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While mostly thematically structured into several chapters like interpersonal relationships, food, at the doctor, shopping etc., a phrase book often contains useful background information regarding the travel destination's culture, customs and conventions besides simple pronunciation guidelines and a typically 1000–2000 words covering vocabulary. Also a concise grammar and an index intended for quickly finding a particular context are common. In general a phrase book features high clarity and a practical, sometimes color-coded structuring with the main purpose to enable its user to communicate in a quick and easy though very basic manner. Especially with this in mind a phrase book occasionally also provides several possible answers for a given question, in order to enable the asked counterpart to respond in some degree by simply finger pointing at one of the answers. Additional audio material is often intended to benefit pronunciation and understanding competence. This kind of phrase books is often referred to as talking phrase book or voice translator.
Hand-written phrase books were used in the Mediaeval Europe by pilgrims to the Holy Land; major European languages, Greek, and Hebrew were covered. Printed phrase books appeared already in the late 15th century, exemplified by the Good Boke to Lerne to Speke French (ca. 1493-1496).
In Asia, phrase books were compiled for the travelers on the Silk Road already in the first millennium AD, such as a Dunhuang manuscript (Pelliot chinois 5538) containing a set of useful Saka ("Khotanese") and Sanskrit phrases.
The expression "My postillion has been struck by lightning", supposedly included in some phrasebooks, is used to describe some of the less likely to be useful phrases found in some books.
The 1972 short story by Joanna Russ, "Useful Phrases for the Tourist", takes the form of an excerpt from a phrase book. Since its initial appearance it has been reprinted nine times, and has been translated into Italian and French.
Phrasebooks exist for both living languages and for non spoken languages such as Meissner's Latin Phrasebook
The absence of vocabulary related to mental illness in commonly available phrase books has been examined by Mac Suibhne and Ni Chorcorain who surveyed a range of phrase books. All the books surveyed had sections on health: 12% (n=3) had vocabulary for depression and 40% (n=10) had vocabulary for anxiety disorders. Two of the publishers had produced phrase books which contained a word for ‘anxious’ in the general dictionary, without any cultural context, 16% (n=4) had a (context-free) expression for ‘I feel strange,’ but none had a word for ‘psychosis’ or stated how to say ‘I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia.’ The authors suggested that collaboration between psychiatrists and publishers could achieve appropriate ways of rectifying this situation.
- White, Pamela; Bowman, John Stewart; Isserman, Maurice (2005), Exploration in the World of the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Discovery and Exploration Series, Infobase Publishing, ISBN 143810183X
- Medieval phrase book. c.1493 - 1496
- Phrasebooks for Silk Route travelers
- Monty Python Sketch: Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook
- Monty Python Sketch: Court (phrasebook)
- Bibliography: "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" in Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Mac Suibhne, S. Ni Chorcorain A (2008). "W‘I wish to speak to a psychiatrist, please’: psychiatric vocabulary in phrase books". Psychiatric Bulletin 32: 336. doi:10.1192/pb.32.9.359.
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