On yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 PM programme [zap forward to 48:45], David Marsh of the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog was interviewed about the bad English used in train announcements. His reply was similar to the blog post he wrote two years ago titled “Railspeak should be terminated”:
Railspeak is a language with a unique syntax and vocabulary – characterised by, for example, the mandatory use of auxiliary verbs (“we do apologise”), the random deployment of redundant adjectives (“station stop”, “personal belongings”) and the selection of inappropriate prepositions (“time into London Paddington is approximately 25 minutes”).
Trains never leave, but “depart”, never reach their destination, but “terminate”, and are frequently delayed by mysterious “incidents”. Rail catering, meanwhile, has been transformed from a music hall joke (British Rail sandwiches) to a surreal world of its own, offering among other treats “teas, coffees, hot chocolates [sic] ...” (Has anyone tested this by asking how many varieties of hot chocolate are, in fact, available? To enjoy, perhaps, while reading the safety information leaflet in braille?)
Like Orwell’s Newspeak, the result of all this is not effective communication but the creation of a gulf between the language used by its speakers and those on the receiving end. Calling people “standard-class customers” serves only to alienate them if the reality is that they feel treated like second-class (or third world) passengers. Hyper-correct, hyper-polite language may be well intended but comes across as patronising and insincere.
Do these people talk like this at home? “This is Julie, your customer host. I do advise Colin that I am now serving a full range of sausages, chips, beans, breads, butters and teas in the at-home kitchen. I do apologise that there is no at-armchair trolley service.” And later: “This is Julie, your customer host. I do wish to inform Colin that due to adverse screaming kids conditions I do not agree to his suggestion of ‘an early night and a bit of a cuddle’. I do apologise for any inconvenience caused.”Railspeak is not the fault of ordinary railway staff – they are just reading from the script. The blame rests with the illiterate managers who devise and impose this nonsense.
Now will someone please explain to Tim Snowball at Liberal Democrat HQ that his message script (“On Message, In Volume, Over Time”) is the political equivalent of railspeak, and is just as wooden, patronising and alienating.