Aihearkisto: Alicia Jinkerson

“Hard science” and the topic of language

A researcher from the sciences often forwards these kinds of articles to me, always sure they will revolutionize (read legitimize) my research. While this has not been the case, it is interesting to try and crawl into a different sort of mind to view the topic in a different way for a few minutes (or let’s be honest, an hour in the case of some articles). The month of April brought reminders of the renewed interest that the biological sciences are taking in language these days, as evidenced by publications in the  ”major leagues” of hard science and popular interest: Nature and Science . For your edification:

Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa – Quentin D. Atkinson

Universal Truths: Rejection of broad commonality in structure of languages has implications for all sciences (Editorial)the comments on this editorial are particularly enjoyable.

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Easy French: For our men abroad, And how to pronounce it.

“The need for supplementing the average Briton’s extremely fragmentary knowledge of French and German- has led to the formation of language classes for recruits of the new army, and many pocket dictionaries and conversation manuals have been published from time to time for the use of the men already in the field. Amongst the latter it would be difficult to find anything better than Captain Keyworth’s Easy French and Easy German. Small enough to be carried inside an ordinary pocket-book, these leaflets contain phrases and words most likely to be required by the soldier…” – The British Medical Journal, February 13, 1915.

This little 12 page pamphlet has probably seen the world. It caught my grandmother’s eye as she sifted through momentos working on yet another scrapbook rewriting history and she passed it along to me on a recent trip to Canada. It belonged to  my great-grandfather who in his latter years, was a composer and band leader for the 1st British Columbia Regiment Band in Vancouver (Lieut C.J. Cornfield) and who spent 12 years in India with the British military, likely as part of a regimental band.  And that is all I know about the origin of this pamphlet, or my great grandfather to be honest.

I place this here as an object of interest, or for those who like to solve mysteries, something with an undetermined provenance. It is also an interesting artefact in what it can reveal about how the military (or at least the publishers) of the day expected language to be learned and used in the context of war and in the context of the times. What follows are a few examples.

The pamphlet employs three categories: English, French, and Pronunciation (and in case one doesn’t know what pronunciation means, it is annotated with ”(say it like this)”!  The above is exemplary of the kind of military terms included, along with phrases such as ”Where is the enemy?” and ”Where is the calvary?” – a stark contrast to military communication today. In fact, the placement of phrases can almost read like an imagined narrative, take the following for example:

Straight out of a movie, pre-GPS. And yet the reality of war was quite stark, thus the inclusion of a great deal of ”In Hospital” language. Morbid, realistic, hopeful to indeed believe that one might be able to speak at all ( ”I am wounded in the neck/nose/head/mouth”) considering the battlefield medical treatments at the time were rather rudimentary, particularly in regards to pain management.

This is quite a different medical vocabulary from present day. Unable to figure out what ”lint” or ”la charpie” could be other than the stuff that comes off my clothing and is collected in the lint trap of a dryer – looking it up in the dictionary revealed that scrapings of linens would be used to dress wounds at the time. And despite all of this practical language there are few glimpses of the poetic, or at least I like to think that naming the sun, moon, stars and earth in another language might be considered frivolous or romantic.

The twelve page pamphlet doesn’t give any terminology for speaking on an interpersonal level, there are no words for expressing feelings; would one really expect to find the expression for, ”I am scared!”  What about the language of love? What would such a guide contain today? What does this say?

”Of any class”- Yes, these were different times indeed. And finally, this last example shows the only words the printer chose to have underlined in this text. Countless children are taught that these are the two most important words in English: ”please and thank you”.

The final page of the pamphlet advertises other ”Books for our Soldiers, Sailors and Red Cross workers” and leaves me pondering the easy use of ”our” both here and in the title…The use of  ”our” expresses patriotism and unity characteristic of war time, completely unfamiliar and out of keeping with today’s world where allegiances, membership, and belonging seems much more complicated. It is amazing how a single word can leap off a page and express quite a lot.

It is July, it is hot, and the corridors of this university are dark and echoing. But if you are reading this post and feel compelled to jump in and talk about it, please do. I welcome comments, ideas, discussion, anything that comes to mind.

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Kategoria(t): Alicia Jinkerson

Broadcasting a nexus point: late night radio.

“Good evening everyone, you’re in the right place at the right time. This is Coast to Coast AM. Coming at you, blasting out of the Mojave Desert like a sirocco, blazing across the land, into your town, into your home, slamming into your radio like a supercharged nano particle of dark energy. You’ve arrived at a nexus point, a crossroads of shadow and light, a phantasmic oracle  market place of ideas and blasphemies, grand melting pot of cultures and subcultures, from the benign to the bizarre, all on the same path searching for breadcrumbs of cosmic understanding and hoping we’ll be able to follow the trail back to where we started. Greetings from the boldest, bawdiest most outrageous city in the world, the planetary capital of sun, fun, sin, sex and secrets, my not so humble hometown, Las Vegas, Nevada. My name is George Knapp, your occasional host, your designated driver of the airwaves, and moderator of tonight’s upcoming cacophony of conversation. Glad to be with you once again.” (Sunday, August 23rd, 2009)

This is a live, spoken introduction to a radio program I listen to when sleep eludes me and I lay awake late at night. Back in Canada, I would tune in to a local channel on my clock radio and allow myself to be carried away by words.  This live American late night talk radio program, Coast to Coast AM  is picked up by affiliates in the US, Canada, Guam and the Virgin Islands, airing nightly. It covers a vast array of topics including the paranormal, unusual science and technology, unexplained phenomena, and conspiracy theories. The format features bizarre news, interviews with guests followed by calls from listeners with questions and stories related to the featured topic.

