Hidden Voices

One of the unintended consequences of war is that it brings hitherto unconnected groups of people together, for good and for ill. During the First World War, the capture of prisoners of war enabled German anthropologists to study men from Britain, France and their empires. They made sound recordings to help them to understand language, recordings that now offer modern academics the opportunity to study language and dialect as it was a century ago. Natalie Braber looks at the legacy of these recordings.

Linguists Wilhelm Doegen (far right) and Alois Brandl (fourth from right) recording a POW, October 1916
Linguists Wilhelm Doegen (far right) and Alois Brandl (fourth from right) recording a POW, October 1916

The British Library holds recordings of many sound files and interviews. If you visit their ‘Sounds’ catalogues, you will see the different archives that you can access. Many of these archives and recordings I use every day for my work. One of the archives is from the Berliner Lautarchiv (the Berlin sound archives). They include recordings of interviews held with British prisoners-of-war in Germany during the years 1915-1918. The collection contains 162 dialect recordings of English speaking POWs from England, Ireland (from what are now Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland), Scotland, and Australia, as well as 63 recordings in Scots and one in Scottish Gaelic. Until recently these two collections of early sound recordings of British dialects were inaccessible to all but a handful of academics.

Those POWs recorded from England represent the English dialects and accents of roughly 20 English counties and regions covering the northern areas of Cumberland, Durham and Yorkshire, areas of central England such as Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, as well as counties located further south including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Kent.

Sound clip: Thomas Jackson (b. 1890, Carlisle)

 Sound clip: William Langridge (b. 1893, Sevenoaks)


The men are reading the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ in their native dialect. This text was popular in linguistic surveys at the time and was used, for instance, in sound recordings made between 1913 and 1929 for Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India. Its academic value derives from the fact it permits a comparative analysis of several grammatical features across a variety of speakers. These recordings of British POWs represent some of the earliest known recordings of ‘ordinary’ speakers. There are also recordings made with POWs of colonial troops: A number of different language speakers from what was then known as British India were also recorded: languages recorded from this region include Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindustani, Garwhali, Bengali, Khasi, Nepali and Pashto. These recordings tend to focus on folk songs, poems, stories and reciting the alphabet in the speaker’s first language.

Recordings of other indigenous languages were also made and include speakers of African languages such as Yoruba, Hausa, Swahili, Fula, Kikuyu, Anyi, Kanuri, Mali, Wandala and Igbo. Other languages recorded include Afrikaans; Sinhalese; Tamil; Samoan; Malay; and Native American languages such as Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux and Iowa.

Why ‘Boche’?

It has been estimated that by late 1914 fifty-five different nationalities were represented at the Western Front, creating a melting pot of identity, experience and language. The Centre for Hidden Histories’ resident linguist Dr Natalie Braber examines some of the inventive terms that the soldiers used to describe their comrades and enemies.

Proudly in khaki, the 33rd Punjabi Army, illustrated by A C Lovett

As a result of World War One, people came into contact with one another more than they otherwise would have and one of the effects of such contact is a change in language. This can be due to ‘invention’ of new words, or ‘borrowings’ from other languages. A very fruitful field for linguistic study is to examine how soldiers from countries are referred to. British soldiers were often referred to as ‘Tommy’ from Tommy Atkins, the name for the typical English soldier. This term dates back to 1815 and became immortalised in the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ published in 1892. This term was used throughout WW1 by both sides.

There were also names given to soldiers of other nationalities: Italians were referred to as ‘Macaroni’, Portuguese as ‘Pork and Cheese’, ‘Pork and Beans’ or ‘Tony’, Austrians as ‘Fritz’ and Turkish soldiers as ‘Jacko, Johnny Turk or Abdul’.

There are many different terms used for German soldiers. Reports of the ruthlessness of the German army in China in 1900 refer to the use of ‘Hun’ by the German emperor as a symbolic ideal of military force and so this name came to be applied in 1914, in particular when discussing atrocities. The terms ‘Hun’ and ‘Boche’ were also in use throughout the war. Boche is said to have derived from a slang French word ‘caboche’ meaning ‘rascal’. Other suggest the term ‘cabochon’ relates to ‘head’ and especially a big thick, head. It seems to have been used in the Paris underworld from about 1860, with the meaning of a disagreeable, troublesome fellow. By 1916 the term ‘Jerry’ was in general use. The first time it was used in the Daily Express it was explained ‘The ‘official’ Irish designation of the enemy’. This term seems to carry more connotations of weariness and familiarity than hate.

'The Hun', as used in a British propaganda poster
‘The Hun’, as used in a British propaganda poster

As well as names for other soldiers, the men on the front were inventing new words due to contact with other soldiers from other nationalities as well as other parts of the United Kingdom. ‘Clink’, originally a London word for prison became widely adopted by men from around the country. A writer to The Times in January 1915 proposed that ‘the majority of colloquialisms used by soldiers have a Cockney origin’. Given the number of British personnel stationed on French territory it is unsurprising that many French terms were picked up and adapted. The increased use of ‘souvenir’ in place of ‘keepsake’, and ‘morale’ in place of ‘moral’ can be dated to this period. Perhaps the term most widely-used by British soldiers was ‘narpoo’, used to mean ‘finished’, ‘lost’ or ‘broken’, deriving from the French il n’y a plus meaning ‘all gone’. Terms were adopted and adapted from almost all languages that were in use in the combat zones. From Hindi came ‘blighty’ (meaning ‘foreign’ so applied to British soldiers, and thus signifying ‘Britain’) and ‘khaki’ from an Urdu word for ‘dust’. From Russian came ‘spassiba’ (thanks), from Arabic came ‘buckshee’ (free), and from German achtung came ‘ack-dum’ (look out).