Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.

 

strafe2
University of OsnaBruck. Copyright under Creative Commons.

Long before 1914 and the advent of war, Samuel Johnson had pointed out that words, like citizens, exist in ‘different classes’. Some are natives, remaining in their linguistic homeland from the beginning. Others are denizens, having lived there for so long that they are virtually indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. Others, however, retain ‘the state of aliens’. If used in English, these – either in terms of form, spelling, or pronunciation – confirm allegiance to languages outside the nation state. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, still in progress during 1914-18, maintained these same divisions. Naturalisation was key.

 

The langscapes of war brought some interesting synergies into play in this respect. Political solidarities with allied nations could, as with France, yield a new influx of words. An ‘Entente-Gallicism’ seemed to be in operation alongside  the ‘Entente-Cordiale’,  the Daily Mail observed, drawing attention to the wide range of French derived forms which had appeared in public discourse and at the Front from the summer of 1914. As Andrew Clark verified in the Words in War-Time archive, this was a marked feature of the war, even if, as he rightly suspected, the majority of such words would fade out of use when war came to an end.

Words with traceable (or suspected) links to the enemy were rather different. German was ‘the Stigma’, as an article the Star in 1915 observed, here in documenting a campaign by the residents of German Place in London to have it renamed Tipperary Place. The Words in War-Time archive documents a variety of emergent shibboleths in this respect, as in the cultural silencing of terms such as wanderjahr:

 ‘Many servants are bent on taking what might have been called a “Wanderjahr” – the fates forbid I should use this word now’. Daily Express (March 1915).

Continue reading

Advertisements

So what is this thing called “war”?

War, with some irony, did not yet exist in the Oxford English Dictionary as Clark began his project of collecting up the vocabulary of what we now know as the First World War. The relevant section of the Dictionary would not be published until 1921. Our modern terminology depends, of course, firmly on hindsight. A first world war, as we now know, was followed by a second. The numerical sequencing offers ominous potential for a third or fourth which, as yet, remain unrealised.

Here, too, both language and history in 1914 could offer the potential for other modes of expression to come to the fore.  How exactly this war was seen and discussed in its first few weeks – when its duration and scale were as yet unknown — can therefore be especially interesting.  The Daily Express on Friday 11th Sept was, for example, already contemplating the coming “war winter:  ’Everybody is preparing for a “war winter”’, it stated, in ways which also suggest some problems for the popular mythography by which WWI was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’. German plans for a quick defeat of France had failed. The conflict seemed likely to set in. “War winter”, set apart by its framing scare quotes, is clearly a form which both Clark and the Daily Express regarded as new and distinctive, andparticularly evocative of time and place.

As in the South African or Boer War to which comparison is often made in these early weeks, the geographical limits of conflict can also influence the terms which appear. ‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, as the Daily Express on September 1st had explained. War here is distinctively ‘European’ — Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and Belgium were, for example, all involved. Conflict had not yet spread across the globe. Language, obsolescence, and history can, of course, all neatly interact in the rise and fall of labels of this kind: the European war would prove ephemeral — not because war ended, but because it transformed into something  far larger. As the Scotsman on 11 September already suggests, its potential is already seen as such that it can be referred to as a great war; it stressed, without reservation, ‘the justice of the cause of Britain in the great war’.

Interestingly, as Clark’s notebooks attest, the diction of the world war, and other associated compounds, also appears within the first few weeks of conflict. The Daily Express on September 1st 1914 could, for example, also move with surprising rapidity into the diction of a war which was already seen in global terms. ‘The result of this world-war may depend on a very slight preponderance of force of either side’, it stated. Here, too, shirking was not an option; the obligation for everyone who could participate was made plain. As the Daily Express warned two days later, here providing another compound for Clark’s growing collection, the enemy was intent on world-dominationWorld-conflict was similar, used in the Scotsman on 15th September, as was world-Empire, which had been used in the same newspaper four days earlier. Such forms can, however, prove false friends in more ways than one. These early compounds with world- are not always what they might seem. As in the last three examples, they deliberately appropriate German habits of word-formation – and hyphenation – on analogy, as Clark observes, with forms such as Welt-politik and Welt-reich. This can, in the popular press, be used to provide a neat linguistic mirroring of the extent of German ambition, and the language in which this was expressed. As Clark realised, German – not English, was the driving force behind such uses, in ways which could prove remarkably prevalent over the early months of war.

As in the Scotsman on Friday 11 September, compounds with world- serve therefore to crystallize the aggrandizing ambition of the enemy, here with the potential to create a world-Empire. Reportage is from a German point of view; context is all-important:

war with France was received with satisfaction, as there were colonies to be annexed. England’s intervention was hailed with jubilation, as indicating the magnificent prospect of world-Empire that success would bring.

A further report in the Scotsman on Friday 18th September makes these critical differences of language and identity plain, setting a world-destiny used of Germany (and German ambitions) against a destiny that Britain must instead seize for the good:

Whatever the world-destiny of Germany may be, we in Great Britain are ourselves conscious of a destiny and a duty. That destiny and duty, alike for us and all the English-speaking race, call upon us to uphold the common rule of justice’

Forms such as these are, in effect, loan-translations – unfamiliarity acts to distance and divide. Newness hence co-exists with another aspect by which aliens (and the alien in other respects) can deliberately be set against apart. Punctuation – often ignored – can, as here, inform a highly critical reading. The Allies were intentionally fighting a European war – citations from German speeches, as reported in the press, stressed instead the desire for a world-war by which conquest might be far-reaching. Like the contrast between German kolossal and BrE colossal — which, as Clark notes, was another strategic and popular, opposition in contemporary accounts– the form of words could act as another image of nationhood, raising other issues by which people are seen to speak – or not – the ‘same’ language. In the words of the Scotsman, ‘we’, as an ‘English-speaking race’ were seeking a war in which a ‘world-destiny’ might not be realised. Language can be used to set up borders which, at least intentionally, put the enemy on the outside.