I never cease to be amazed by the way in which the nightly hosts navigate the fine line between belief and disbelief, and the way in which they manage interactions constructed around producing credibility. Looking at one of these interactions will be topic of my next blog entry. But for now, I just wanted to share this introduction and think about the way this language creates a safe space for disclosure of what most people would find unbelievable. The show positions itself outside of what it refers to as “mainstream media” and in doing so, needs to create a separate space. This introduction also creates a very vivid image of what radio is, but particularly, of what radio once was.

The language, imagery and delivery of this introduction pushes this bit of speech into the realm of performance. Each time Art Knapp delivers this introduction it varies; in pitch, in rhythm, some parts are left out, some parts are altered, and the last line is always personalized. While addressing a vast and varied audience spread across a continent, the broadcaster explicitly and directly singles out “you” the listener in a familiar manner. The audience is personified as one being – united by a desire to seek “cosmic understanding”.  There are two authors here as marked by an early reference to the institutional host (Coast to Coast AM) but there is also the later and more personal introduction to the broadcaster and the place of broadcast (this program is broadcast with several hosts who reside in different parts of the U.S. and the original host occasionally broadcasts from Manila, Philippines). The program is described as “blasting out of the Mojave desert” (of Nevada) “like a sirocco” (a wind of great speed originating in the Sahara desert of Northern Africa). While this program enters the homes across a continent, the introduction both personalizes it and localizes it.

There is so much I could say about this example, however classroom interaction is my area of research,  not broadcast talk, so I will leave this for the experts. I would like to draw one comparison however, to a better known program which also employed a similar kind of introduction: The Twilight Zone. While the opening to this classic television series changed from season to season, according to Jeffrey Sconce,  it “evoke[d] a sense of suspension, a ‘betwixt and between’ liminality that cast the program (and its viewers) as occupying an ‘elsewhere’ or even a ‘nowhere’”(Sconce 2000, 133). This objective is echoed in this introduction to Coast to Coast AM. Instead of “moving into a land of shadow and substance” one is arriving “at a crossroads of shadow and light,” an “oracle market place of ideas and blasphemies”. The language used here indexes the topic matter of the program, from “dark energy,” a hypothetical kind of energy, to “phantasmic oracles”. What will follow in the hours to come will be distinctive from other talk radio programs and will employ unique terminology and discursive strategies for constructing convincing and realistic accounts. While The Twilight Zone took over the senses in a way that only early television purported to, this present day radio program is an updated attempt at this; a live program reaching those who are nocturnal, a voice in the darkness where the realm of the possible expands. 

In fact, the introduction to the Twilight Zone was so effective, that it hasn’t been forgotten although the original series ended in 1964. To this day, “twilight zone” is a term used to describe a state of being where one is lost or not present in reality or a particular place or situation which is considered bizarre.

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination, beyond it is another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You are moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone”. (Rod Serling, 1964, 4th season)


Sconce, J. 2000. Haunted media: Electronic presence from telegraphy to television. London: Duke University Press.

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Kategoria(t): Alicia Jinkerson

And then she said something marvellous…

A few weeks ago I had a hair appointment scheduled right at the beginning of a very busy week, in the middle of my work day. I brought along some reading, in order to make good use of the many hours it takes to transform my limp mousy hair into something a little better. I made polite small talk with a new hairdresser, who I will call Emma, feeling anxious to get into my book. We covered the usual topics: “Why did I come to Finland…how long would I stay…was I learning Finnish”. This time however, the hairdresser said something marvellous.

I held in my hands a book entitled “I am my language” by Norma González. Whether it was this book, or the preceding discussion about my move to Finland, Emma began to reflect on her own childhood and experiences with language. When Emma was an infant her parents moved from Finland to another continent. Throughout her childhood her family celebrated Finnish holidays and used some Finnish at home, however there were no other Finns in their community. Emma’s family returned to Finland when she was in her mid-teens. She found this transition very difficult, she spoke Finnish with an accent and had difficulty making friends and fitting in. As I sat listening with interest, Emma paused with a hair foil in one hand and a spatula smeared with hair dye in the other hand, looked at me in the mirror and said, “There was Finnish in Finland, but no Finland in my Finnish.”

Words can be lost somewhere between comprehending what someone is saying and understanding what they truly mean. This is where Emma’s words were lost, where her repertoire of Finnish wasn’t enough. In the very book I serendipitously held in my hand that day, González draws on Bakhtin in discussing the living heteroglossia of bilingual lives – the different places one gives to multiple languages in life. González describes how one language used Spanish in an American home as “the connection of one language with the domain of food, relatives, music and affect” (2001:67). The Finnish used by Emma abroad amongst her family was not the Finnish required in daily life here in Finland. Emma went from using Finnish with a handful of people to using Finnish with virtually everyone in her immediate environment.

“There was Finnish in Finland, but no Finland in my Finnish” – a poignant statement which can be read as linking language and culture or read as a statement on how linguistic resources travel; how people and languages move in the world. According to Jan Blommaert, who recently lectured in Jyväskylä on issues addressed in his forthcoming book, sociolinguistics has not addressed the instability of “community”. Terms such as discourse community, speech community, membership, or community of practice presuppose a kind of static and local reality that does not necessarily exist (Blommaert, 2009: 9). Emma didn’t “feel Finnish” as a teenager and though she has been in Finland more than half her life, still doesn’t feel “completely Finnish”. This is, for me, an exciting instance of when the theoretical “stuff” of postgraduate studies becomes real and consequential. And all because I put down my book and had a chat while getting my hair done.

Blommaert, J. (Forthcoming 2009). A sociolinguistics of socialization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

González, N. 2001. I am my language: Discourses of women and children in the Borderlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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