in social interaction: “Etes-vous la reine de ce pays?”

  25. GeorgeW says:

    I am thinking that phrase books might be a good historical source of non-standard, spoken language.

  26. Rodger C says:

    “Ho there! you! boatman! put these eels ashore!”


  27. “Etes-vous la reine de ce pays?”

    You have to wonder what drove the compilers of those dictionaries to include stuff like that. Though it helps explain how the hovercraft came to be full of eels.

  28. Etienne says:

    GeorgeW: In answer to your question, phrase books are not that good a source of data on the spoken language, at least when it comes to the language family I know best (Romance: perhaps things were different in Central Asia). The reason is that the “Romance” in the oldest medieval phrase books (Various forms of Old High German-Romance) tends to be either Medieval Latin, or Romance which is so heavily latinized in spelling and syntax that it reveals little if anything about the spoken language.

    Lists of individual words are much more revealing for the historical linguist: words which the writer/transcriber couldn’t associate with a Latin word (either because the Latin word was rare or because the vernacular Romance word had became unrecognizable through phonological or semantic changes, or had a non-Latin origin) are typically spelled phonetically (within the confines of the orthographical conventions of the time, of course), and if the list can be dated back with enough precision this helps establish the chronology of sound changes.

  29. GeorgeW says:

    Etienne: My speculation was based, maybe erroneously, on a couple of things. First, an Arabic phrasebook I have has colloquial, not standard language in the English rendition of Arabic. Secondly, I would think that an author would give the visitor language that is actually spoken and used, not a stilted, formal form of the language.

    However, I may be generalizing from Arabic which is different from most languages because of its diglossia. In other languages, the difference between formal and informal language may not be great enough to make the distinction in a phrasebook.

  30. because of its diglossia

    Indeed. And yet every language with a written form has some degree of diglossia, though it rises and falls over time (Greek is much less diglossic than it used to be, and so is the German of Germany, though for opposite reasons; in France, diglossia has been rising for centuries). The perception that the educated foreigner speaks better X than the native speakers of X is worldwide, and reflects the fact that foreigners are normally taught the H language variety.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    foreigners are normally taught the H language variety.

    This is because an educated foreigner will expect and be expected to interact with natives of the same social level.

    Also, an obvious foreigner using slang words and colloquial speech will probably do so not only with the foreign accent (including intonation) but also more slowly than a native, thus sounding affected (if not ridiculous) rather than “one of the gang”! At least at basic levels, some things should be taught to foreigners for passive understanding rather than active command.

  32. Reasonable enough, and every Russian sings this tune about mat: foreigners shouldn’t use it, because they don’t know how to calibrate it. On the other hand, is it sensible to teach non-francophones to say nous, as I believe is currently done? I think it is better to teach them to write nous and say on, despite the additional burden on memory. I understand the desire to keep foreigners in their place (namely, away from colloquial/intimate language), but “talking like a book” is a social disadvantage too.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I agree with you about teaching “nous” and “on”. Left to myself, I would teach “nous, on …. , on … ” with the “nous” verb forms for passive recognition/understanding. That was not quite the type of thing I had in mind, but I was certainly not trying to “keep foreigners in their place”! Surely you must be aware of some people’s tendency to try to teach foreigners embarrassing words, pretending they are everyday words, so as to sadistically enjoy their embarrassment later. (There was a Monty Python sketch on the topic, something about Hungarian).

  34. more slowly than a native, thus sounding affected (if not ridiculous)

    Exactly! That’s why I abandoned cursing with French NPs, as I always stammer or pause in the middle when I say “putain de X”, making a quite ridiculous effect.

  35. According to Eduard Topol, foreigners can use mat successfully, but they first have to learn how it works; Russian curses are structured completely differently from English ones, and back when I was learning Russian it was virtually impossible to learn the system because it didn’t exist in printed sources and no speakers of the language (at least none I knew) would explain it to you. Thus our attempts at cursing in Russian (govno!) were inadvertently hilarious. Thanks to the filthy, anarchic internet, this is no longer a problem.

  36. m-l:

    keep foreigners in their place

    I was thinking more of the resistance of some groups to having their native languages taught and studied, or the claim that their language is “the most difficult in the world”, or the tendency to impose a double measure of prescriptivism on foreigners. To speak the language of the tribe is to claim implicitly that you belong to the tribe. Some tribes encourage that, others strongly discourage it.

