Sunday, January 01, 2012

Two Proto-Berlitz Phrasebooks

Source:  HERE.
Sometimes when you are reading two books at the same time you can find yourself faced with some interesting juxtapositions, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t venture to say my two examples of early phrasebooks are entirely identical or parallel, but they do demonstrate a certain level of human commonality that probably doesn’t especially need to be pointed out to anyone, although I suppose there could be exceptions...

There is an especially long and richly detailed biography (for so it calls itself) of what may be the city holy for more people in the world than any other, although I’m not completely sure about that. I’m talking about Simon Sebag Montefiore's book Jerusalem, the Biography. Near the middle of the book, reached only after weeks of bedtime reading, I came across an amusing passage about a pilgrim, a German knight (Ritter) of the Rhineland named Arnold von Harff. He made for himself lists of handy words and phrases in  various languages, including both Arabic and Hebrew. I guess it’s clear he hoped these phrases would help him, as well as others, to better communicate with the local inhabitants of the countries he visited. Here are some phrases that leave only a little doubt what kind of business he was hoping to conduct:

"How much will you give me?
I will give you a gulden.
Are you a Jew?
Woman, let me sleep with you tonight.
Good madam, I am already in your bed."

This Herr von Harff was one pilgrim with plenty of pluck, and not just middling-to-average pickup lines. Among his other accomplishments (and quite apart from his evident heteronormalcy and Judaeophobia), he managed to go up on the — then as now Islamic — Noble Sanctuary (Haram as-Sharif) in disguise, making him look like a kind of proto-Sir Richard Burton.

Meanwhile, moving to the other end of the Eurasian world and back half a millennium further in human history, we learn from Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos's even newer book Manuscripts and Travellers that there exists, until this day, a bilingual Sanskrit and Khotanese phrasebook for pilgrims on their way to China. You can almost hear the interrogating tone of the immigration officer:

"And where are you going now?

I am going to China.

What business do you have in China?

I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī .

When are you coming back?

I’m going to China, then I’ll return."

I’ll skip over some of the rest of the dialogue, in order not to spoil it for you. There is mention of a Tibetan monk suspected by a border official of being a liar. The following three lines may or may not be about him, but it does seem so:

“He is dear to many women.
He goes about a lot.
He makes love...

Bring a bowl! The Tibetan teacher has become ill.”

It’s evident that Tibetan monks, or at the very least traveling facsimiles of Tibetan monks, had developed a shady reputation in late-10th-century Khotan. Well, to judge from this phrasebook, which may have had humorous intent as well... At least one of these Tibetan monks seems to have had problems keeping down Khotanese road food, perhaps a common enough predicament after all.

No need to mention the notoriety 
of medieval European appetites 
set loose in the Outremer 
on their way to the Holy Sepulcher.

Of course, the Central Asia traveler’s assumed destination was the place most holy to the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning Mañjuśrī. It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Wutai Shan in those earlier days. Vairocanavajra went there, as did Padampa Sanggyé before him. I hope to go some day as well.

Mañjuśrī holding the Ruyi scepter,
seen in Taipei, June 2011.

Notice the lion.


Robert Elsie, Texts and Documents of Albanian History. This online essay is more concerned with the early documentation of Albanian language, but it does have a nice brief discussion of the phrasebook of Arnold of Harff, that included “words and phrases in Croatian, Albanian, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Hungarian, Basque and Breton.” Of course von Harff was not the originator of the genre; there were Latin-Greek bilingual phrasebooks in the time of the Roman Empire, as I seem to recall from somewhere.

Kelly Lynne Maynard, I want to buy it in the Albanian Glossary of Arnold von Harff, Transactions of the Philological Society, vol. 107, no. 2 (2009), pp. 231-252.  Try to access it here.  Still more articles can be located that have to do with von Harff if you will only search for them.  There are also translations of his journal that are more and less available.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, the Biography, Alfred A. Knopf (New York 2011), at p. 298.

Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-century Buddhist Pilgrim, De Gruyter (Berlin 2012), at pages 141-3.

Here is something about a 10th-century German phrasebook, although mostly about one from the time of World War II. Here is an amusing piece about Berlitz phrasebooks, but by far the most amusing phrasebook incident ever is one I once read in a book by “Australian photojournalist” Sorrel Wilby, shortly before I closed the covers of the book forever (I think the book still exists in a sibling library in central Michigan). Her Journey across Tibet is not something I could ever bring myself to recommend. Sorry Sorrel, but if this is any consolation, it could just be me. We have to take that into account.

