Monday, September 19, 2005

Radio Daze, I

We mourn extinctions among the world’s 6,000 languages, half of which may be gone by century’s end. Like loggers wiping out wildlife in the rainforest, radio and television signals scythe through New Guinea’s thousand languages in their most remote recesses, through the five hundred Bantu dialects of sub-Saharan Africa or what remains of the cliquey tongues of American Indians from the Arctic’s Inuits to the Kaweqsar of Tierra del Fuego. For every proverbial elder keeping up the old speech there’s leveling sounds as cheap and uniform as processed cheese tumbling from a satellite or a broadcast antenna. For every one of the elder’s dying words there’s a grid of programming. Silencing indigenous sounds takes one click of a remote, one touch of a pre-set button. The wonder is that so many languages still abound, which suggests that languages are not as vulnerable as they seem, at least not to broadcasters’ influence. It seems to me the leveling forces of technology take a heavier toll on their own linguistic inventions. Radio culture produced a rich, indigenous argot that disappeared before it had a chance to make it on the preservationists’ lists. Few of the words are pure inventions, although there are some of those, too: A crawk was an animal imitator, a gaffoon was a sound-effects specialist, quonking was that background noise or chatter you heard during a performance or an interview, zampa was an overplayed musical passage. All good, well-toned words that deserved a longer life but perhaps with the exception of quonk, which the BBC still recognizes on its Web site as "an unwanted noise which turns up on a sound track," all died in infancy, their existence not even recorded by latter-day Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary. Crawk may be an onomatopoeia in a poem or a short story, gaffoon turns up in Germany here and there, and Alfred Zampa, an ironworker on many of the nation’s bridges, gave his name to the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge in San Francisco Bay. But in radio, the words are dead, forgotten wreaths on the kind of programming that made them necessary and died long ago. Same goes for a string of words and phrases that existed before, but without radio’s recombinant meanings. Before it was grasped almost exclusively by the greenish language of salary raises and collective bargaining agreements, the expression across the board, for instance, was said of those programs that were scheduled at the same time every day. A boring program was called arsenic, a mistake in a live performance was called a beard, a clinker, fluff or kick, as opposed to a burp, which was a quonk’s cousin. A performer who happened to be hoarse that day was a belcher. Blast, a word as if tailor-made for Arturo Toscanini, the blitzkrieg conductor, was originally said of particularly loud transmissions, and a town crier was said of a particularly loud singer. An ear-ache (it was the era of hyphens) was an actor who over-performed, gelatine was a tenor with a thin voice, plug-ugly was said of advertising plunked into a news broadcast or an entertainment program before the ugliness got to be the norm, and zilch, before our reigning commander-in-zilch adopted it as his own, was the name applied to anyone whose name was unknown. The expressions for the most part are still in use, but not in the language of radio, where their use became superfluous decades ago. The sort of programming that made the words necessary—live plays, live concerts, live comedy—has vanished, and not because television has been a better medium through which to pipe it (pipe, incidentally, was originally a radio term that defined the transmission of programming by telephone). Given the choice, the audience’s imagination has opted for the medium of least invention.