Review: Multilingual Environments in the Great War

Multilingual Environments in the Great War is an eclectic collection of essays around language edited by Julian Walker and Christophe Declercq published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

The aim of the publication is to explore ‘the differing ways in which language has been used to make sense of the Great War’ and in this it succeeds. There is likely to be something of interest for most people with an interest in aspects of language and war. The editors and section introductions deftly pull together the diverse articles finding commonalities to link them together within themselves and with the present. In particular, the introduction which was written during the early months of 2020 draws parallels between coping with war and the Covid-10 outbreak.

A range of territories, languages and texts are discussed. Africa, Eastern Europe, Australia feature, Kiswahili, Portuguese, Esperanto and Romanian are some of the languages which feature while discussions on books cover guide or tourism books, language guides, and the more traditional analyses of novels with an interesting assessment of swearing in The Mint by TE Lawrence (aka AC Ross). Another fascinating contribution was that on ‘genocide discourse’ looking at the Armenian massacres of the war.

Reading through the book, I was struck with how it complements other books to which I have contributed – The Global First World War; Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment What these books demonstrate, is how much more there is to still discover about the Great War of 1914-1918 and its impact on us a hundred years later. Kudos to all the editors for their foresight.

Talking at cross purposes

Out in Zambia for the end of war commemorations, local words were used with the assumption that all knew the meaning. Using powers of deduction and context one could generally do so but it was not always possible. The most notable being the word for the whip made of hippo hide. So I thought I’d share some – always helpful to historians and researchers of WW1 Africa…

Let’s start with the hippo hide whip:

  • Kiboko – Swahili
  • Khourbash or Shaaburg – Arabic / Soudanese
  • Shikote – Bemba
  • Sjambok, pronounced shambock – South African English/Afrikaans
  • Imvubu – Zulu
  • Mnigolo – Mandinka
  • Chicote – Portuguese Africa and Congo
  • Fimbo – Belgian Congo

Probably the most well known word, Safari which is journey in Swahili translates to Ulendo in Malawian Chichewa. The Peace Corps have helpfully provided a list of 12 commonly used words in Malawi – I recognised a few with my smattering of Swahili and other languages. I leave you to discover what you recognise.

And then that most wonderful of African trees, the Baobab, which I discovered in Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and the Sudan is called the Tebaldi. Sandes explains on p336 (96MB) how the tree was used to obtain water in desert terrain. Apparently there are 9 varieties of Baobab – you live and learn. In Swahili, it is the Mbuyu and in Yoruba, the Oshe. It’s ‘monkey bread’ fruit is also proving something of a fad. Apart from being a water storage facility, in the early phase of the East African campaign of 1914/5, a baobab in Tsavo was used to house a sniper, apparently a woman, who took potshots at those trying to sneak up on Salaita Hill. And then just as you think you’ve grasped where Mbuyuni is, thinking it’s in Tsavo, you discover there are numerous places called Mbuyuni throughout East Africa – it simply translates as ‘Place of the Baobab’.

Which leads to the different names settlements had during World War 1 – local, English and German. A list of some of these can be found on the Great War in Africa, In Memory list for East Africa.

So to prevent any miscommunication and talking at cross purposes, it’s worth discovering the multiple words used for the same thing if you’re working with different cultural groups or micro-nations. My mind is reelling at the thought of having to juggle 177 different words for one item – 177 is the number of micro-nations I estimate participated in the East Africa campaign of WW1- but thankfully a number spoke the same language and regional langauges such as Swahili and Fanagalo were developed.



Evolving language

I’m sure you know a few people who are very pedantic about the English language – the only right English being that spoken in England and the antithesis being American. However, those of us from the old colonies and dominions know that our English is just as valid and has evolved and become enriched through the other languages in our environments. Jewish friends in the UK are often surprised at the range of Yiddish words which feature in South African English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the language, and for those looking for something a bit more serious as an example, I was surprised to find the Story of Jesus according to Luke all in Fanagalo.)

I’m a great one for coming up with new words. One of my favourite is ‘stoven’ – a combination of ‘stove’ and ‘oven’. I fell into the word accidently when we were having our kitchen refurbished and in talking to the builders got myself so confused as to which item I was referring that it seemed easiest to combine the words. Ten years later, we still refer to the stoven. More recently, I’ve discovered the word ‘niblings‘ to refer collectively to nieces and nephews. Again, it’s a new word yet to move into common usage and I hope it does. This makes me realise I’m quite lazy, happy to find short cuts, which remain meaningful – text speak is completely out in my book.

It’s unlikely that any words I come up with will end up in the Oxford, Collins or other reputable dictionaries in the same way that Roald Dahl has had words acknowledged. I’m not sure how many of these six words I’ll be using regularly. I think I’m more likely to use transvaalitis, perhaps tweaking its meaning slightly as I do like the image it conveys.

The evolution of language is important. It allows us to reflect our time and societies more effectively. Micro-nation, a term made popular by Wangari Maathai in The Challenge for Africa to describe the various ethnic groups found in Africa today.

Another significant term to come out of Africa, from an earlier time is holism. This was one of Jan Smuts’ contributions to philosophy. The word, originating from the Greek, was brought to prominence by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. Smuts developed on Darwin’s theory explaining how everything is interconnected. Many rejected Smuts’ theory at the time, taking this to be against Christian beliefs. In doing so, they ignore Smuts’ deep spirituality – it all fits together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, it transcends Christianity to be all encompassing, irrespective of belief. (Nature’s Holism; Callie Joubert)

Finally, I think we need to start reclaiming certain words for their original and varied meaning rather than having their use narrowly restricted. Words such as gay and aid(e) immediately come to mind. Then there are those words which are acceptable in some communities but not in others – rubber vs eraser, pants vs trousers – while others have different meanings: now, just now and now now. This post might also be of assistance for someone trying to understand South African English. And then of course, there’s always Jeremy Taylor’s Ag pleez daddy (not quite politically correct today, but definitely reflective of its time).



Language dilemma

Writing historical accounts seems to be getting trickier in this globalised world.

A book I recently read had [sic] behind the word ‘Kaffir’ every time it was written – this was in quotes where [sic] is commonly used to indicate that an error has been spotted and recognised in the original. As a South African, it’s been engrained that this is a word not to be used because of its connotations. Recently, however, in one of the local UK chains, there on a spice shelf was ‘Kaffir Lime’. I might also mention that one of my favourite Anton Goosen songs is ‘Wit Kaffers van Afrika’ (white kaffers of Africa) which as I understand was the song to open South Africa’s very first equivalent of Woodstock, Houtstok, back in 1990, on 31 May.

The real dilemma arises though for the historian who wants to write about urban development in mining towns at the start of the twentieth century. Working through local newspapers in Boksburg Public Library when researching for information on Sir George Farrar, I was struck by the pages of applications for licence to open up ‘Kaffir Kitchens’ – what exactly these entailed I cannot say as I was on a tight research deadline and couldn’t stop to digest in detail. What I do know is that it will be very annoying for a reader if every time the word was used it was followed by [sic].

Similarly, ‘non-white’ in inverted commas as it appeared in the same book. I am just as comfortable using non-black, non-Indian and non-coloured when working/writing about other specific groups. It is a short hand. The alternative today, is to list all the specific groups one implies by the all collective which when there are word limits, doesn’t give much opportunity to get the message across.

Another term to come under scrutiny recently is ‘Boy’, and its female equivalent, ‘Girl’. In the South African context yet again, this has negative connotations. However, doing some research for someone on the Peninsular Wars, I was amazed to see in the Muster RollsMuster Rolls lists of ‘Boys’ going back to the early 1800s. This suggests there was a specific roll filled by young boys (how young I do not know) and that as colonisation occurred, this term was transferred to locals (natives – another controversial term for some) who did the same tasks. As older men in the colonies started to take on this work for various reasons, the title/term stuck. It’s a term frowned upon in South Africa, yet black friends and colleagues in Africa (Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana to name but a few) talk quite comfortably about their ‘house girl’ or ‘house boy’.

How we read and understand terms depends on our cultural heritage. I once worked with a woman called Kulvinder – Kuli to those who knew her. However, I struggled to do so until one day I felt I had to come ‘clean’ explaining why my emails were always addressed to Kulvinder and similarly, why I hesitated every time I wanted to say her name. She was astounded when I told her that in SA, the diminutive of her Indian heritage name was the same (sounding) as the derogatory word for Indians – coolies. Both of us wiser having cleared the air, Kulvinder became Kuli, although I still inwardly wince every time I use the word.

One could argue that I’m coming at this from a group which named rather than was/is named. I can, and do, fall (partly) into the category of ‘rooinek’ (red neck) as well as ‘rock spider’ (English and Afrikaans respectively). In Swahili, I’m bluntly ‘white man’ (Mzungu), in Masai ‘those who confine their farts’ (Iloridaa enjekat), in Gambia, ‘Two Bob’ (early white settlers paid two bob for something to be done), in Ghana ‘Fada’ (from Father/Priest).

Working as a cross-cultural historian, it is becoming more apparent that historians need to find ways to deal with terms which have an historical context and at the same time political connotations for specific groups.

Reflecting on this recently whilst writing a review article on three South African Prime Ministers and my own reaction to white South Africans writing about ‘whites’, ‘Africans’ (ie blacks) and ‘Afrikaners’, it struck me that the white African group of mainly Dutch descent (aka Boers) have embraced their African-ness in their own-given title ‘Afrikaner’. And the Afrikaans word for black people is ‘swartes’ – directly translated as blacks. So why in English do the majority of white South African historians refer to black South Africans as ‘African’? I can understand this when writing contextually about the 1950s and 1960s – white South Africa has used different terms over time to refer to the black ethnic groups in the region. I remember at secondary school being told the word ‘Bantu’ was no longer appropriate and acceptable. The term was to be replaced by ‘Black’. Before ‘Black’, it had been ‘African’. How my ears tingle in Tanzania when I hear black Tanzanians refer to themselves as Bantu to distinguish themselves from the coastal peoples.

I don’t know what the solution is to this language dilemma. If historians were only writing for themselves there might/should not be an issue as we’re objective reflectors of the past (as scientific as we can be). However, we’re invariably caught up in the political of what we write about and therefore sensitive to the language we use. But at what expense? How much does being politically correct lead to cultural misunderstandings and myths being perpetuated?