Not running a commercial operation here, I didn’t really intend to make an advertisement for Berlitz, and in fact my favorite phrasebook is one they didn’t publish:  Wicked Italian for the Traveler by Howard Tomb, Workman Publishing (NY 1989). There are lots of usable gems there, but try this one out the next time you unexpectedly find yourself in Italy. First the phonetic version, which you should pronounce aloud, within hearing of your loved ones, particularly if you have never studied Italian before:

    Eel pro-FOND-oh mee-STAIR-oh dee cho key sty dee-CHEND-oh me een-FWOKE-ah eel KWORE-ay.

    Il profondo mistero di ciò che stai dicendo mi infuoca il cuore.*

§    §    §

Happy New Year/Sylvester to everyone who has ever read Tibeto-logic, and equally to everyone who never has! And if you see our old friend Arno, tell him I’m sorry, I hope he’ll forgive me, and Please come back. I’ve been at this for over five years now, and will, before many more months have gone by, reach the 100th blog entry. Trying to think of something special to do for numero 100 besides just more of the same-old same-old...  Any ideas? Should I redecorate? Or is that too superficial?

˙ǝɹıɟ uo ʇɹɐǝɥ ʎɯ sʇǝs pıɐs ʇsnɾ noʎ ɹǝʌǝʇɐɥʍ ɟo ʎɹǝʇsʎɯ punoɟoɹd ǝɥʇ*

Happy 2012 (it's not the end of the world, you know, although it may be the end of the world you know...).

§    §    §

Postscript (January 2, 2012)

I forgot to say anything about Tibetan-language phrasebooks. So here's my collection of Lonely Planets. Someone told me there have been five, which must mean I’m missing one, but actually, to follow what it says inside the books, there have only been four editions up to and including the one of 2008. Is there a new one I haven’t heard about?

1st edition, October 1987 —
by Melvyn G. Goldstein, with
the help of Gelek Rinpoche &
Trinley Dorje

2nd edition, June 1996 — by
Sandup Tsering &
Melvyn C. Goldstein

3rd edition, May 2002 —
by Sandup Tsering

4th edition, February 2008 —
by "Phrasebooks" &
Sandup Tsering.

Someday somebody will write a history of Tibetan language learning that will include these things.

Has anyone noticed any good or passably good Tibetan phrasebooks on-line?  This one is very interesting, a little awkward to use just because it’s so technologically advanced it takes my primitive machine a long time to maneuver from one phrase list to the other.


  1. On behalf of all us faithful and fortunate readers of the blog: Many many thanks for the year, and a very very nice new one to you, too!
    As always,
    Tan Tan

  2. My hovercraft is full of eels! (Means: "Thanks for blogging!")

    Happy New Year (Boldog Új Évet, if you ever venture to Hungarian lands, although do check, it might actually mean "Drop your panties, Sir William; I cannot wait until lunchtime!")!


  3. Happy new year to you too Dan. One day, I will go to those five peaks as well, perhaps after I retire. On the other hand, I could do with some more wisdom right now...


  4. Dear PDSz,

    Nice to hear you're still out and about. Causing trouble to other people as usual, are you?

    I thought the eel-ful hovercraft is what comes out when you try to say "It's been my pleasure to have made your acquaintance" in Cantonese, only with the tones headed in the wrong way.

    Now I've gotten my panties in a twist trying to get anywhere with your youtube link. It won't do anything for me. Resistant to all my blandishments. But my hunch is you meant this one:

    Here's to a great year, the first of many to come!


  5. Hello Squire!

    No big deal, really, let's blame it all on too much Gewuerztraminer. One day we can have a glass or two and remember the glorious days of Tibeto-logic. Are they over yet? I hope not, but why are you always so fully justified?
    Once redecorating your blog I trust you will introduce left alignment, you would be slightly easier to read! (I know, I am merely repeating what I wrote on the 3rd April 2008.)
    Narrow columns and justified text on the screen go together like Ri-sbug sprul-sku Blo-gsal-bstan-skyong and sealed printeries.

    As ever, and Happy New Year,


    P.S. I think my monitor is broken. There is something wrong with the colour setting.

  6. My dear long-lost Arno! You've been sorely missed. I mean, I'm starting to imagine 2 maybe even 3 people named Arno out there, but as long as you are one of them, I'm inspired to get out the long blade and sacrifice the fatted calf for a backyard barbeque. (Uh oh, you think people are going to cancel their subscriptions over this Christian allusion?)

    You may be right about blue sending the wrong message. And if you think the right is justified, that's just your way of seeing things, isn't it? How do you like my new "Post a Comment" notice? Pretty fine, huh? I don't think it's over until... 2012? Are we there yet?



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