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.
[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 Raglans 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 youve 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.