Phrasebook Alternative History: 1940.

Tamas Deak at Poemas del río Wang posts about a courageous man and his unique Polish-Hungarian phrasebook:

Wladysław Szabliński vel Krawczyk was the Polish lector of the Tisza István University in Debrecen from the thirties. He was born in Warsaw on 7 December 1912. On 1 September 1935 he was already teaching at the university, and took an active part in the work of the summer university, too. He had an excellent command of Hungarian, many people only knew him as “Szablinski László”, and he had a Hungarian wife, Ágnes Juhász. The example sentences of his phrasebook make you understand why the Nazi cultural attaché demanded his dismissal in the summer of 1941. […]

WAR / the British government sent an ultimatum to the German government / the German government rejected the ultimatum / England declared war on Germany / the Germans invaded Poland without ultimatum / the technical superiority was on the German side / defense reports / our army is rapidly advancing
our troops repulsed the hostile attack / there is tranquility on the front / the enemy was lured into a trap / the French troops went on counterattack / the soldiers dug trenches and forced the taken positions / the German troops retreated to the previously chosen positions / the hostile troops fled in disorder / we have won the battle! / the enemy’s defeat is unavoidable / the Siegfried Line was broken through / an air attack was ordered against Warsaw / the anti-aircraft artillery shot down two planes / they dropped twenty bombs / the public buildings were bombed / the civilians suffered the most / they bombed the Red Cross hospital / we had ten casualties and forty-three wounded / the losses of the enemy are unknown / the troops encamped / the siege of Warsaw lasted nearly a month / the fort garison surrendered

A glorious alternative history unfolds from the example sentences of the book. Britain and France did not let down their ally in a shameful way, as they did in reality, but, as they previously agreed, they immediately attacked the German aggressor. Thus, Poland came out of the war as a winner.

Britain successfully continues his anti-submarine campaign / the resources of the enemy are exhausted / they signed an armistice / peace talks began / they made peace / the defeated enemy had to sign the peace treaty

See the post for images and more.


  1. As every Pole knows: “Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki, i do szabli, i do szklanki!”

  2. But the important question: does he tell us how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels”?

  3. “Britain successfully continues his anti-submarine campaign”

    In Polish, countries are masculine or ‘Britain’ is because of the phonology, or for some other reason?

  4. That will be Deák’s translation, and he’s Hungarian, and they don’t have gender in Hungarian, so you have to cut him some slack.

  5. “so you have to cut him some slack.”

    Sorry, I didn’t intend my comment as a criticism. I was, and still am, genuinely curious why he used the masculine pronoun in referring to Britain. This jumped off the page to my English eyes.

    In English, countries are neuter, maybe also sometimes feminine. In Arabic it varies and I forget what determines the gender (there is no neuter). I don’t recall in Hebrew, but it has been a number of years since I studied it or read any material,

  6. Just one universe away, where Poles are called Veneds (they were conquered by Marcus Aurelius and speak a Slavic-tinged Romance language called Wenedyk), these sentiments were put into a classic American musical:

    Oh, the Hunky and the Vened must be friends,
    Yes, the Hunky and the Vened must be friends,
    Both of them like to drink their beer
    And shout their rousing battle cheer,
    That is why they simply must be friends!

    Huns and Veneds stick together,
    Huns and Veneds are good pals,
    Hunkies courtin’ Vened daughters,
    Veneds goin’ for Hunky gals!

    “I’d like to say a word for the Vened,
    He come out here with lots of vim and pep.”
    “He come out here and stretched a lot of fences,
    Built ’em right across our sacred Hunky steppe!”

    Huns and Veneds, etc.

    “The Hunky is a good Covenanter[1],
    No matter what the Squeakers[2] say or think,
    You seldom even see him in a bar-room …”
    “… Unless of course he’s having him a drink!”

    Oh, the Hunky and the Vened, etc.

    [1] American, from “The Solemn League and Covenant of North America”

    [2] Someone who stretches barbed-wire fences: a settler rather than a nomad

  7. It was my translation from Tamás Deák’s original Hungarian, and yes, this was obviously my error. Languagehat is right: as we have no linguistic genders, we are unconsciously prone to translate things in masculine, as the “default gender” (I mean as the first gender one learns from language manuals).

  8. Stefan Holm says


    Not a universe but just 41 years ago the official title of the Swedish king was Sveriges, Götes och Vendes konung, ’King of Sweden, Geats and Veneds’. In Latin it was Sueorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex, i.e. somebody had confused the Slavic ‘Veneds’ with the Germanic tribe ‘Vandals’.

    Our present monarch, Carl XVI Gustaf, a direct descendant of the by Napoleon appointed Marshal of France, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, at his accession to the throne in 1973 decided to simplify his title to Sveriges konung, ‘King of Sweden’.

    It was about time. The original title was adopted in 1540 when king Gustav I and his Danish counterpart Kristian III fought about the dominance over the southern borders of the Baltic Sea, in particular Rügen, Pommern and Mecklenburg, which by then had a mainly Slavic speaking population. For 433 years the Swedish aristocracy kept their faith…

  9. I misremembered the lyrics above: it should be “Huns and Romans“. Of course, the cream of the jest is that Veneds are no more Roman than the Hungarians are Huns, despite their respective national legends.

  10. Britain is feminine in Polish (Wielka Brytania – it’s unusual to leave out the adjective).
    BTW, We won’t let ourselves! should be We won’t give in! or something like that.

  11. Studiolum: Thanks for the clarification.

  12. BTW, We won’t let ourselves! should be We won’t give in! or something like that.

    Or “We shall not be defeated”, depending on whether you speak like Douglas McArthur (“I shall return”) or like Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger (“I’ll be back”).

