Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
20 February 2014
Review by Thomas Paul Bonfiglio, The University of Richmond
War Talk: Foreign Languages and the British War Effort in Europe, 1940–47
By Hilary Footitt and Simona Tobia
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xii, 222. ISBN 978–0–230–36288–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2014, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

War Talk is a valuable addition to Palgrave's "Studies in Languages at War" series (co-edited by Hilary Footitt). It focuses on British involvement in World War II within the specific framework of interactions between abstract public policy making and the exigencies of performing language(s) in the field. It reveals a massive gap between theory and practice and the role of unanticipated phenomena in rearranging the governmental drawing board. Authors Footitt and Simona Tobia (both Univ. of Reading) have published widely in discourse analysis and the role of languages in war and conflict.

The book comprises eight chapters and an introduction stating the corrective purposes of the authors' research: "the historiography of war and conflict continues to be a largely foreign-language free enterprise" in which languages are relegated to "ancillary parts of those diplomatic relations which bring a conclusion to war" (1). The historical narratives represent victory as monolingual—"achieved through the language of the dominant force" (2). Legendary tales of code-cracking configure language unilaterally on the home front: one translated for members of the high command, who took it from there. The authors explain the nature of complex multidirectional functioning in a foreign language environment, drawing on mind-numbing archival research: for instance, in one British intelligence location alone, eighteen thousand translations were processed each month in spring 1944 (7).

The First World War is excluded from the study. The authors do note, however, that British forces were severely lacking in second language skills and that there was a slight postwar effort to increase French language study, because Allied cooperation during the Great War had been hindered by insufficient preparation in the language. Communicating with German speakers seems to have been of negligible importance.

Chapter 1, "Preparing for War: The British and Foreign Languages," demonstrates the difficulty of finding Britons with language skills sufficient for field operations. Chapter 2, "Intelligence in Translation: Finding Out about the Enemy," treats the discrepancy between monitoring wireless communications and communicating in face-to-face interactions, which require markedly different skills. This leads into Chapter 3, "Role-Playing for War: The Human in Human Intelligence," on the experiences and language difficulties of the men and women who encountered the enemy directly. Chapter 4, "The War of Words: Psychological Warfare in a Foreign Language," describes the unforeseen problems of making persuasive propaganda broadcasts in German-occupied countries.

Chapters 5, "Continental Invasion: Liberation and Occupation," and 6, "Pursuing War Criminals: Military Interpreters in War Tribunals," explore the linguistic aspects of identifying and arresting war criminals, the denazification process, war crimes trials, and political reconstruction. In chapter 7, "The British and the War Victims: Bringing Relief to Refugees and Displaced Persons Overseas," we reach the crux of the study: the on-site difficulties of the relief agencies attending to—by one astonishing estimate—60 million displaced persons speaking a multitude of tongues. Chapter 8, "The Russian Ally: Moving to Cold War," foregrounds the vital importance of language in the efforts at détente. The book's narrative line progresses from the ivory-tower-like inefficacies of the early months of the war to the muddy entanglements of ground forces in a multilingual reality and ultimately to the penitent resolve not to repeat the linguistically naïve mistakes of the past.

One of the most surprising findings of War Talk concerns the relative linguistic enlightenment of imperial Great Britain in the nineteenth century compared with the nation's monolingual orientation in the twentieth. The authors cite data showing that language exams were mandatory for appointments in the earlier colonial administration. The overwhelming majority of service officers in British Hong Kong, for example, were operational in Cantonese. There were also exams in Sanskrit and Arabic. Officers posted to India were trained in Hindi to facilitate easy communication with the local population (13).

The framework of knowledge adopted by the British in this imperial context was a broadly anthropological one in which colonial subjects would be understood, and thus ruled, through a close reading of their behavior, a process in which knowing about the area was intimately related to knowing its language. An elite cadre of personnel was thus prepared linguistically for the direct "on the ground" experience of ruling regions which were understood to be remote, and well outside the norms of British society. (13)

These findings correlate well with the conception of language in the era of scientific philology, which did not separate language from knowledge. Philology was, in the words of René Wellek, "conceived as a total science of civilization."[1] Language was inseparable from civilization.

This perspective was jettisoned in the twentieth century, when "a shared European civilization" was assumed a priori, one that, if not strictly anglophone, could nonetheless readily be managed in English: "The imperial impetus to develop a cadre of close anthropological readers who could effect good governance was clearly lacking in the western continental context" (14). Despite the alliances with France and Germany's growing bellicosity, public school trained British officers studied French at a rate eight times higher than German (16). And even the French training was non-performative and focused on passive knowledge.

