Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Words, meaning and train times

Words don’t mean just one thing. They cover an area of meaning, and the meaning is less and less closely associated with the word as you get to the edges where it starts to merge with the meaning of the next word. Somewhere yesterday’s charming young seducer turned into today’s dirty old man, or as I heard a US senator once say, sensuous senior citizen; the art of definition is to draw the line where the transition occurred.

Way back when I was studying all that kind of stuff (the stuff about words, I mean, not the stuff about dirty old men) I was fascinated by an illustration given by Ferdinand de Saussure, regarded as the father of linguistics. Basically, the example goes like this: the 8:05 train is still the 8:05 when it leaves at 8:10, even when it leaves at 8:15, but when it leaves at 8:20, the departure time of the next train, suddenly definition breaks down – we have ambiguity. Which of the trains is the 8:05, which the 8:20?

Ferdinand de Saussure: master of linguistics and of train timetabling?
What Saussure may not have realised, probably because he was Swiss and they handle this kind of thing better than the English, is that all it takes is a bit of snow and you can put this thinking to a practical test.

Yesterday I turned up at Kentish Town station in plenty of time to get the 17:46 home, only to discover that the train company had switched to an emergency timetable. The emergency was that there had been snow two or three days earlier and the rails were still a bit wet. In places. So the 17:46 was done away with, replaced by the 17:49. Which was now due to leave at 17:56. Or, as we were told two minutes later, at 17:58. Or shall we say, four minutes later, at 18:02? At 18:04, they stopped giving an estimated time of departure, and the display changed to the simple message ‘delayed’. At least that was honest.

Underneath it, the display proclaimed that the 18:19 was running on time. At 18:10, I began to wonder whether I was finally, thirty years on, going to experience a Saussure moment. At 18:15, the 17:49 pulled into the station.

Note the linguistic analogy: we’re getting close to the borderline where meanings merge, but there’s still no ambiguity. On a more pragmatic note, we could also tell, by using our eyes, that it was packed like a sardine can, containing not only the passengers for the 17:49 but also those for the cancelled 17:19. Not sure what Saussure would have made of that one. With no Japanese rail employees to push us into the carriages, I simply couldn’t board the train.

Then, oh height of Schadenfreude, a voice came over the public address system inside the train. ‘This is your driver speaking. This pile of shit just won’t get above a snail’s pace. I’m taking a couple of minutes to take a look at it to see if I can’t knock some sense into its sorry brain.’ I think he may have used different words, but you get the drift.

Those of us stuck on the platform tried to hide our smirks at satisfaction looking at the mass of humanity crammed inside the carriages. But we didn’t try too hard.

Then came the blessed voice of the public address system on the platform. ‘Passengers waiting for the 18:19 train should cross to platform 3 where it is about to come into the station.’ It wasn’t as claustrophobically packed as the other one had been, so with cries of glee we poured aboard, making it just as horribly uncomfortable.

And that was it! Pure Saussurian ambiguity. Both trains were in the station at the same time. So which was which? The passengers in each train curiously and narrowly observed the passengers on the other. Would we demote the 17:49 to 18:19 and take its place? Suspense never gets sharper than this. You see how exciting railway commuting can be?

You want to know the outcome? It could hardly avoid being an anti-climax after that build-up, but, since you ask, the 17:49 did indeed leave first, respecting the rules of definition. However, the driver hadn’t managed to fix it, so we crawled along behind it. Breathing down its neck, I like to think.

No comments: