Friday, September 16, 2005

Ideology of Phrasebooks

Since I'm momentarily stuck in the writing of the introduction for the Conflict in Southern Writing volume I'm editing (with Ben Robertson and others), I'll try to un-stick myself by blogging a bit about the ideology of phrasebooks.

When I was young and travelling around the world, I became interested in phrasebooks for the various countries. In fact, I used to collect phrasebooks, but after I lost my box of phrasebooks during a move, I gave them up.

The first phrasebook that interested me in their ideology was an English phrasebook for Lithuanians that had been published during the communist era. One of the things that separates grammars from phrasebooks is that grammars simply tell you how to say things; phrasebooks suggest things you might want to say. Sometimes what you "might want to say" is descriptive, and sometimes it is prescriptive.

Some of my favorites I can remember from the now-lost Lithuanian phrasebook (though I may be conflating it with other communist phrasebooks) are:

"Taxi driver, please drive me to the historic location of Karl Marx's house."
"I would like to speak to some members of your glorious trade unions."
"Let me tell you about my country's revolution."

... and so forth. Many of the phrases, of course, were things like "Where is the bathroom" or "I would like to order a hamburger and french fries," but others were ideologically driven suggestions.

I found myself thinking about the ideology of phrasebooks again when I recently bought Making Out in Korean. Despite the provocative title, most of the book is street Korean, not insults and sexual content; but some of it is. I was reading the book aloud with a friend, and we were laughing at the assumption of the sequence of romantic relationships. The sequence of courtship, as it seems presented in the phrasebook, is:

1. Flirting
2. Proposition
3. Conversation during sex
4. Proposal of marriage
5. The man fleeing

More attention is given to the sex act and trying to escape a relationship than anything else. It is unintentionally funny, but also unintentionally sad that the phrasebook presents romantic relationships in such a shallow way. Some actual examples of phrases:


In the section entited, "In the Bedroom":
Is this your first time?
Tell me the truth.
I'm still a virgin.
I'm frightened.
Don't worry.
I'll be careful.
I wanna hold your hand.
Look into my eyes.
Hug me.
Take your ... off!
[various words for clothing]
I'm cold.
Make me warm.
Come closer to me.

In other words, the scenario imagined in the phrasebook is someone experienced seducing a reluctant virgin. The next section is called "In Bed," and I'll not provide all of that content (go to a porn site if that's what you are looking for), but one section runs like this:
I'm afraid I'll get pregnant.
Use a condom!
I don't like to wear a condom.
If you don't wear a condom, I won't do it!

Now, the reluctant virgin finds that her partner is refusing to wear a condom. Interestingly, they don't offer any phrase for a man agreeing to wear a condom -- only refusing.

The proposal of marriage also comes in the "In Bed" section, immediately following phrases for the completion of sexual activity. I'll leave those up to your imagination, but note how there are three ways to propose marriage, several ways to refuse, several ways to weasel out, and no ways to accept the proposal:
Let's get married.
I wanna be your wife. (This seems to be a proposal, not an acceptance)
I wanna be your husband. (This seems to be a proposal, not an acceptance)
I don't want to get married yet.
I'm too young.
I'm already married.
I love you, but I can't become your wife/husband.
I need time to think.
This is so sudden.
We must think about this.

The last section is about breaking up. I'll not belabor the point any further, except to say that phrasebooks often end up suggesting particular ways to live by suggesting particular ways to speak.


  1. If I correctly recall, one particularly useless phrase for foreigners learning British English was:

    "Our postillion has been struck by lightning."

    I don't know if this one is genuine, but it's unforgettable.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Here is a link to one of my favorite Monty Python sketches--the Hungarian Phrasebook Sketch.



  3. When I studied Russian in 1989 just weeks before the Berlin Wall came down, we used a language textbook that included dialogues in which someone passing through customs made (presumably plausible) excuses for the large number of blue-jeans and Bibles in his possession. I wonder if beginners' Russian-language texts still include sample dialogues with hard-line customs officials?