    Monty Python

    The references to “eels” above refer to that very sketch.


    foreigners can use mat successfully

    I wasn’t thinking about structural problems, but about cultural-personal ones. Exactly how much weight a curse has depends on who says it and how. As a result, even if a foreigner uses the very same curse that a native speaker of the same gender, class, age, etc. would use in a given situation, the curse may carry too much or too little weight precisely because it is spoken by an outsider, something the foreigner can’t escape being (see above on inclusive vs. exclusive tribes).

  37. Etienne says:

    John Cowan: I taught my students of French to say NOUS (chiefly because that is what their textbooks indicated) but to be aware that ON in spoken French has the meaning “we”, whereas in written French ON is an indefinite pronouns not unlike a passive or English “one” (Actually, my students were VERY surprised to learn that French ON and English ONE are etymologically unrelated).

    What my students found hardest to grasp, actually, was the fact that in written French ON could mean either “we” or “one”, according to register: thus, dialogue within a novel was likelier to have the “we” meaning, an essay likelier to have the “one” meaning.

    It’s less of a burden of their memory than you might think, because 1-First person plural present indicative verbal morphology is (with only a very few exceptions) the form of the first person plural imperative, which differs from the first person plural present indicative forms merely by the latter requiring a subject pronoun, 2-For other tenses/moods the first person plural verb morphology is (mostly) very regular, and 3-While ON in spoken French has become the all-purpose first-person plural pronoun, this is only true in the nominative: NOUS remains alive and kicking as an object pronoun: IL NOUS DIT QU’ELLE NOUS VOIT “He tells us that she sees us” is impeccable standard and spoken French alike.

    In effect, the NOUS PARLONS-type forms involve students combining a pronoun and endings which they already need to know in any case.

    All: About Russian cursing: I have heard a similar claim made of BASTARD in Australian English, which according to context can apparently, at one end of the continuum, be a term of endearment and solidarity, and at the other, the worst of insults, something that can trigger a vicious exchange of blows. Apparently foreigners, even native speakers of other varieties of English, are warned to avoid using the term, since its pragmatics are apparently both complex and opaque to non-Australians.

  38. They are probably opaque to Australians too, but learned as an inherently implicit rule (informal, in Hall’s formal/informal/technical rule trichotomy).

  39. I wasn’t thinking about structural problems, but about cultural-personal ones. Exactly how much weight a curse has depends on who says it and how. As a result, even if a foreigner uses the very same curse that a native speaker of the same gender, class, age, etc. would use in a given situation, the curse may carry too much or too little weight precisely because it is spoken by an outsider, something the foreigner can’t escape being (see above on inclusive vs. exclusive tribes).

    Yes, I knew what you meant, but I was talking about something else. I have, of course, seen the “foreigners can’t curse successfully so they shouldn’t even try” meme many times for many languages, and I think it’s exaggerated. Of course the truth it expresses is real, but like most truths it is partial. A foreigner who curses will always be a foreigner who curses, but may be a foreigner who curses effectively. Most who try it will, of course, sound ridiculous, but that’s not to say the thing is impossible.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    There is a difference between “foreigner” (let’s say ‘tourist’ or temporary ‘expat’) and “immigrant”.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: nous/on

    You are right, I was forgetting the non-subject forms. It looks like these two pronouns are developing into a “suppletive paradigm”, both forms meaning the same but used in different grammatical contexts (like je/me/moi etc).

    When I started to learn English, I was surprised that even English children used ‘we’!

  42. How long ago did on start being used as a first-person-plural pronoun?

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps Etienne knows!

  44. J. W. Brewer says:

    New York City seems to be full of immigrants with a well-below-native command of English but who nonetheless display idiomatic fluency in the more common AmEng “swear words.”

  45. marie-lucie says:

    This is because they are learning them in their natural context, not through taking typical foreign language courses. That’s what I mean with the distinction between “foreigners” (who remain outsiders) and “immigrants” (who get integrated into the country’s life).