  13. LH: they don’t have gender in Hungarian

    As if they had it in English 😉

    BTW, English is one of a very, very small number of languages that have pronominal gender but no gender marking on nouns and adjectives.

  14. Semantic/referential gender systems are rare in the world’s languages altogether, and it’s not very clear what generalizations can or should be made about them. See Florian Dolberg, “Gender Change from Old to Middle English” (draft version).

  15. Well, Dolberg refers to Greville Corbett’s Gender (1991, CUP). The sample discussed in the book is fairly large and Corbett does draw a number of generalisations from it; see also his WALS articles on gender-related phenomena. But true pronominal-gender languages like English are extremely rare (see Audring 2008), and they violate some of those morphosyntactic generalisations.

  16. Stefan Holm says

    Born in a rural but still (linguistic) core area of Sweden (Tidaholm, West Geatland) I’m breast-fed with a three gender system. Even if it’s dead among the young generation and reduced into a two gender one (neuter vs. common gender) I naturally even today sort new loanwords into the feminine-masculine system.

    ‘Taco’ is masculine while ‘piercing’ is feminine. In definite case ‘the taco’ would be tacon while ‘the pearcing’ would be pearcinga. (In standard Swedish it is pearcingen). The whole thing has nothing, or very little, to do with biological sex.

    So I follow the Gmc tradition. There are differences between German, Swedish – and Icelandic – but they should not be exaggerated.

  17. Stefan Holm says

    I bow my head to the ground in shame and sincerely hope that you the one and only Hat as so many times before in your mercy will correct my erroneus “>”, “<" and "/" markings.

  18. No problem, I consider it a sacred duty, since my software doesn’t allow preview!

  19. I have been lazy and haven’t perused thru the comments, so someone might have mentioned this already. OE, Old-English (a convenience-term for the close kindred Northsea-Germanic/Peninsular-Gothonic/Ingvaeonic dialects spoken in the modern-day southern, southeastern & mid-central parts of Great-Britain, traditionally dated c. 449 AD to c. 1150 AD. I believe, I know, that when the “Anglo-Saxons”, “Jutes, Frisians, Gewissae, Franks”, etc., invaded & settled, that the aforementioned dialects [& others] had yet to differentiate themselves. What was spoken was, a form of late-common Northwest-Germanic, “NWGmc”, probably very similar to the [non-yet North-Germanic/Norse, seen on the Gallehus-horn [DK], {*ek Hlewagastiz Holtijaz hornan tawidō} but still the precursor-language to NGmc, Ingvaeonic, Istvaeonic & Irminonic dialects. EGmc, i.e., Gothic, Vandalic, Burgundian, etc., had already split the urheimat-scene, in southern Scandinavia. I digress, but East-Gmc is always considered a separate Scando-Teutonic branch, but is it? People usually seem not to account for the dates when citing any given etymon, examples of older-Gmc languages. One sees something like this, “house” from Old-English ‘hus'”. No “circa” given, usually no mention that everything cited from OE, is, in fact, West-Saxon, the de facto lingua franca, of the Gothonic/Gmc tongues spoken c. AD 650- AD 1200, in Englaland, AEnglalond {I am on a library-computer, on which I am unfamiliar w/ the fonts, thus no diacritics}. The Etymological entry should be something like this, “House” from OE, a.k.a., “Anglo-Saxon”, West-Saxon, circa 600AD to 1300AD cited here, “hus”. Cf. cognate-reflexes, Old-Norse, Western ON/Old-Icelandic, another normalized paradigmatic convention for classical “Old-Norse”, pretty much ignoring Eastern Old-Norse/Eastern NGmc, Old-Scanian, Swionic/Old-Swedish, Old-Danish, Gutnish, Dalecarlian, eastern Old-Norwegian, and so on.. In spite of the fact that the Vikings who harried the kindred “Anglo-Saxons” & settled in eastern Great-Britain’s littoral regions, from Anglia, up to about the Firth of Forth. It was they after whom the Danelaw, named was. {a little older-Gmc word-order}. These NGmc/Vikings in SE & eastern Anglo-Saxon territories, were overwhelmingly Eastern OldNorse-speakers, from modern-day Denmark, mostly the longer-settled proto-homelands of the Danes, today’s extreme southern Sweden, Scania & today’s eastern Danish Islands Sjaelland, Bornholm, Lolland, Falster, Moen, etc.

    Back to the topic, OE, like virtually every attested ancient and medieval Indo-European “IE” languages, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Gothic, Gaulish, Old-Church Slavonic, had the tripartite division of nouns, nouns usually have an unmutable gender, i.e., noun-gender is set, w/ some exceptions, by in large, inherited from PIE & usually keeping the genders & much of the nominal/pronominal morphology the same. The, mostly arbitrary, three grammatical genders are masculine, feminine & neuter. Usually making little sense to us modern-day Anglophones, since many inanimate nouns, e.g., door, foot, sun, moon, earth, hand, etc., were either masc. or fem., and nouns; like “woman”, from OE, WSx, c. 800 AD, wifmann, “wife-man”, is a masc. noun {as in all Gmc compound-words, the entire compound’s gender is based upon the final lexical constituent, e.g., “bocahus”, ‘bookhouse/library’, boc, ‘boca’ here, in the genitive, pl., a feminine substantive + ‘hus’, ‘house’ which is neuter, so the compound’s gender is neuter, ‘thaet bocahus, thaet hus, seo boc’.
    I don’t think psycho-linguists/philologists will ever ascertain how grammatical gender arose, in PIE, Afro-Asiatic {Semitic & Hamitic}….

  20. John Cowan says

    The Orbán government announced in 2016 that it would veto any EU attempt to censure Poland for the Constitutional Court crisis. This may be just autocrats sticking together (until the time comes for betrayal), but one wonders if the above sentiments also color it.

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