Half a league, half a league / Polizeisprache

A new police radio system called Airwave has been introduced in the UK, and in connection with this it was reported at the weekend that police are to be taught to use a set of expressions that are uniform throughout the country.

Mark Garner of Aberdeen University, David Matthews from Edinburgh and Edward Johnson of Cambridge University have analysed an hour of police radio talk from every police force in the UK. This was news to me, but it’s been reported a number of times since at least December 2005.

Scotland on Sunday reported:

[They] found officers used 50 different words and phrases just to say “yes”, including “aye”, “yeah”, “OK”, “wilco”, “will do”, “right”, “alright”, “go ahead”, “excellent”, “thank you”, and “affirmative”.
Officers will be asked to restrict themselves to just three standard terms: “Received” for “I have understood you”; “Yes, yes” for “I agree”, and “Will do” for “I shall carry out the task”.
Johnson said: “Countless operational errors over the years have resulted from inappropriate communications provision, inappropriate procedures and poorly worded messages. Many lives have been sacrificed in the process.

I was worried myself about all the deaths resulting from English and Scottish police failing to communicate. But a talk by Edward Johnson, ‘Talking Across Frontiers’, explains it better:

It is doubtful that The Light Brigade would have charged at Balaclava in 1854 had Raglan’s command which prompted it been worded differently (Woodham-Smith 2000). The Tenerife air crash of 1977 may not have occurred had the air traffic control messages been clear (Hawkins 1987). The lives of an entire diving crew may not have been lost in the North Sea in 1983 (Godden 1983) had not the message ‘You can talk about overtime when you’ve made the clamp’ been mistakenly interpreted as an instruction to open a pressure lock.

The commenters at Scotland on Sunday took a narrow view of things, possibly as a result of inability to read. Others wanted English police to learn Scots. Jim A, more pertinently, wrote, ‘Me, ma talkin’s jist fine, it’s the rest o the buggers, no me’.

Edward Johnson’s paper linked above has lists of examples of radio talk and texting. It also discusses cross-border police communication (French/ English, German/Polish). In ‘One six a sierra sierra bravo golf one six two’ ‘there is conflict between the ‘NATO’ alphabet – alpha, bravo, charlie, etc., and the brand names of motor cars – Sierra, Golf, Alpha Romeo, Bravo.’

I had a book on learning Scots last year. It was the only language book I remember seeing that advised me not to try out my new knowledge in the country itself. There’s some good stuff online too, here texts and audiofiles, and look inside a Scots dictionary here.

16 thoughts on “Half a league, half a league / Polizeisprache

  1. Am I being a silly prescriptivist for needing to go back over that second quote more than once because of the “may”s?

  2. Perhaps it makes me a stark raving descriptivist, but I had to go back over the quote several times before I even understood what the difficulty is.
    The phrase may not have been in the sense of “w

  3. Victor: I seem to be reading criticisms of this usage all the time. It does remove the distinction between ‘might’ and ‘may’. I think the meaning is clear, though, isn’t it? But still, if you say the Tenerife 1977 air crash ‘may not have occurred’, it sounds as if there’s a doubt as to whether there was a crash at all, whereas ‘might not have’ means it did happen, but there was perhaps a way in which it could have been prevented.
    You know that, of course! At all events, I noticed it when I pasted the quote.

  4. I am aware of the **theoretical** difference between might and may. In practice, however, my descriptivist instinct tells me that this distinction is artificially contrived and that both phrases are ambiguous.
    Both of the phrases, i.e. “might not have happened” and “may not have happened” have two possible meanings:
    1. Perhaps it did not happen.
    2. Perhaps it would not have happened.
    If I want to be unambiguous, I would avoid both turns of phrase and put it another way.

  5. When you say ‘theoretical difference’, I have to say I think it’s only the context that makes the meaning plain. I did say that this ‘may’ is comprehensible in context.

    Language Log has dealt with this and calls it ‘the spread of counterfactual may’ – where people used to use ‘might’. (March 27 and 28 and May 3 2005). I would still write ‘might’ in the counterfactual sense (i.e. as in the 1977 plane crash, it really did happen).

  6. Thank you, Margaret (if you’ll allow the firstname).

    I did indeed think that “might” would have been ‘right’ – now that you mention them, it may well have been one of those LL posts that made me aware of the distinction fading. I’m a Dane and have picked up most of my vocabulary and presumably grammar from books, so it makes sense that the conflation feel unnatural to me.

  7. I shorten my heptasyllabic alias to Sili deliberately because of the pun.

    My name’s Jens, but I blanketed on “Frau Marks” as I typed, hence the familiar form instead.

    Anyway, I polled (quite unscientifically) three of my young (late teens) native English friends and none of them found anything to remark about the quote. Not even when I pointed out what bothered *me*, so for them at least the shift is complete. I’m just an old man at thirty.

    Thank you for the link (you’ve cut the intial “h” for “http”).

  8. The language point is that may is present and might is past. So if you say Her house has burnt down. She may have died you are saying that it is possible that she has died but we don’t know. But if you say Her house has burnt down. She might have died you are saying that it was possible, given the circumstances of the fire, that she would die but she didn’t. It’s not all that difficult really.

  9. Her house has burnt down: she may have died.
    Her house has burnt down: she might have died.

    My usage differs from Peter’s. Those two examples are very close in meaning for me. Might is slightly less definite.

    The example in my quote is:

    The 1977 Tenerife air crash may not have happened (in traditional usage, this should mean: perhaps they have been lying to us all these years and there never was a crash – but since we know the crash occurred, it should be ‘might’).

  10. I understand both yours and Peter’s examples and interpretations. The point is of course, that the distinction is only in context for the new generation of English speakers. Not in grammar/wordchoice. (And I don’t consider myself part of that generation, no, as should be obvious from my initial trouble parsing the quote. I’m trying to wean myself from “whom”, though.)

  11. Sili: Yes, of course, my examples also depend on context. I realize you understand the problem – I don’t think there has been any problem of understanding it. In the usage I learnt, there was a distinction made between may and might, and that is being eroded.
    I hate to be pedantic, but both teaching English and translating you have to draw the line somewhere, when language is changing. Fortunately I don’t have to mark essays any longer!

  12. Oh sorry, for the confusion. I meant that in reply to Peter’s quip “It’s not all that difficult really.”

    No, I don’t find it difficult, but usage as is changing, so essentially Peter is in the wrong. Or shall be in another thirty years or so.

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