  46. But it is possible to achieve similar proficiency without actual immigration; you just have to work harder at it.

  47. J. W. Brewer says:

    For some reason this reminds me of the summer I spent (many many years ago) as a teenage exchange student in West Germany, where my progress on improving German fluency (which did substantially improve) was to some extent hindered by the fact that the German teens I was typically interacting with all had better school-English than my school-German *and* were interested in using their English with a native speaker. (The key turned out to be to hang out with them in slightly larger groups where after a point speaking English to each other out of intended courtesy to me would be too much practical hassle to keep up.)

    Anyway, at one point one of them asked me to explain/gloss a common bit of AmEng sexual slang and I somehow or other (maybe I looked at the dictionary in my backpack — it certainly wasn’t from my US public school German classes . . .) came up with an understandable German translation, but I’m sure it wasn’t functionally equivalent because it was almost certainly a word that in German either had an antique/fussy ring to it and/or would be used primarily by medical professionals or clergymen or others who might have particular occasion to talk about the referent in a more formal/lofty register than teenage boys would among themselves.

    (For us American kids, the immediate challenge was less mastering vulgar/slang German than becoming aware of which formal/polite words we’d learned in our school-German classes that also had alternative vulgar/slang meanings that might cause us to unintentionally utter double entendres.)

  48. From what I can hack out of the TLFI’s thicket of explanations and examples s.v. on, the first use in print they’ve found of on = nous is this:

    En passant à la grand’garde I, il cria: —Hé! Raoul! Vous êtes là? Ouste! On vous emmène. Le lieutenant Raoul sortit de son trou, en achevant de boucler la sacoche de son browning. Les trois hommes continuèrent vers les Rappes en bavardant.
    —ROMAINS, Hommes bonne vol., 1938, p.7.

    Apparently, there was at one time a trend toward distinguishing nous as exclusive ‘we’, on as inclusive ‘we’:

    J. POHL (Six esquisses ds Fr. mod. t.35 1967, n¹, pp.10-12) fait observer que on inclut généralement l’interlocuteur, alors que nous tend à l’exclure. On dit de préférence (deux couples se fixent, par téléphone, un rendez-vous en vue d’une excursion): «Nous vous préviendrons si nous passons par chez vous; éventuellement on pourrait se rencontrer devant votre maison» et non: «on vous préviendra si on passe par chez vous; éventuellement nous pourrions…».

    There is also a record of an on = vous use, slightly earlier than the first on = nous use:

    Les livres, c’est comme les amis, on ne les choisit pas librement. Ils s’imposent à vous (DANIEL-ROPS, Mort, 1934, p.386).

  49. New York City seems to be full of immigrants […] who display idiomatic fluency

    Yes. But the NYC tribe, or super-tribe, is not only inclusive but over-inclusive: many of them get upset if you don’t speak their language, or don’t speak it well.

  50. I wouldn’t call that an on = vous use at all; it’s just regular on followed by a switch to vous. Anyway, on = nous is clearly younger than I had assumed; thanks for the research!

  51. Well, we should let a native speaker weigh in on on = vous there, I think. Certainly they co-refer: a plausible English translation would be “Books, like friends, you don’t get to choose freely: they are imposed on you”, using English you = one.

    However, 1938 is just a terminus a quo for on = nous; it might have been in spoken use for centuries before Romains decided to use it in written dialogue.

  52. Is there any other evidence for on = vous? Because if it’s a well-known thing that I just happen never to have heard of, then fine, this is an example. If not, if this is supposedly a hapax, then I find it vanishingly improbable that that’s what’s going on.

  53. GeorgeW says:

    The foreign slang discussion reminds me of a story I heard from a middle-aged, white American lady and her family who were traveling somewhere in Europe. While standing somewhere waiting they were approached by a local teenager who apparently wanted to practice English. He said to them, “wazzup mudda fukka.” He must have acquired this from movies, or Hip Hop lyrics. What he obviously didn’t acquire was the pragmatics that go with it.

  54. des von bladet says:

    “That’s a well nang hat, Your Bastard Majesty”, we used to say in our best Effle, “but is it durable?”

  55. And the first comment in that Effle thread is “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

  56. des von bladet says:

    Our great-grandparent had Latin tags; we have Monty Python. Who says there’s no progress?

