Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Phrase Books

The concept of a phrasebook is amusing, I believe. The idea is that you buy a book of phrases commonly used in a language and you use that book to make your way in a country whose language is not your own. Things quickly get complicated, however, even with the simplest of phrases. Your "Goodbye" might be someone else's "Go with God." You will probably mispronounce whatever phrase you're trying to use, thereby turning it into a) strange sounds or b) a joke or c) an insult.

Then there's this problem: You want to ask someone in the country something, so you look at your phrasebook, pick out the question, and say it. The person answers. You don't understand the answer, so what was the use of saying your phrase? Or you do understand the answer but don't know what to say next. You look at your phrasebook, but of course it offers no help. In conversation, it's the second, third, fourth (and so one) things that matter, not the serve. You serve your phrase, and a response comes screaming back over the net, and there's no way you can handle it.

Nonetheless, I'm a sucker for phrase books. I bought one before we went to Berlin this summer. I think I used it once out of a possible--oh, let's say 50--interactions, and even then I used it only as a kind of prep. I had studied German long ago, and I had lived in Germany for a year in 80-81, so I had that to fall back on, but "falling back on" was about all it was good for. Rather like an old worn-out bed. Pieces of a second language do float to the surface, however. And hearing the language makes you remember things; you get into the swing of language; you get by. And we mustn't overlook the fact that because of the British and American Empires, English has insinuated itself all over the place, so even ins spite of our best intentions, our desires to blend in, we are, by default, linguistic bullies. Meanwhile, the phrasebook stays up in the hotel room, on vacation. Think of all the free vacations phrase books have taken!

This poem is based on the premise that two travelers communicate using only their phrase books. I'd prefer that every other line of the dialogue were indented, but I can't get the blog-program to let me do that. Clearly, I need to buy a phrasebook in Blogese so I can talk to my blog.

The poem:

Two Travelers Meet By Chance Inside a Phrase-Book

“My name is Carmen,” she said.
“The Post Office is over there,” he replied.
“Thank you! It is one o’clock.”
“Goodbye! How are you?”
“Do you speak English?”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“My factory is on fire.”
“Excuse me.”
“That dog is frothing at the mouth.”
“You’re welcome!”
“My passport lies under your thigh.”
“Where is the café?”
“Keep walking to the left.”
“Please put this on your head, my painful cousin.”

Ambrose Bierce wrote The Devil's Dictionary, with all sorts of funny definitions of words. I think he may have defined "coward," for example, as "One who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs.” (I just finished re-reading Gore Vidal's novel, Lincoln, in which Vidal has Lincoln signing [or not]execution orders for hundreds of soldiers who ran away from battles or who committed other potentially capital offenses. Lincoln has sympathy for those he calls "the leg men," the ones who run away, because he thinks that's how he might react in battle.) I think someone should write a phrasebook-counterpart to Bierce's Dictionary--something like the Franz Kafka Phrasebook for Foreign Travelers, a phrasebook that revels in the absurdity of phrase books.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
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