Legacies of War

The Linguistic Legacy of the Great War

What can foreign language use tell us about First World War experience?

Words by Amelia Woolner, Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar

Over the last two summers, I have been working on an extended research project on language use during the First World War. Using personal diaries from the University’s Liddle Collection, my research has focused on how the First World War affected language use, and how language itself can be used as a tool to unravel the varying experiences of men and women on the front line. As my research developed, I became interested more specifically in the role of foreign languages, and what their use in personal diaries might reveal about the intercultural experiences of men and women during the First World War.

One of the key aims of my research project was to highlight the variety of experiences, and to go beyond the much-researched and well-known idea of the ‘Tommy on the Western Front’. I wanted to show that foreign language use served a variety of purposes, was not limited to the French language, and revealed more than just a placement in a foreign country.

Throughout my analysis, examples of French language use in British sources were significantly the most common. However, what was surprising was the variety of contexts in which they appeared. These ranged from the mundane and light-hearted, to more serious examples, and from the simplistic ‘no bon’ or ‘napoo’ to more complex and lengthy constructions (see examples 1-4).

Example 1: GS0479 – DUNCAN, WO: No bon stew for dinner so had some boiled eggs instead.

Example 2: GS0950 – LETHEM, T: The division is now about ‘napoo’.

Example 3: GS0950 – LETHEM, T: Today he gave me a list of the dates of his promotion and calmly asked me to write up his history! Of course I shall do it. Je crois que non.

Example 4: GS1821 – WHARTON, RB: Weather fairer Mud thicker up to waist in places

What was interesting to note about all of the examples of French language use that I found in my research, was that they were not essential uses of a foreign language (i.e. French was not used to facilitate communication, and the sentence could have easily been communicated in English). It became apparent that such foreign language use was predominantly stylistic, that is to say, that its use was intended to add an extra layer of meaning that would not have been communicated through English alone.

I was interested to see if this was the case for other foreign languages, and found examples of German and Italian language use in British diaries (see examples 5 and 6):

Example 5: GS0771 – HIRSCH, FB: It made me feel wasser than ever.

Example 6: GS0701 – HANCOCK, RF: Up at 2 a.m. ancore and out with despatches to Amb.

These, like the French examples, were purely stylistic. They are also both incorrect uses of German and Italian. What this highlighted for me was that it was the act itself of speaking a foreign language that was important, rather than an individual’s competency in that language. Example 5 is a misuse of the German word ‘wasser’ (water), which seems to have been incorrectly translated to ‘worse’ in English, whilst Example 6 is a mix of the French ‘encore’ and the Italian ‘ancora’.

If such uses of foreign languages were not essential, then why were they used? It is likely that foreign languages became linguistically ‘rich’, in comparison to an individual’s ‘neutralised’ mother tongue (Auer, 2005). Use of foreign languages signalled a new and exciting position in a foreign country, which was exclusive to those that had left Britain for France. It set them apart from those at home, and helped to create a sense of solidarity amongst those stationed on the front line (Languages and the First World War Conference, 2014).

However, this was not true of all uses of foreign languages. British diaries from Mesopotamia showed a very different, much more functional use of foreign languages (see examples 7-9):

Example 7: MES024 – COLBECK, CE: Our stout though sadly reduced old Commandant and the old Subadar and the senior Jamadar stayed behind and we fell in about 3:30 p.m

Example 8: We soon got into a region of pebbly ridges and nullahs; our first acquaintance with a stone for 18 months

Example 9: MES042 – HARRIS, JH: 2 brews of bulgar. 1 small chupatti.

Unlike the examples from the Western Front, the above examples refer to titles, foreign objects and foods. They are seamlessly integrated into the English sentences, and it is unlikely that they could have been more easily communicated in English. What this suggests about the British experience in Mesopotamia, in contrast to that of the Western Front, is the immersion into a culture entirely different to one’s own, in which individuals were forced to adopt foreign language terms, as their mother tongue did not have existing words for such concepts.

Finally, the last section of my research aimed to show that foreign language use often signalled more than just being in a foreign country; it was also a signal of social identity (see examples 10 and 11):

Example 10: GS0771 – HIRSCH, FB: ‘No bon’ is awfully common.

Example 11: GS0771 – HIRSCH, FB: Suddenly drop on the 1st and Bas, so have a tres jolie temps.

As can be seen in example 10, words and expressions that were typical of ‘Tommy French’ gained quite a social stigma, becoming strongly associated with the working classes. This was not applicable to French expressions that were less popular in use, (see example 11). What is interesting is that example 11 is no more complex in its construction than those typical of ‘Tommy French’. However, it is evident that it was the use of very particular French terms that became associated with certain social backgrounds. It is therefore evident, that foreign language use during the First World War took on much more than signalling one’s position in a foreign country; it also became a signal of one’s social class.

As my research project drew to a close, it became clear that foreign language use in the First World War goes much further than ‘Tommy French’, and indeed the French language itself. Foreign languages served a variety of functions in the personal diaries of men and women from a variety of fronts – stylistically, functionally and socially. It is hoped that through further research, foreign languages may be used as a key to unlocking such varied experiences of the First World War.


Auer, P. 2005. A postscript: code-switching and social identity. Journal of Pragmatics. [Online]. 37, pp. 403-410. [Accessed: 3 August 2014]. Available from: www.sciencedirect.com


See Amelia discuss her research at the Undergraduate Research Showcase in 2014:


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