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In Search of a Phrase

Stephen Henighan

Between the second and the fifteenth centuries, Europe and Asia were tied together, via the Middle East, by a network of trading routes on land and sea known as the Silk Road. This network of commercial relationships allowed cultural knowledge to travel back and forth across Eurasia. The transfer of knowledge generated new cultural forms. One quirky, though not inconsequential, product of the Silk Road was the phrase book. Many travellers wrote down words from the languages they encountered and arranged them into lists for the benefit of future traders. A manuscript produced in the tenth century appears to be a phrase book for Tibetan Buddhist monks travelling to China; it lists words for food, tools and weapons. A Tibetan-Sanskrit phrase book from the same era contains useful phrases such as I do not like my provisions.

Refined during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the phrase book has changed little over the centuries. In 1607, in the city of Pskov in northwest Russia, a German named Tönnies Fonne wrote a German-Russian phrase book for the benefit of fellow traders from northern Germany’s Hanseatic League. In a 2014 study of Fonne’s phrase book, the Dutch linguist Pepijn Hendriks writes: “The arrangement of this seventeenth-century phrase book is not very different from that of modern-day phrase books: it presents the user with long lists of vocabulary, gives a small grammatical compendium and contains handy phrases.” This formula will be familiar to anyone who has picked up a phrase book before going on vacation. I encountered my first phrase book when I was fifteen and my parents were planning to rent a house in rural Italy. I have little memory of the book; for me, the highlight was the accompanying cassette. After supper we would play the cassette and listen to Italian phrases and their English translations. The Italian was high, mellifluous and difficult to capture; it was the English, delivered in a firm, almost reprimanding British accent, that stuck in our minds. We walked around our apartment repeating phrases like There is no room at this hotel or You are going the wrong way. None of us learned much Italian.

Undeterred by this unsuccessful first experience, I’ve since become a collector of these tiny books that are too small to stand upright on my bookshelves. There is the Turkish phrase book whose words I was unable to pronounce and the Greek one that was superfluous because all the Greeks replied in English. There is the Cantonese phrase book that my partner was given in Hong Kong by a friend who wanted to make the point that for many Hong Kong residents, Mandarin is a foreign language and one that they do not welcome. The friend’s gesture was a reminder that phrase books are always political: they situate the user, set boundaries for the traveller’s relationships with local residents, and define the country in terms of which regional, ethnic or class variant of its language is presented to visitors. In the 1990s, when I was living in London and following the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, I made regular visits to Grant and Cutler, a bookshop famous for its foreign-language section. Over the course of the war, the Serbo-Croatian phrase book was divided into separate Serbian and Croatian volumes; a few months later, a Bosnian phrase book appeared nestled alongside them, signalling a further cultural splintering. The variations in phrasing among these three volumes—negligible to an outsider’s eyes—reflected desperate assertions of identity.

The phrase book that I’ve put to the greatest use, and the one that showed me how much instruction can be extracted from these small volumes when circumstances demand it, is the Hungarian phrase book I bought in early 1989, when I travelled around Hungary by myself for a month. Under communism, travellers from non-communist countries were obliged to check in at the tourist office of each town they visited, be assigned a place to spend the night and obtain a visa stamp attesting that they had slept in government-approved accommodation. In Budapest, few people spoke Western languages; outside the capital, almost nobody did. As I travelled through eastern Hungary, I depended entirely on my phrase book. I studied it every night. I learned the numbers from one to a thousand to buy train tickets and tell waiters in small-town restaurants how much of a tip to add to my bill. I memorized every phrase related to train travel and strained to understand the tinny-sounding Hungarian announcements when changing trains in remote stations. By the end of the month, I had a vocabulary of three hundred words—yet, like even the most assiduous phrase book users, I knew little grammar.

With the end of the Cold War, phrase books multiplied. Lonely Planet alone has produced over 120 of them, many for non-official languages. In a 2017 study, the linguist Richard W. Hallett criticized Lonely Planet’s phrase books for presenting English as a neutral norm and exoticizing other languages, particularly those of the South Pacific. Yet phrase books are not only tools of cultural globalization; they are also among its potential casualties. Many young Europeans, brought up to speak to people from other European countries in English, no longer use them. In Russia a few years ago, I watched Chinese tourists order fast food from Russian attendants via cellphone translation apps. North American tourists now find English-speaking waiters and hotel receptionists in many countries. This convenience conceals a loss. From the Silk Road onward, the creation of phrase books was powered by commercial interest, illusions of cultural superiority and curiosity. Did the Tibetan monk who learned the Mandarin word for horses, the Hanseatic trader who picked up a few phrases of Russian or the American tourist who learned how to order a cappuccino in Italy revel in their new knowledge? Every now and then, I’m convinced, these apparently dispensable volumes opened the door to realms of new experience, fresh ways of looking at the world. The elimination of such possibilities for growth should give a traveller pause each time a server in another country asks them for their order in English.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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