The authors note, too, a radical gendering in language acquisition: while girls and women were often educated in a second language, "not speaking a foreign language was understood as an acceptable emblem of masculinity, with the typical English gentleman being one who 'declares, with a tone of savouring pride and disdain, that the sounds of (French) have no interest for him, who skips every chapter on pronunciation'" (22).[2] Thus the actual engagement with foreign languages in Britain remained domestic and largely the realm of females. The Ministry of Labour even recommended in 1939 that language specialists be sought among "women, and men unfit for military service" (28). The low priority placed on language learning produced a class of absentee literal translators. World War II, however, quickly taught the British that "translation was a good deal more complex than simply rendering one word by another" and that "accurate intelligence could only be derived within a sophisticated linguistic infrastructure" (46–47).

The interrogation of POWs, for instance, along with espionage efforts, required agents with considerable language skills. This in turn forced recruiters to move into lower social classes with their now valuable "hybridity of background." As a consequence, traditional ethnocentric concepts of national identity had to be re-thought as well. "Native Britons" were given on-site training in both espionage and acting techniques, so they could pass for native speakers of the enemy's language. In short, circumstances demanded a radical departure from the skepticism about foreign languages with which Britain had entered the war in 1939 (68).

This modification of linguistic assumptions became more and more complex as the BBC embarked on radio propaganda and "psychological warfare" in the target language. By mid-1945, the BBC was operating in forty-five languages (69). Through this de facto advertising in the local vernacular, "the English message was 'nativized,' given a style and tone which echoed the inflections" (90) of the target population.

The invasion of the continent required intensive preparation of largely monolingual and monocultural conscripts to deal with the liberated and occupied German populations. But the British military's top-down programming hamstrung its efforts at cultural engagement. There ensued an English-only policy requiring that all official business be conducted in the occupiers' language. Some of the instructions prepared for occupying forces reveal an odd interface of English and German stereotypes: "Do play your part as a representative of a conquering power and keep the Germans in their place; do display cold, correct, and dignified curtness and aloofness; don't show hatred, the Germans will be flattered" (111). On the other hand, troops were instructed to be gracious to non-Germans: for example, "Don't shout when you are talking to a Dane" (180).

In the case of occupied Germany, there was a patent recursion to the earlier, counterproductive monolingual attitudes: once comfortably installed as the occupying power, Britain reverted to an anglocentric hegemony. This, however, was to change with the beginning of the war crime tribunals.

The authors place the birth of the modern interpreter in the context of "a judicial space for denazification … with a distinct paradigm of neutrality and faithfulness to the spoken word" (117). While interpreters had previously been chosen based on military criteria and loyalty to the government, the denazification program put a premium on personnel adept in the procedures of translation, transculturation, and indictment with regard to the greatest acts of inhumanity in the modern era. The pressing need to employ foreign-born, German-speaking British citizens as interpreters removed the exotic connotations of the designation "foreign" and fostered a redefinition of Englishness.

The intricacies of dealing with the incertitudes of language increased further as the war relief efforts got under way throughout the New Babel of a Europe of displaced persons. Here, too, the authors prefer a "bottom-up" study to the conventional "top-down" narrative of UN policies that leaves languages unexamined (136). They describe fieldwork performed by volunteer relief agencies, who "appeared more convinced about the need for languages than those who were managing policy and organizing relief support at a much higher level" (154). Ironically, German often became the lingua franca of relief organizations.

I am tempted to summarize the book's findings with the axiom in bello veritas: it persuasively shows that the constraints of war undid the anglocentric ideologies of Great Britain. Then, after 1945, the Cold War confronted Britain with a formidable Russian-speaking "other" and pushed "the Government … towards a national languages policy, designed to mobilize a large cadre of British-born soldiers who would be specifically tasked with learning to understand and speak the Russian language…. [S]ome 5000 adults were taught a foreign language from scratch" (155, 178). All this contrasts sharply with the transparency, if not absence, of language at the beginning of World War II.

The authors carefully trace the evolution of language attitudes in British military science from naïve, chauvinistic negligence to a destabilizing awareness of the other, and ultimately toward a collaborative exchange. There was a concomitant change in the conception of foreignness in British society at large: "A slight distrust of those who could speak foreign languages" marked the initial stage, accompanied by a disbelief that another language could actually be deciphered. Some of the first translators were even accused of being spies (182). The battle with the other proved to be a struggle with the self, in which the impermeable divide between foreign and British yielded to the attitudes of modern multiethnic and multicultural Great Britain.

There is nothing theoretically new in War Talk, and that is no criticism. The methodology is well known and unobjectionable: problems of mono-/multilingualism, linguistic nationalism, translation, language contact, etc. are analyzed with the instruments of current sociolinguistic knowledge. What is novel here is the unprecedented and painstaking elucidation specifically of the British war effort from a linguistic perspective. Hilary Footitt and Simona Tobia have made an x-ray study of the subtle, sometimes insidious, articulations and workings of language(s) that underlie more traditional war narratives.

[1] "American Literary Scholarship," in Concepts of Criticism, ed. S.G. Nichols Jr. (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 1963) 296–315.

[2] Quoting Harold E. Palmer, The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages (1917; rpt. London: Oxford U Pr, 1968) 166.

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