Jacques Bellot's 1586 Phrasebook: How to Speake English Perfectlye

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Elizabethan ladies around a table. The one standing asks, What do ye lack?
Jacques Bellot, 1586: Familiar Dialogues, for the instruction of them, that be desirous to learne to speake English, and perfectlye to pronounce the same; Set forth by Iames Bellot Gentlemen of Caen

You may have heard of the Berlitz Phrase Book. You may have used a phrasebook or two on your travels. You may have had occasion to wonder, as you flipped through your vocabulary guide on your way to the next tourist destination, just why the authors thought you were going to need this or that phrase. References to hospitals may alarm you. Some of the situations may seem far-fetched – but then, if your hovercraft were really full of eels, wouldn't you want to be able to tell someone about it?

The phrasebook is a learning tool of ancient respectability. Witness this example by Jacques Bellot. Bellot is the author of other 16th-century language instruction books, such as Le Maistre d'Escole Anglois (1580) and The French Grammar (1578). Obviously he taught both English and French.

A Book for Its Time

Why did Monsieur Bellot write this book? For altruistic reasons, we are assured.

The experience hauing1 in the olde tyme learned vnto me what sorow is for them that be refugiate in a strange countrey, when they can not vnderstand the language of that place in whiche they be exiled: and when they can not make them to be vnderstood by speach to the inhabiters of that contrey, wherein they be retired: I haue bene (therefore) moued to compassion. . .

Why were there French people in England, one would like to know? And why did their lack of linguistic skills move one to compassion? The French government were persecuting Huguenots, a Calvinist sect of Christians. Many of them fled to the British Isles.

Since this was a book especially for French ex-pats, the method of instruction was designed for French speakers. Information appears on the page in three columns: English, such as it is, French, and English written phonetically for a 16th-century French speaker. The result is amusing.

Gentle Reader, To the ende that you stumble not about the reading, and vnderstanding of these little Dialogues whiche I made for your instruction. . .
Beneuole lecteur, à fin que vous ne choppiez en la lecture, & intelligence de ces dialogues dressez pour vostre instruction
Gentell Réder, tou dé end dat you stumble not abaut dé réding, and onderstending of déés littel Deialogs houitch ey méd for yor instructión. . .

Had Bellot only known, this book offers preemptive payback for centuries of Franglais. We can learn a lot from this excellent phrasebook: about how ordinary speakers in Shakespeare's time used language, for instance. There's not a lot of 'forsoothing' going on, but some expressions may startle us. We can also glean quite a bit about material culture. There's nothing like a phrasebook to remind us of the existence of ordinary household objects that we now know only from museums – not to mention the clothing. Finally, we get a glimpse into the political and social background of one case of forced migration in Europe. It's worth our time.

Let us follow our characters through their day. Let us not, at this point, even dare to think about The Bald Soprano. We begin with some boys and the maid.


Barbara: How now, children, will you not rise to day?

Peter: What ist a clock?

Barbara: It is seuen a clock.

Stephen: I beleue you not.

Stephen doesn't believe the time because he is still sleepy. Barbara declares they will be beaten for not learning their lessons: when they say the 'maister hath no roddes', Babs threatens to bring him some. There ensues a mad scramble for clothing in which we learn the names of colours for 'hoses' or 'hosen'. No wonder they're running late – they seem to have misplaced any number of mystifying items of garb, such as 'pantables' and 'pompes', and they can't find the 'showing horne'. We really need the French here. A 'showing horne' is a chaus[s]e-pied. A quick Google search for a chausse-pied yields photos of a. . . shoehorn. That's a relief.

We may think we speak English, but only a few pages in, we begin to realise that we, too, are foreigners in this land of Englysshe.

Barbara: I forgat my self: holde, here is your shirt.

Without the French to aid us (je me suis oubliée), we might not understand that Barbara means these schoolboys and their clothes have made her forget where her head is. As Peter says, Barbara is 'a good wenche' for putting up with all of this.

