My hovercraft is full of eels.
- Monty Python
When you think about it, we invest in them an extraordinary amount of trust. Armed with something which can fit into the tiniest of pockets, we happily swan into the most outlandish places and, hardly understanding a single word of what is being spoken around us, communicate our desires to Johnny Foreigner by looking up the words in our trusty phrase book. But how do we know what we have asked for? Will the manager move us into that room with a sea view which we booked? Will the nice carabinieri direct us to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore? Or will they fall about laughing in the manner displayed by Manuel, when he thought there were two dead pigs in the Fawlty Towers water tank?
Well, they shouldn't laugh, so long as we have a reputable reference book and we pronounce the phrase correctly. For the latter we have three options:
Use the book's pronunciation guide along with any distant memories of school language orals:
Stuff the pronunciation, and just say it as if the words were written in our mother tongue:
Excusie mwah, avvez voos de payne, silver plate?
Give up and point to the phrase in the book.
This last option can often yield the most troublesome results. People search for reading glasses, then, not recognising the written words as directed, seize the book and flick through it from cover to cover in an attempt to find something you probably should have asked. They will try to involve as many other local people as they can, all jabbering at nineteen-to-the-dozen and waving their arms around, usually until the local law enforcement arrives to clear the massed obstruction.
Do not starch my cummerbund.
- from a French phrase book of the 1920s.
In Britain, such guides have been around at least since the age of the Grand Tour, when sons of gentlemen would round off their education by engaging in an extended trip to the cultural highlights of Renaissance Europe. This was no Easyjet flight; they would have taken coach loads of luggage and servants to carry it all. Such modes of travel led to one book including the incomparable phrase 'My postillion has been struck by lightning' rendered into four European languages. Presumably because it survived countless reprints beyond the age of the postillion, the phrase has been used to parody the genre in more recent times.
The archaic content of these language guides survived in some degree into the 20th Century, but with the advent of air travel and package holidays, it was clear that there was a need for modern phrase books for the not-so-grand tourist. One organisation quick off the mark was Berlitz; today it's a multinational organisation with around 450 language teaching centres in over 60 countries, but it all began with a German immigrant who arrived in the United States in the 1870s.
Maximilian Delphinus Berlitz was born in Württemberg, Germany in 1852, the son of two teachers. After he emigrated to the US, he started to teach some of his 12 languages in an academy in Providence, Rhode Island. These classes were conducted in the old-fashioned classroom style, full of rigid rules and grammar, until something happened that radically changed his view of language teaching.
In 1878, feeling overworked and unable to teach a particular French class, he persuaded a Frenchman, Nicholas Joly to take it on. As Joly knew virtually no English, Berlitz, in desperation, instructed him to get around this by simply pointing at things and acting out any verbs. Six weeks later, when Berlitz returned refreshed, he was amazed to find that not only was it a hit with the students, but they were engaging in fluent conversation with the teacher - the Berlitz Method was born. From now on, students would learn foreign languages in the same way they learned their own: listening, repeating and speaking only that language.
Berlitz expanded his business operation on the back of this revelation. He publicised his innovative methods at exhibitions and fairs around the world and won awards. He also published his own teaching materials, including some of the first audio guides, pressed onto wax cylinders. Today, the organisation publishes over 1,000 titles and provides other language-related services such as translation and interpretation.
The Phrase Book
Other equally good products exist, but the Berlitz Phrase Book is regarded by many as the industry standard, and is published in approximately 30 languages. The colour-coded sections appear in the same order for each1, and the required phrases are often identical too. Language-by-language variations do exist, of course. In the 'Eating Out' section, for example, pork dishes are not surprisingly absent from the Arabic version. In this short tour of the sections, we'll investigate whether any modern equivalents of the hapless postillion still exist:
Quick Reference Page
Usually found inside the front or back cover, these are the phrases for those situations which don't afford you the luxury of time to look them up.
- Slovenian for Travellers
Pronunciation / Some Basic Expressions (Lilac)
Pronunciation is an essential section to read on the journey. Some languages assign some very unexpected sounds to letters and letter combinations. You will find it far easier if you can pronounce the direct translation of a phrase, rather than rely on the somewhat idiosyncratic phonetic guide.
