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Language study in pre-WWI Europe (Germany)
Thread poster: Lincoln Hui

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
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Feb 1, 2014

The villagers were quite astonished that we simple soldiers could all speak more or less fluent French. The circumstances gave rise to the occasional droll incident. Once, for instance, I was at the village barber's with Clement, when one of the waiting Frenchmen called out in his think Champagne accent to the barber, who was just shaving Clement: 'Eh, coupe la gorge avec!' complete with sawing motions at his throat.

To his horror, Clement calmly replied: 'Quant à moi, j'aimerais mieux la garder,' showing the kind of sang-froid that a warrior ought to have.


From Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger, trans. Michael Hoffman.

I understand that Ernst Jünger joined the FFL when he was young, but was it really that common for young to middle-aged middle class Germans to be fluent in French? What was the state of language study in European schools at that time, especially with regards to French studies in German schools?


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 05:37
Chinese to English
French was the prestige language Feb 1, 2014

Not answering from a position of knowledge here, but French was the language of many European courts and the language of diplomacy in the 19th C. Many rich families would hire governesses from France to ensure their kids spoke it well. But I have no idea how widespread it really was.

 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:37
German to English
Language study common among the educated Feb 1, 2014

The father of a friend was a contemporary of Jünger. In the course of his schooling in Berlin, he studied French, then English, then Latin, and finally at university, Greek. To us living in the 21st century, we find this level of erudition astonishing, but to someone born in 19th century in Germany, knowledge of languages was quite common among people who had attended a "Gymnasium" (higher-level secondary school). Sigmund Freud, born in the mid-19th century, learned several languages in school in Austria and taught himself Spanish on the side; this was in addition to his intense interest in the natural sciences.

 

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
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French Feb 1, 2014

I understand that, but was that still the case in the early 20th century? Most of these soldiers were commoners - not necessarily poor, but certainly not among the noble and very rich. Were they still expected to have a good command of French?

 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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Yes, I would presume so. Feb 1, 2014

It was definitely taught in many German high schools to much higher levels than now.
It could also depend which part of the German-speaking world.


 

Kirsten Bodart  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
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I would imagine the rich world Feb 1, 2014

that needed a common language was basically divided in two parts: the French sphere and the German sphere. The German sphere being the Austro-Hungarian-German Empire and everything around it where what is now the Czech Republic had a German speaking middle class, for example (which is where Kafka stemmed from). Hungary's Hungarian speaking upstart upper classes also spoke German, as they sometimes spent large portions of their time in Vienna or Prague. Prague was still very German speaking after the Second World War. The older generation in these countries (now about 80 years of age) speak German, if they speak anything at all, in my experience. After WWII, they were rather Russian-oriented.
The French sphere was more situated to the west I guess. Countries like Belgium, the mixed regions in Germany, Italy, the Swiss and indeed the English to some level mixed in this language. Although I guess French was very much preferred, hence why it was the language of diplomacy, despite Germany before 1918 clearly being at least as important on a scientific, industrial and cultural level. I guess it was a legacy from the times that France had been a super power, if not even from the middle ages. The Russian court spoke French, but maybe that was because they had at least once been at war with Prussia, which had culminated in the assassination of Catherine the Great's slightly potty husband in the 18th century. German cannot have been the greatest favourite, then, although they probably spoke it anyway.

Until 1968 for example, there were two universities in the Flemish city of Leuven: a Dutch language one and a French language one. That year they kicked out the French language university, but that issue left aside. The double university was already an earlier concession from the time when there was no Dutch language university in Belgium at all despite half of the population being Dutch speaking. Until 1879 (I believe), all secondary schools were French language. Although this had a particular political and social aim (against a potential Dutch invasion and ensuing civil war), it illustrates how French was popular amongst the middle classes.

So yes, I guess French was very widespread. Second and even third language teaching was a normality. As your Ernst Jünger was a lieutenant, he was a(n albiet minor) officer in the army and they were not taken from the plebs. And even the plebs would probably have learnt at least a few words of a second language (what we now call level A1).

There is an anecdote of a German pilot who crashed with his bomber I think in a remote spot in Scotland and he went to a house. An old lady opened the door and he said he wanted to surrender, but speaking no English, they had a problem... Until they found out they both spoke... Latin. So they conversed in Latin over a cup of tea until the police arrived and took him away. If that's not language teaching, I don't know what is.

There may be some inconsistencies in this story, but nonetheless, Jünger's story is perfectly logical.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
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Yes, parts of Europe were actually German speaking before World War 2, Feb 2, 2014

especially the upper and middle class but even more common people had to speak German to some extent, because those parts had belonged to the Habsburg Empire or to Prussia for centuries: that included Silesia and Pomrania, which currently belong to Poland, not just parts of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. What I meant was that in many of those German speaking territories they were taught French in Gymnasiums (a kind of five year high school), but I don't really know how well the graduates actually spoke it. They also learned advanced Latin and Greek.

Perhaps there was a more specific reason why those soldiers spoke French very well--I did not read the book. Perhaps it is justified within the plot.

