Like many Americans, I shed a tear last week when I read the transcripts from United Flight 93. But I may have been the only one weeping over lousy grammar.
What put the mist in my eye was an introductory speech attributed to one of the hijackers. He was presumably impersonating a pilot when he got on the intercom to inform the passengers (and keep in mind that this is a direct quote):
Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit.
Hey, your wish is my command, Captain Over! So these are the infiltrative geniuses who plunged our nation into its darkest day of terror: guys who can't even fake their way around a gerund? Damn, it's a wonder the poor bastards in coach EVER tumbled to their captors' clever little ruse, what with the updates out of the cockpit sounding so official and all.
See, having your entire way of life held hostage is awful enough; what smarts is when it comes at the hands of people who are really bad at it. ("Adding insult to injury" is the phrase that springs to mind.) Guess nobody informed these flight-school Spicolis that their final hours might be better spent studying the basic rules of English syntax than getting pie-eyed in titty bars. Reading that transcript gave me the same feeling I had back in '93, when I learned that one of the original World Trade Center bombers had tried to return his used rental van for a full refund on the deposit. The feeling? That our fragile fates are in the hands of what Letterman used to call "really dumb guys."
Just to make sure I wasn't being a pedant, I ran the Flight 93 hijackers' intended spiel through a number of online translators, to see if it would sound any more effective in a variety of other dialects. I started by breaking it down to the basic "facts" I assume our friend was trying to convey:
This is the captain. Please sit down and remain seated. There is a bomb on board.
Kinda dry, yeah, and inherently contradictory: Telling passengers there's an explosive device in their midst isn't the greatest way to keep them from moving about the cabin. But we'll let it stand for purposes of the experiment. Here's how the announcement sounded after I ran it through the Encheferizer (www.tuco.de/home/jschef.htm), a site that translates ordinary English into the broken Scandinavian spoken by Muppet Show icon The Swedish Chef:
Thees is zee cepteeen. Pleese-a seet doon und remeeen seeted. Zeere-a is a bumb oon buerd. Bork Bork Bork!
Hear how soothing that sounds, and almost fun? I'd be sitting patiently as requested, enjoying pleasant nostalgia for the TV of my youth and awaiting the arrival of something really interesting from the kitchen, like a lobster that could sass me back.
Now here's the cabin speech in Valley-girl lingo (www.cs.utexas.edu/users/jbc/home/chef.html):
Like, ya know, this is like, ya know, the captain. Please sit down and remain seated. Like, there is like wow! a bomb on board.
Hmm. Redundant, and more than a little grating. But also distinctly American. And if it's the severity of the situation you're trying to push, what better way than by implanting the fear that a plane is being flown by a typical graduate of this country's public-school system?
Or if you'd rather put your stock in old-world color, check out the disarming power of Cockney rhyming slang (http://www.whoohoo.co.uk):
This is the bleedin' captain. Hairy biscuits and cheese sit daahhhn and remain seated. There is a Derry and Tom on board.
A "Derry and Tom"? Now, whatever in God's green Earth could that mean? Passengers like me would immediately plunk themselves down for an extended friendly debate, reveling in the same benign confusion we get from watching WMFE on a Saturday night without a pocket English-to-English dictionary handy.
Even the terrorists' shambolic original bulletin sounds better with some desktop tweaking. Here it is after a spin in The Jar-Jargonizer (www.hit-n-run.com/jarjar.html), which recasts webpages according to the lexicon of Star Wars pariah Jar-Jar Binks:
Ladies an' gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remain'in seat'in. Wee-sa have boom-a on board.
Well, there you have it. If I don't know to stay far away from a flight cabin when I hear that voice coming out of it, I've either: a) spent the last decade living under a rock; or b) paid real money at some point for a detailed light-saber replica, in which case I'm not exactly the Samson you have to worry about breaking down a steel-reinforced door (with or without help).
No, there's no getting around it: Any comment would have been more appropriate than the one our tongue-tied terrorist chose to make. Call me a snob, but the Flight 93 transcript put me in lockstep with the Bush team's position that al-Qaida killers are the lowest creatures on Earth — even worse than bloggers who refuse to use spell-check. From here on in, I vow that I will neither cower, beg nor buckle before any terrorist who refuses to learn my language properly. Osama, you can take this warning to the bank: Speak English, or I refuse to die.
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