For TOURISTS and TRAVELLERS in Foreign lands

One of my favourite genres of book is that of the really old foreign-language phrasebook. They’re a thin but illuminating window into so many things: who is travelling, and why; who they are talking to, and why; what expectations they have. If there isn’t a PhD-thesis-turned-monograph on the subject, there certainly should be. My fondness is much shallower: the de-contextualised expectations of the historical traveller can be extremely funny.

From the perspective of having a jolly good laugh, older phrasebooks are to be preferred. We aren’t interested in the modern phrasebooks for the modern city-breaker, or the hippies’ guides to Asia, or even the WW2/occupation-era phrasebooks for military personnel moving about the world. On the other hand, too far back, and the only people travelling are traders and diplomats, whose phrasebooks are too pragmatic for much comedy. No, for best results, we want phrasebooks from the height of (the British) empire, the early twentieth century.

I recently acquired a perfect specimen: Marlborough’s Danish, Self-Taught, by W. F. Harvey, M.A. Undated, but the third edition of the “Self-Taught” series seems to have been published in the early 1930s.

Some of the words chosen for inclusion in the vocabulary section are… quite different to those of modern phrasebooks. For example, there is a long section on “Fruit, Trees, Flowers, and Vegetables”, including such everyday examples as vegetable-marrow, myrtle, lily-of-the-valley. There is a page for “Minerals and Metals”, in case one needs to discuss agate, gravel, or the carbuncle. The page for “Mankind; Relations”, includes, as well as the expected familial relation words, translations for “a dwarf”, “a hunchback”, “a giant”. Let’s assume these are for translating fairy-tales.

The choice of phrases to include in each section reveals the intended audience to be the more well-heeled traveller. Some selections:

I want a first-class ticket to …Jeg ⌀nsker en f⌀rste Klasses Billet til …yey eun’sker en feur’ster klahs’ses billet’ til …
Please give him my card Vær saa god at give ham mit Kort vayr soh goh aht gee(ver) ham mit kort
Which is the best hotel?Hvilket er det bedste Hotel?vil’ket air day bester hohtel’?
Can I obtain the exclusive right over the shooting?Kan jeg faa Eneret paa Jagten her?kah(n) ih foh ee’ner-ret poh yahk’ten hair?

In fact, the entire “Shooting” section is pretty great. What kind of shooting can I get here? Any Capercailzie? Let me have a shoot with your gun. How many dogs can you let me have? HOW MANY DOGS? Are the dogs properly trained?? Keep the dogs back! HOL HOON’NENER TIL’-BAHGHER!!

Getting the worst of the upper-class entitlement are the domestic staff. The book has sections for conversations with The Dressmaker, The Shoemaker, and The Laundress. Albeit there are more different ways for these experiences to go badly than to go well, but the book has no suggestions for “good job with that dress”, or “here is a gratuity, my good man”. Instead there are a diverse collection of ways to complain about the service received.

Don’t disappoint meNar mig ikkenar’ mih ik’ker
They hurt my toesDe klemmer mig over Tæernede klem’mer mih ee hay-len ow’er tay’-er-ner ee vrist’en
This is too limpDette er ikke stift nokdet’ter air ik’ker stift nok
See how badly that is doneSe hvor daarligt det er gjortse vor dor’lee day air gheyohrt’
You must take it backDa maa tage det tilbagedee moh tah day tilbah’gher
This is not my handkerchiefDette er ikke mit Lommet⌀rklædedet’ter air ik’ker mit lom’mer-tuer’klay-ther
You have torn my dressDe har revet denne Kjole itudee har ray’vet den’ner keyohl’-er eetoo’

It is also important to be able to express complaints more generally. The section on “Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy and Anger, &c” has got you covered.

Chapter heading: Expressions of Surprise, Sorrow, Joy, Anger, &c
Indeed! Virkelig! veer’kelee!
Don’t touch!R⌀r det ikke reur day ik’ker
I am quite vexed about itDet plager mig en Delday plah’gher mih en dehl’
I am in a bad temperJeg er i daarligt Hum⌀ryey air ee dor’lee hoomeur’
Hold your tongueTi stilletee stil’ler
You are very wrong De har fuldstændig Uretdee har foolsten’dee oo’ret
How could you do so?Hvorledes kunde De g⌀re det?vor lairth’es koon’ner dee gheu’rer day?
I am ashamed of youJeg skammer mig over Demyey skam’mer mih ow’er dem
For shame!Skam Demskam dem
You are very much to blameDe er meget at dadledee air mih’et aht dahth’ler

If you would like your own copy, so that you too can learn to speak Danish like an entitled Britisher from 90 years ago, there is currently a copy available on Etsy.