On a recent commute via Calgary's light rail train, the following recorded announcement caught my ear: "Please stand clear of the doors as this train is trying to depart." Beyond my initial bemusement, I thought little of it. I imagined, perhaps, a harried public transit employee playing a bit fast and loose with selectional restrictions in much the same way that a certain child I know puts together jigsaw puzzles: by pounding together pieces that approximately fit together and hoping for the best. But later in the week my husband fielded a call that made me wonder whether the train announcer's overextension of animacy features wasn't in fact a crafty linguistic maneuver to increase rush-hour compliance.
The call in question was for a survey on behalf of the City of Calgary, designed with the obvious intent of figuring out how to get people to stop planting non-indigenous species that end up spreading throughout the local eco-system. You know the type: wisteria on the North American East Coast and purple loosestrife here in the West. Would we, the survey caller wanted to know, be less likely to introduce a plant into our yard if we knew it was an invasive species—or an aggressive ornamental? Now that you mention it, I think we'll stay away from the aggressive ornamentals, those lovely but neurotic plants that are prone to outbursts of snarling and clawing at your bare ankles as you walk by. Nor, apparently, do they play well with other plants. They have a tendency to leap over the garden fence and be rather belligerent towards the local flora.
Word-tinkering tools are of course to be found in the handbag of any communications expert, ever since the famous studies on framing effects by Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky and the highly-publicized linguistic machinations of Republican advisor Frank Luntz, who regularly dispenses advice on how to most persuasively refer to policies (for example: Americans allegedly disapprove of a death tax more strongly than the co-referential estate tax). The City of Calgary has certainly had its own Luntzian moments. For instance, city council chose to name an expensive and aesthetically controversial footbridge the Peace Bridge (this being Canada, peace is hardly ever a controversial topic). And our current mayor, a fierce advocate of building a tunnel that would run traffic beneath the airport, has taken to calling it the airport underpass—a term that surely evokes a lesser probability of engineering and fiscal catastrophe than the word tunnel.
In light of all this, I'm now imagining some communications person with an animacy fetish doing language design somewhere in a back room of City Hall. And now that I think about it, elasticizing animacy seems a promising approach that could generalize quite well to a variety of persuasive contexts. I suspect some of its persuasive work is being accomplished by simple incongruity—after all, it was the violation of selectional restrictions that first made me notice the train announcement in the first place. But beyond that, we humans are clearly a species obsessed with animacy. We eagerly attribute goals, intentions and emotions to objects that have none—people routinely apologize to computer-generated voices, accuse their software of having it in for them, or wheedle, cajole, bribe or threaten their cars to start in the depths of a Calgary winter. Surely, if a train is trying to depart, one would not be so insensitive as to knowingly frustrate it. (I'll let you know if I see any fellow Canadians actually apologizing to the train.)
So, in the interests of fostering safe and civic-minded behavior, I thought I'd help the City of Calgary out by proposing the following signage:
$100 fine for smothering the grass by littering.
Molesting the walls with graffiti will be strictly punished.
A fine will be charged for wounding the library books.
Kindly relieve your sidewalks of snow within 12 hours.
Mind the malicious gap.