Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Last words...

Today's newspapers report the dreadful details of the inquest into Julia Pemberton's murder. This woman and her son were gunned down by her estranged husband. This is a terrible crime and we must spare a thought for the daughter who survives them all. But the reason this catches the attention of the language legend is that many of the newspapers present the transcript of Julia Pemberton's desperate 999 call.

In studying AS/A2 English language we look at transcripts often, but, if I'm honest, they can be rather banal - a couple of parents talking about their children's homework, a train passengers' announcement, that kind of thing. Linguistically interesting as examples of speech, but without the striking immediacy of today's published transcript.

And what is particularly interesting about today's transcript is how far it is from our common expectations of spontaneous speech. We tend to think, based on our text book descriptions, that spontaneous speech is full of fillers and pauses, disjointed structures and repetition. But here, under the most extreme pressure imaginable, faced with certain death, we "hear" a woman whose speech is not like that at all.

It also raises an important issue about the way that technology is changing our experience of language. Call centres, including those of the emergency services, can record every interaction. Words we never expected anybody else to hear are available as evidence to an inquest. The desperate last cry for help is there, reproduced in black and white in our newspapers. It reminds me of 9/11, when the newspapers printed the last words of the people on the planes, recorded for posterity on answerphones and voicemails. It's chilling stuff.

And newspapers seem to be developing a fondness for the transcripts of speech. In addition to these two examples there was also the Ian Huntley murder trial last year. On one day, the Independent newspaper's front page was simply a transcript of Huntley's account in court of what happened on the day two little girls died in his house. This publishing fashion could be a cynical attempt merely to indulge a certain human fascination for gory detail; but maybe it's something quite different. Okay, so this is the written (and edited) representation of speech rather than speech itself, but the fact that the journalists in several national newspapers used it might perhaps suggest that we are in the process of coming to value firsthand oral accounts of events far more highly than secondhand written accounts.

Click on the link below for the news item and transcript. If you want to read the (edited) court transcript of part of the Ian Huntley trial, type in "Ian Huntley trial transcript" into the archive search box on the Independent's website. Unfortunately the article is premium rated which means you'll have to pay £1 to read it, but if you're interested, it's worth it.

Woman's final minutes captured in 999 call


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