The World's First Spanish Language Phrase Book?


In addition to its scholarly collection, the RUSI Library of Military History contains material from the Nineteenth century to help servicemen do their duty effectively. This phrasebook from 1836 is designed to assist mariners go about their work in a world increasingly made smaller through maritime trade.

By Tony Pilmer, Acting Librarian

RLMH First Foreign language Phrase book - flags

The RUSI Library of Military History contains an excellent selection of material that were designed to help servicemen do their duty effectively, whether firing artillery, drawing sketches for reconnaissance or riding a horse. One of our earliest is C Henckeland and W F Born's Nautical & Commercial Pocket-Dictionary and Dialoguebook for Navigators, Merchants and Travellers: in eight languages: viz. the English, French, Danish, German, Swedish, Dutch, Spanish and Italian.

Dating back to 1836, Henckeland and Born saw 'the innumerable dangers to which a mariner is exposed, - from want of being able to make himself understood - on entering or going out of dangerous and narrow harbours or defiles; the disagreeableness to which he is subjected - from the same cause - at customhouses, quarantines, alien-offices and on the high seas'.  

Their answer was to design fourteen chapters of tables containing the most useful phrases for mariners. Today, the book also gives us a glimpse into the lives of those people it was designed to help. It gives translations of words that you would expect from a modern-day phrasebook, such as numbers, the time, how to order food, wine and a room for the night. It then goes on to discuss nautical terms and parts of the ship. Then it discusses more interesting material. For example, chapter three addresses 'questions and answers in cases of quarantine, sickness, death and burial etc.'

chapter 8 tells us 'questions and answers, in case of shipwreck, average, plundering by pirates, of wars, peace etc etc.' 

RLMH First Foreign Language Phrase Book Chapter 3But their unique selling point was they were not just covering two languages, but eight of the most used languages used on the high seas in a pocket-shaped book. They also conquered the problem of pronunciation. Each phrase is numbered, so if you cannot be understood, all you need to do is give the number of the phrase you want to use and then the person you were talking to could look it up in their book.

As well as words, there are also a beautifully illustrated flag tables so you could easily identify the nationality of any approaching vessels.

RLMH First Foreign Language Phrasebook Title pageThe editors 'deplore highly' for not including Portuguese or Russian - 'few people here .... understand the Russian language, [so] make it at this moment an obstacle which they are not able to conquer'. They hoped to include the material in a second edition, but even if a second edition was published, I could not find it in a library collection.




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