Friday, 27 August 2010

Flouting THEE Maxims

Our ‘train host’ the other day was a spotty adolescent boy, who, lugging his trolley of acrid coffee and junk food down the aisle of the carriage, muttered ‘refreshments’ now and then in a costive, grudging monotone. I wondered if Cross Country trains have a ‘mystery traveller’ from their Department of Twaddle and Inanity who would report him and get him sent on a Loquacity and Prattle Awareness Course of the kind Marks and Spencer’s employees are obviously required to attend. If I were sure that such a company prefect existed, I’d have given the lad my own award for Cutting the Crap, just as a bit of a morale booster, because his colleagues get right up my bloody nose with their chirpy obsequiousness. ‘Any refreshments from the trolley?’ one of them quacks over and over, as she plies the aisle. There is no other source of refreshment on the train, so the waste of breath is obvious, but no doubt the initial training day emphasises cheeriness and enthusiasm for trundling up and down the carriage with a crateful of cardboard butties and fatty chocolate. This must be the case; one of her colleagues outdoes her with his chant of ‘any refreshments at all on this service this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen?’ I mean, like, what? I am tempted to say, ‘no, not this afternoon, but could you have a chilled Chardonnay waiting for me on the 17.25 Peterborough to Leeds on the twenty-first of next month? Round about the time we hit Grantham?’ Now that, you see, would make him understand that his mantra is overly specific, and violates Grice’s Maxims of Quantity, viz.:

1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.

2. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.

At this juncture, no doubt, the boy would with some justice advance the objection that this is a service encounter and Grice’s maxims do not apply, elaborated as they were for conversation and not transaction. To which I would counter that the third Maxim of Manner: ‘Be brief. Avoid unnecessary wordiness’ is always applicable to other people as far as I am concerned, so I win and he can fuck off.

And I haven’t finished yet, it’s not just train hosts. There is an announcer at the station who plays little games with stress patterns. He has the now ubiquitous announcer’s habit of pointlessly stressing prepositions: ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused to your journey.’ Then there’s the ‘East Midlands Trine Service to Nottingham’, as distinct, I suppose, from the East Midlands Tea Service to Nottingham, or the variation ‘East Midlands Trine Service to Nottingham’, as opposed to… No idea. It doesn’t mean anything, you daft sod.

Recently, he has decided that Announcerese is topic prominent:

‘The trine now standing at platform one, this is thee 13.16 Cross Cunt-ray trine service to Birmingham New Street.’

‘The next trine to arawve at platform two, this will bee thee 15.17 trine service to Stansted Airport.’

I can’t help but get the impression that with all these little flourishes and variations, the bloke imagines himself to be one shit-hot exponent of the announcer’s art, pushing the envelope of the genre, a cut above the other drones who just stress English logically. I want to sit him down and show him how to stop trouncing English. Stress matters. It conveys meaning. It separates the salient from the incidental. It is not to be arsed about with. Lots of my students pass through that station, and he is setting a very bad example.

I know, I should get a bloody life. This is what thirty years of teaching English and living alone will do to your head. Any young person considering ELT as a career is hereby warned. As you are, so I once was; and as I am, so you might very well be.


Rob said...

It was better in the British Rail days. Honest, grumpy staff with big orange sideburns. I remember once, as a teenager, getting off the train at Manchester Piccadilly without a ticket, and therefore going to buy one at the excess ticket booth. I got out my tenner to pay and he snarled at me: "You said you got on at Bramhall. You fucking rich kids from Bramhall with your fucking tenners". All without a trace of irony - just hatred. That's what I call service.

Vilges Suola said...

I remember their spectacular rudeness too. Whether I prefer it to the present servile prattle I'm not sure.


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