The basic expressions cover simple formalities, but some of them probably don't need translating:
|Does anyone here speak English?||Burada Ingilizce bilen biri var mi?||burada eengeeleez-je bee-len beeree var mee|
- Turkish for Travellers
Arrival / Hotel (Purple)
They say that getting there is half the fun. The book even includes polite conversation with your taxi driver.
|Could you drive more slowly?||Può andare più lentamente?||pwo ahndaaray peeoo layntahmayntay|
- Italian for Travellers
We hope you managed to get the room you ordered, and that all your home comforts are catered for:
|The mosquito net is torn||Chandalua kimetatuka|
- Swahili for Travellers
Eating Out (Orange)
Probably the single most useful application of a phrase book is translating foreign menus. There's nothing that puts more of a dampener on a romantic meal than ordering what you thought was beef casserole and ending up with stuffed pig's trotters della casa.
|Can I have some more herrings, please?||Saisinko lisää silakka-a kiitos.||sah'sinkoa lissæ sillahkkah, keetoass|
- Finnish for Travellers
Still, you can always call the waiter and explain your difficulties.
|That's not what I ordered.||Das habe ich nicht bestellt||dahss haaber ikh nikht berstehlt|
|I asked for scrambled eggs with diced sausages or bacon.||Ich wollte Hoppel-Poppel||ikh volter hoppperl-popperl|
- German for Travellers
Travelling Around / Sightseeing / Relaxing / Making Friends (Green)
You know you're on holiday when the trains run like clockwork and the roads are empty.
|Will you tell me when to get off?||Kan du si fra nåar jeg skal gå av?||kahn dew see fraa nor yæi skahl gaw ahv|
- Norwegian for Travellers
And there are so many things to see. If you haven't joined the guided tour, then local people should be proud to show off their town, and will be fascinated to hear what you think of it.
|Where's the parliament building?||Missä on eduskuntatalo||missæ oan aydooskoontahtahloa|
|It's ugly||Se on ruma||say oan roomah|
- Finnish for Travellers
Maybe you are looking forward to a more active holiday? Some water sports, maybe, or why not try what the locals do?
|I want to hire some skiing equipment||orid isti'gar mo'iddæt ski|
- Arabic for Travellers
As evening descends, you can hit the nightlife and get a little more social. Some of us are lucky enough to meet that 'special friend' when on a foreign holiday:
|Would you like to go out with me tonight?||Unapenda kwenda nje na mimi usiku wa leo?|
- Swahili for Travellers
Shopping Guide (Yellow)
One of the larger sections of the book, the Shopping Guide is handily split into subsections for each type of store. Maybe you fancy taking advantage of the low taxes; but what special gift should you take home for your loved ones?
|I'd like the bullfight poster||Quisiera el cartel de toros||keesyayrah ayl kahrtayl day toaroass|
- Spanish for Travellers
Bank / Post Office / Telephone (Pink)
A short section on some of the more mundane administrative matters. This section dates faster than any other, owing to the rapid advances in communication technology.
Doctor / Dentist (Black)
Let's hope you never need to refer to the black pages. It's unsettling enough falling ill in a foreign land without having to communicate your symptoms to a doctor or pharmacist:
|I have an insect bite||Polle-e moollyo-ssumneeda|
- Korean for Travellers
In some situations, the doctor will need to communicate with you, and this section includes special tables where they can point to the desired instruction:
|Dali boste blato||I want a specimen of your stools|
- Slovenian for Travellers
Reference Section (Red)
Another handy section — even if you have no knowledge of the language whatsoever, you may be able to get by at a shop or market if you just memorise a few basic numbers.
- Finnish for Travellers
Grammar (White) and Dictionary (Blue)
The book ends with a short grammar section: of less use to the casual tourist, but it can be a useful refresher from your school days. Finally, you'll find a short dictionary, which also links to the relevant section of the book. It's not particularly comprehensive, so you might consider investing in a separate pocket-sized translating dictionary.
So there we have it. The modern phrase book is small, handy and thoroughly good value at around a fiver, but surely something was lost when the electrically-overcharged postillion disappeared from its pages. Something amusing, certainly, as many of today's phrases will be in 100 years from now, but the phrase somehow encapsulated the pioneering spirit of the early tourists, something we overlook as we routinely hop on to jets which take us around the world in less than a day.
If your French hotel maid starches your cummerbund, you're on your own.