Alternative Histories of English

By Richard Watts; Peter Trudgill | Go to book overview
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12

Broadcasting thenonstandard message

David Crystal

In 1986 BBC television presented a nine-part series on the English language - The Story of English - which was the first major attempt by that medium to deal seriously with this topic. 1 The following year, I was approached, in a collaboration with Tom McArthur, to produce an eighteen-part radio version for the BBC World Service. I thought this would be an easy job. We were given access to the television scripts and footage, from which I assumed it would be a straightforward matter to select and rewrite. The assumption proved to be wildly wrong. I was underestimating the crucial difference between programmes made for radio and those made for television. The 'talking head' - the sine qua non of radio - proved to be so ancillary to the striking visual image that, when we came to listen to the recordings, there proved to be little that could be adapted directly. The TV dialogue and voiceovers routinely depended on the visual context in ways that made the audio tape ambiguous or unintelligible. Discourse was disrupted, from an auditory point of view, by visual sequences, some of which wandered away from the linguistic focus - for example, in the programme dealing with Shakespeare's influence on English, the viewer was taken on an interesting (but not wholly linguistically relevant) tour around Anne Hathaway's cottage! It made excellent television, but impossible radio. We had to begin from scratch, and found ourselves constructing our own 'story of English' anew.

This anecdote illustrates how easy it is to be taken in by the metaphor of the 'story' of a language. No language, as the opening chapter of this book stresses (Milroy, Chapter 1), has a single story. There are plainly many 'stories' of English, intricately and unpredictably interacting as they unfold through time. The character of each story will be affected by all kinds of constraints. One constraint is evidently the nature of the medium: the radio story cannot be the same as the television story. To illustrate further: the presentation of the written language (through manuscripts, inscriptions, handwriting styles, scribal idiosyncrasies, and so on) can be handled explicitly by television and only very indirectly by radio; conversely, radio greatly privileges the spoken word, allowing extended monologue of a kind that television eschews. But if we conflate radio and television, under the heading of broadcasting, a further contrast appears - between the story that this medium is able to tell and the

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