We might expect them to go to school now. We would be wrong. First, they have to eat breakfast. But before that, they must pray. An argument ensues as to whose turn it is to lead the prayers, whereupon our clever instructional designer has shoehorned (showing-horned?) in the days of the week: 'Sonneday, Monneday, Twesday, Weddenesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sathurday.' Next, we get the Our Father, presumably because, as mentioned before, the students and their families were pious people. After breakfast, the boys go off to school, but not before obtaining their parents' solemn religious blessing and incidentally discovering that James has lost all his pens (and sold his penknife, the scamp). Whew. And you think it's hard to get kids to the bus stop nowadays.

A Shopping Trip (with Added Drunks)

Next we experience shopping with Ralf and Androw. They're very good at bargaining. They're also very good at turning a shopping trip into an early Monty Python sketch. Before they go shopping, they drink wine. Rather a lot of it.

Ralf: Geue vs of the best wine you haue: Geue vs some whitte wine.

Clairet wine.

Red wine.

Gaskyne wine.

New Renishe wine.

Good sakke.

Good Mamesie.

Good Muscadene.

New wine.

Old wine.

Unfortunately, they do not eat any cheese. Androw then says, 'Let us dispatch: Let us make haste, to breake our fast.' Androwe suggests they have more wine. 'No,' says Ralf, 'It is tyme to goe to the market.' Amazingly, they are still able to stand up, so off to the market we go.


'What doe you lacke?' the vendor wants to know: quite a lot, it would seem, from 'fatte rabettes' to 'a parret'. Whether they want to eat the parrot or talk to it is not clear, but we are spared the Parrot Sketch, at any rate. We are taught to haggle, and to count money. Then it is off to the cloth merchant's, where we learn far more than we ever wanted to know about textiles.

No marketing trip would be complete without a stop at the fishmonger's. The choice is almost overwhelming. Once again, we will need our French translator to help us decipher 'a millers thumbe'. Aha! Today we learned that there were fish fingers in the 16th Century. A 'loupster' and 'crabbes' sound good, but a 'lamproye' is probably an acquired taste.

The butcher's is equally enlightening, as they price everything from a 'fatte shippes flesh' to 'calfes feete'. This is probably too much information about the 16th-century diet. Do these people never eat a vegetable? Perhaps we will find out in the next segment – after all that shopping, somebody's having a luncheon party.

And Now, Lunch

The schoolboys' parents have invited the neighbour and the schoolmaster over to eat. This may not go well. Invitations are issued: the schoolmaster's wife cannot come because she is very busy at the market buying either apples, pears, raisins, prunes, turnips, or a hen. At least someone is thinking about nutrition.

The schoolmaster shows up and compliments his pupil. 'He is a very prety child.'

His mother, no fool, replies that he is a 'very shroude boy', which is not a compliment. The neighbour observes that he is his mother's son. Amazing, nobody hits him.

Talk turns to the 'newes', which is all bad.

The Neighbour: There is no other newes, but of the sickenesse and the dearth, which be now a dayes almost throughout all Fraunce. . . .

The Master: Truely, I take great pitie of their miserable estate: But I hope that God will remember them: for he neuer forsaketh them which doe thrust in him.

The friends embark on a multi-course meal which, we are pleased to note, does include some fruit. The schoolmaster has to eat and run. He takes the boys back to school with him. At two o'clock there is recess. Told to play 'quitely', the boys decide to play cards for pins. Alas, before card-sharp Peter can clean them all out, it's time to do lessons again. The disappointment is palpable.

On the Road Again

Next we have some lost travellers, and the most unbelievable part of the book. They ask for directions from a farmer, and get them. They find a decent inn, another miracle. We now learn the names of occupations, from 'carpendore' to 'gyrdler' and beyond. The travellers, who are as religious as everyone else in this book, say their prayers before bed.

Amazingly, in spite of all that we have read in literature, the travellers are neither murdered nor robbed in the night. The next morning, there must be a 'reakenyng': under protest at the prices nowadays, the bill is paid. There are more directions and off they go to a presumably happy ending, to wit, they get back to France.

The lesson book ends, appropriately with another prayer and a sonnet in French. Hopefully, our migrants have learned some useful phrases. We, too, have learned things. We appreciate this window into the everyday life of another age.

1'U' and 'v' weren't considered separate letters at this time. The rule here is: 'v' at the beginning of the word, 'u' everywhere else.

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