During the next couple of years, as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it's likely that there will be a flurry of general books and scholarly volumes on the conflict.
Trench Talk is excellent as it will appeal to both scholars and enthusiasts alike as it combines the rigour of research with a range and close observation to appeal to all sorts of readers. In Trench Talk a military historian and a social linguist examine and reflect on how the language of the time reveals the experience of the war. Both authors are clearly fascinated by words and objects and have a shared stake in the story through their family histories.
The book is wide-ranging and the developments and changes in word usage by various parties (soldiers, newspapers, politicians, writers, diarists) are traced. Crucially the authors do not treat the period as a single point in time. Words come into and go out of use, and fascinating observations such as the changes in use of upper case for the beginnings of words, and inverted commas, show the gradual wider acceptance of and familiarity with terms.
Perhaps most interesting is the way words moved between languages, creating hybrids - English to Arabic to English, German to English, French to German - the mistranslations, and the extraordinary playing with language across No Man's Land. The authors assume no specialist knowledge from the reader in this. Instances of the differences in colloquial English over the following century are laid out, as are the paths of technical terms from Dutch, German or Italian.
With the government and the EC making a big thing of the potential of the centenary for examining identities and cementing fellowship respectively, Trench Talk's discussions of the commonality of experience expressed through language should appeal to both sets of policy-makers. A stock-text for those interested in language and the history of the war (novelist and screen-writers working on the period would really find this valuable), and a pointer for new scholarship of the subject.
At the core of Doyle and Walker's exploration is the poignant space of the unspeakable that this myriad of words circulates around, and how that silence was defined.
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