Friday, 24 February 2012

Tommy's French

Thrown into a new country, Tommy quickly picked up enough French to get by, just as he had in India as a pre-war regular. A variety of pidgin French was soon developed, despite the efforts of the authorities to encourage proficiency. ‘Napoo’ was a particular favourite, meaning no more, finished, broken, worn out, or useless – it was derived from il n’y en a plus (there is no more). ‘No compree’ – derived from compris – which meant that there was no understanding on either side, was also common. For centuries, British soldiers serving abroad had appropriated words from the local language to fill in or supplement their own vocabulary (which, not surprisingly, was also liberally sprinkled with strong, Anglo-Saxon-derived, swear words). The languages of the Indian subcontinent provided many of the common examples, in official parlance – khaki, puttee; or in soldier speak – blighty (for home), bundook (for rifle). Adoption of pidgin French was therefore inevitable; there is evidence to suggest that some of the locals adopted this way of speaking in order to extract the most from their visitors – children asking for souvenirs ..

Numerous French language handbooks and pamphlets – even packet inserts like that provided with Black Cat cigarettes like that illustrated – were issued to temp the soldiery away from their army slang, albeit with limited success.

Peter Doyle's book Tommy's War (Crowood, available here) covers all aspects of the British soldier's life in the Great War.

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