As to the Russian aristocracy, a lot of them spoke French instead of Russian, and more specifically to a certain point in time (before Pushkin became popular). Also, most of the aristocracy were not really of Russian descent, but rather of very mixed European descent (German, Austrian, or other European). French was considered a trendy, poetic language--I don't think it had that much to do with any wars with Prussia. They probably liked reading love poetry.


[Edited at 2014-02-02 06:52 GMT]


 

Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
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Of course Feb 2, 2014

Jünger was an officer and therefore had "Abitur", which automatically meant excellent French and Latin. Even my mother, born 1910, who had only elementary education, understood quite much French. When she visited us in Helsinki 1974 we went to see Francois Truffaut's Day for Night. It had Finnish and Swedish subtitles, which she could not read a bit, but she enjoyed the movie a lot because of her French acquired in the 1920s. Of course it "helped" that the French had occupied the Rhineland for many years.

But yes, French was the language of international communication and German was the language of Science until the middle of last century. Nobody could call himself educated without the ability to chat in French and read French books and magazines.


 

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
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Timing Feb 2, 2014

Thanks for the explanations.

If my understanding of Jünger's account was correct, at this point (early 1915) he was a volunteer recruit, a mere rifleman. He enlisted as an ensign later in September.

Anyway, my question isn't really about Jünger himself but rather about the fact that, according to this passage, all his comrades (who were not officers) had a pretty good command of French, and one would presume that these soldiers came from all over Germany.

Not sure what the average education level of these volunteers were early in the war. Jünger mentioned later in the book that his regiment had people from pretty much every trade, from teachers (certainly well-educated) to miners (possibly not so much). So one wonders if French was as widespread in Europe as, say, English is today.

[Edited at 2014-02-02 08:35 GMT]


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
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English to Spanish
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Until not long ago... Feb 2, 2014

...French was the main language you learned in school, not English. I am Spanish, 47, and learned French in school until I was 15 years old. No English at all.

If you add that, as already explained by other colleagues, the French-German border was very mobile in the 20th century, there you have your reply. My German grandfather (born around the turn of the century) spoke perfect French, but no English at all as far as I can remember.

[Edited at 2014-02-02 10:11 GMT]


 

Michal Fabian  Identity Verified
Canada
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To this day... Feb 2, 2014

... there are many in Europe (including me) who would not consider you wholly culturally competent and "literate" unless you spoke at least conversational French and German. In European business, politics and culture, these languages still matter just as much as English, if not more.

As English was of little importance around the fin de siècle, I imagine the knowledge of French and German was much more prevalent.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
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Russian to English
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Yes, I think English became popular and Feb 2, 2014

thus taught in schools after World War 2 in Europe, and in Eastern Europe from the 1960s--this is when first English Departments were founded. Before that it was French (in terms of a second language), Latin and Greek. So, my grandfather had also German as the language of instruction in high school, plus French, Latin and Greek, my mother, on the other hand had Russian and French in addition to Polish, of course, as the language of instruction. English was not taught until 1960s in Eastern Europe.


[Edited at 2014-02-02 10:39 GMT]


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
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Much the same situation in Denmark Feb 2, 2014

Slightly exaggerated, it is said that Ludvig Holberg (1684 - 1754) was the 'founder of Danish literature'.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludvig_Holberg

Before that, the story goes that a gentleman read Latin in books, spoke French to the ladies, and German to his dog. He would only speak Danish to servants.

In the 1840s it was actually necessary to 'fight' (though with words, not weapons) for the right to speak Danish in public in the southern part of Jutland, which has changed hands between Germany and Denmark.

Many Danes spoke German until the Second World War, when English became more popular, and is the most widespread second language today.

I think in times when schools had very little equipment other than 'chalk and talk' - slates, and a few books - languages were one of the subjects favoured by these methods.

Certainly it is impressive how the middle classes managed to travel and speak enough of the languages they came across to get by, or even make conversation with people along the way.

I wonder what their accents were like?!
Back in the 14th century, Chaucer, well educated himself, of course, was smiling at a nun who spoke French 'after the school of Stratford atte Bowe' - because she knew nothing of the French of Paris.

But a language or two have been part of any decent education for centuries.


[Edited at 2014-02-02 15:37 GMT]


 

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
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"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Feb 2, 2014

Before that, the story goes that a gentleman read Latin in books, spoke French to the ladies, and German to his dog. He would only speak Danish to servants.

Variation on Charles V?


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:37
Russian to English
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A pity. Feb 2, 2014

Christine Andersen wrote:

Slightly exaggerated, it is said that Ludvig Holberg (1684 - 1754) was the 'founder of Danish literature'.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludvig_Holberg

Before that, the story goes that a gentleman read Latin in books, spoke French to the ladies, and German to his dog. He would only speak Danish to servants.



[Edited at 2014-02-02 15:37 GMT]


They should have spoken a Scandinavian language to everyone because they sound so beautiful.


 
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Language study in pre-WWI Europe (Germany)

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