Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Central Trains have got no Rhythm

I hope that Central Trains are daily besieged with complaints about their overcrowding and frequent delays. I do as much fuming about this as anybody else condemned to a daily commute along the Stansted Airport – Birmingham New Street line, but what I really want to write to head office about is the guards’ mangling of English stress patterns. (‘Dear Mr Suola, Thank you for your letter. The contents have been noted. Get a life.’)

You see, I have always taught students that the stressed words in an utterance are the words the speaker regards as salient in the discourse. With lower level students, you can be economical with the truth and say that we don’t (usually) stress prepositions, because these for the most part carry edge-of-the-action info, not right-in-the-thick-of it info:

‘The doorbell rang.’ (What basically happened.)

Steve opened the door.’ (Who did what.)

On the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk…’ (Prepositional phrase creates a setting, a starting point. Main point is the hunk*)

‘…and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ (The prepositional phrase might actually be the true focus of interest here.)

Now if you were to utter the phrase, ‘on the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ I submit you would probably stress it thus:

‘on the LANding he SAW a DROP-DEAD GORgeous YOUNG HUNK and inVIted him into the FLAT at exACTly EIGHT P.M.

you were a guard who'd been taught public speaking by Central Chuffing Trains, when you might well stress it something like this:

ON the landing HE saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him INTO the flat AT exactly eight P.M.’

thus making a pig's mickey of all the clues as to the relevance and salience of the various components of the sentence. Why do they do it?

‘Ladies and gentlemen we shall shortly be arriving AT Melton Mowbray.’

‘This train is FOR Stansted Airport, calling AT Melton Mowbray, Oakham, Stamford…’

It doesn't impede communication, I know, but it bugs me. It bugs me almost as much as the people quacking into their mobile phones as loudly as if they were alone, or listening to those frantically fizzing MP3 players that are audible half the length of the carriage.

Guards also stress auxiliaries in counter-intuitive ways:

‘We shall shortly be arriving AT Peterborough. If you ARE leaving the train at Peterborough, please remember to take all your belongings with you. Peterborough, our next station stop’

It sounds rather as if some people had been expressing reservations as to the wisdom of alighting at Peterborough, and the guard is addressing those who have decided to chance it.

Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘station stop’ for Christ’s sake, or we’ll be here all night.


* Who might well have been a Turkish Oil Wrestler.


Bo said...

my thoughts exactly - especially about the ubiquitous 'station stop'.

vilges suola said...

Amazing how these 'ticks' catch on and become part of a particular 'genre'. Announcer-speak seems not only to have its own rules for stressing prepositions and auxiliaries but also specific intonation contours (Natalie Bottomley to the [up]check out, Natalie Bottomley to the [down]check out, please!)and an irritating over-explicitness: 'any passengers who ARE wishing to take lunch this afternoon, would you please make your way TO coach H where one of my colleagues will be happy to serve you.' 'Lunch is being served in coach H'would do, surely. Grice's maxims, who cares any more, it's a new vorld, vot can you do?

Mariana said...

I've always thought that way of talking meant the speaker is exasperated at the listeners stupidity, and fully anticipates they'll be too dumb to understand what he's saying/do as they're told. "Will you please go Over there, and do AS you're told, before I completely LOse it?"

vilges suola said...

Yes, that is possible. But my (untested) hypothesis is that this misplacing of stress patterns and auxiliairies is an extension of some existing linguistic gadgets for softening and mitigating one's message. 'If you keep on smoking, you'll have a stroke' sounds more merciless and tell-it-like-it-is than 'if you DID keep on smoking, you could have a stroke', the second one conveying the idea of leaving the options open to the addressee.

Well,that's a possibility, anyway.


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