  57. Romanes eunt domus!

  58. Trond Engen says:

    John Cowan:

    En passant à la grand’garde I, il cria: —Hé! Raoul! Vous êtes là? Ouste! On vous emmène. Le lieutenant Raoul sortit de son trou, en achevant de boucler la sacoche de son browning. Les trois hommes continuèrent vers les Rappes en bavardant.
    —ROMAINS, Hommes bonne vol., 1938, p.7.

    First, 1938 is bizarrely late for something as omnipresent as that. Second, I don’t even agree that this is a clear case.

  59. Trond Engen says:

    As if my intuition on French grammar counted for anything! But I think … Well, let’s hear from a native speaker.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    Native French speaker here at your service.

    I agree that 1938 is extremely late for “on = nous”, but colloquial use must be much older. Plays rather than novels would perhaps be a better source.


    Hé! Raoul! Vous êtes là? Ouste! On vous emmène.
    The context must be WW1. This very obviouskly means “Hey, R! Are you there? Hurry up! We’re taking you with us.

    As for the 1934 example:

    Les livres, c’est comme les amis, on ne les choisit pas librement. Ils s’imposent à vous.

    This example does not mean that on = vous. On never completely loses its indefinite meaning, and vous here is not a substitute for nous (which would be possible) but a way to involve the listener in the conversation.

    Tentatively (and less colloquially): “Books are like friends, they are not chosen freely, they impose their presence in your life”.

    On can be a veiled way to express one’s own opinions, feelings, experiences, etc. As a famous example, George Sand, having made the acquaintance of Chopin and spent an evening talking with him, followed this up by sending him a note saying On vous adore ‘You are loved’ or ‘Someone is in love with you’.

  61. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, right, of course. I was thinking something like “Hurry up. They’re about to take you away”.

  62. Etienne says:

    Another native speaker of French here, who must point out that Quebec French (+ its offshoots), which stems from seventeenth-century upper-class Parisian, also has “on” as its more common first person plural pronoun: this is true even of the French spoken by the Metis of the Canadian prairies, which is one of the oldest and most isolated offshoots of Quebec French.

  63. Fascinating — now I really want to read a history of the usage!

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Nous losing ground:

    The avoidance of nous as subject pronoun cannot be recent, as there is at least one other alternative: in at least some dialects of Acadian French (which has a different origin from Quebec French), “we have” is not nous avons (now high register) or on a (standard colloquial) but j’avons (also attested in Molière in the speech of at least one servant of indeterminate peasant origin).

  65. j’avons

    Wow! Almost worth a trip to l’Acadie to hear that one!

  66. If you allow me, I would like to use this thread to post anything hilarious related to historical phrasebooks.

    [gouuory] pro Alexandre pissanye, y prossesara, y Pompee, de Hannibal y proguarot Carthanno, y prouuoy uodo Sipianno Lafricano sconna zemely

    [let’s talk] about book of Alexander [the Great], about Caesar and Pompey, and Hannibal and about the city of Carthage and general Scipio Africanus

    From Dictionnaire Muscovite by Captain Jehan Sauvage, 1586.

  67. And I’ll repost again the warning about difficulty of Russian contained in Tönnies Fenne’s Low German Manual of Spoken Russian, Pskov, 1607.

    “Ahne Gotts gnade kan nemandtt de rusche sprake lehren.”

    Without God’s mercy, can no one Russian language learn.

  68. Wonderful!

  69. SFReader says:

    Richard James’ diary-dictionary, 1618-1619 which he compiled during travels in northern Russia contains a few items from other languages, for example from Polish:

    bizabi, zarras tarras, pol. Donnic, so when the poles crie to their men they presently laie abought them, and doe mischiefe safely; otherwise they will not meddle

    This is obviously

    “Bij! Zabij! Zaraz, teraz!”

    “Beat! Kill! Right now!”

    Lisowczycy, Polish brigands led by colonel Alexander Lisowski, roamed all over North Russia in 1612-1613 killing, burning and pillaging everything on their path.

    In 1613, Kholmogory, the capital of Russian North, was besieged by force of 1200 Polish brigands led by Stanislaw Jasinski. They failed to take the town, but apparently left quite deep impression – since local Russians haven’t forgotten this foreign phrase and were able to tell it to Richard James five years later.

  70. Fascinating!

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