Transit is departing

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The electric train that runs between the different parts of Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport insists on referring to itself as a "transit".

What's more, the remarkably annoying female voice that tells you needlessly that the doors are closing and that the train is about to start moving says "Transit is departing."

I have written about this sort of thing before: Why on earth would they not program the speech synthesizer (or record the voiceover) to say (using the definite article rather than leaving it in its present strange anarthrous headlinese) "Please hold on; the train is now leaving." Why do they not make it speak the way a normal human would speak?

I wish I understood the strange compulsion that makes people in the transportation industry reach for technical words that nobody uses in ordinary conversation: board for "get on" is one example, since very few people say "I boarded the bus" for "I got on the bus," but clearer examples include depart for "leave", and disembark or deplane or alight for "get off". These are really very rare in conversation. Why does the transportation industry feel they must be used nonetheless?

It really is in need of explanation. There seems to be no possible purpose served by programming a speech synthesizer to use a rarefied technical stratum of the vocabulary for simple things like telling people that a train is about to start moving or that it's the end of the line and they should get off.

It's weird enough already being addressed by a robot on a train with no driver zooming underground from one airport gate concourse to another. Why do they exploit linguistic means to make it even weirder?

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28 Comments

  1. MonkeyBoy said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    "Why do they exploit linguistic means to make it even weirder? "

    Maybe it is to confuse non-native speakers so that the natives can laugh at them. Or maybe it's that specialized language can create an in-group that understands it – in this case knowing that language is part of the "seasoned traveler" club.

  2. Adrian said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    I thought it was because transportation is considered a rather insignificant business and they think they can counteract that with hifalutin words.

  3. FM said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    For what it's worth, the completely useless terminal-to-not-terminal train in the Pittsburgh Airport also refers to itself as a transit.

  4. Carl said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    Speaking of "embark"/"disembark", the customs forms for Japan insist on using these words to describe the act of entering and exiting the country. Now, since any trip to or from Japan must involve both embarking and disembarking, the customs form is completely baffling. My solution for the last ten years has been to just read the Japanese version of the form, which is sensibly marked with the Japanese words for "entering the country" 入国 and "leaving the country" 出国. This requires you to know that the country in question is Japan, but at least it omits needless reference to the vehicle transporting you.

  5. hanmeng said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    At least that's comprehensible, if annoying. For my part, as a consumer, I often have trouble understanding representatives of various service industries because they insist on using their own vocabulary instead of the vernacular.

  6. Lynne Skysong said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    I always thought they did that intentionally so that it would stand out more and make people pay attention to the disembodied voice telly you that the train is departing.

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    Well, think about it. Working in "transit" is the best job these folk can find. Maybe they don't realize their language is gibberish.

  8. Matt Pearson said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    I think the formalese is part of a misguided attempt to sound authoritative, in the hopes that this "someone's in charge" aura will put nervous travellers at ease (though why anyone would feel nervous taking an electric train, I don't know).

    The lack of economy in transport-related language extends to the smallest function word. I've noticed a tendency on the part of airline employees to employ needless "do"-insertion all over the place, as in "We do hope you enjoy your stay in Orlando, or wherever your travel plans may take you". (No, seriously, we DO hope that.)

  9. Linguist in hiding said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    I say taboo vocabulary. This just seems so familiar to me. Maybe its just me but some 20 years ago I noted this very thing. People on the train business tried their damnest never to utter 'train': "We soon arrive at X.", "If you're on your way to Y, go to platform Z." etc. Of course this is all anecdotal, wasn't in English etc. Therefore I can't say if that was real or imagined.

  10. Allan L. said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    "Cabin crew be seated for departure." This after we've left the gate, and just before take-off.

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    > It's weird already enough being addressed by a robot on a train with no driver zooming underground from one airport gate concourse to another. Why do they exploit linguistic means to make it even weirder?

    Maybe they're avoiding some sort of uncanny valley effect? That is, maybe they've found that people find it less weird when robots use formal technical language than when they use ordinary English?

  12. RW said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

    Transportese is a strange dialect. "Will be non-stopping" instead of "will not be stopping" always seems like a really weird thing for train drivers to say, as does "the next station stop" instead of "the next stop". I recall reading somewhere, though I can't remember where, that the reason they say "station stop" is to avoid the confusion that might occur if the train stopped unexpectedly while not in the station mentioned. That seemed like a very insulting assumption about the intelligence of the passengers.

  13. Levantine said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    What I find weirder about that announcement is the voice itself. The speaker has what to me sounds like a distinctly Scandinavian accent, which is an odd thing to hear when you're on a 'transit' in the UK's main airport. I don't expect her to sound like the queen or anything, but it does baffle me why they didn't record someone with some sort of British accent. It would be like travelling to an American airport and hearing the announcements in an Australian accent, or vice versa.

  14. MollyT said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    Levantine, what's really weird is that if you board the trans-terminal train in the two US cities where a slight Scandinavian accent prevails–Seattle and Minneapolis (where they call it a tram)– the speaker has an English accent. Sort of. And the train (or tram) is "depahting".

  15. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    @Levantine

    Or like withdrawing money from an American bank machine that speaks with a British accent. That happens frequently, and I have no idea why.

  16. Steve Tauber said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    For non native speakers, these technical terms are more likely to be in their phrase books.

  17. Ø said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    This is reminding me a little of the talking elevators (Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporters) of Douglas Adams.

  18. Mike Withers said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    Disembark is not a transitive verb therefore you don't disembark the plane you just disembark. Why is it thought neccassry to have a robot in a lift telling you that the doors are opening or closing? Extremely irritating to pedants such as I.

  19. Mike K said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

    Perhaps rather than friendly and/or useful instruction the jargon imparts an air of authority. The people running "transit" must certainly be a serious sort whose directions must be obeyed.

  20. Ø said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    Perhaps it would be better if she said "I, Transit, am leaving now, and I am taking you with me".

  21. Tom said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    I was thinking along the same lines as Ran Ari-Gur above. We're used to disembodied robot voices speaking in oddly formal tones, in films and the like. To have them talk in a vernacular form would be weirder still.

  22. Steve said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    I this hear every day: 'Manea is a request stop, and passengers for this station should ask the conductor on the train to arrange for the train to stop to allow them to alight.' Station announcements are absurdly over-explicit. The choice of vocab: 'request' 'arrange for' 'allow' 'alight' does not make this easier for people whose first language is not English.

  23. Breffni said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    Allan L.: in communications between pilots and the tower, the term "take-off" may only be used in an actual take-off clearance, as in "cleared take-off runway two seven", to prevent any misunderstandings. That restriction would naturally tend to carry over into other kinds of formal communications. Maybe the wording is even prescribed.

  24. D.O. said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    FWIW, I find many of the announcements be it in a supermarket, on a plane or on a train made in "vernacular" almost completely incomprehensible. There are tons of linguists reading the blog so you don't need me for explanation, but I still suggest that it is a combination of noisy channel, absence of visual cues, unexpected moment of the announcements, and (sometimes) unfamiliar/unexpected accent.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    The London Tube-ism "Mind the Gap" is imho incomprehensible (at least without taking time to stop and reflect which is inconsistent with getting on or off a subway car) to an AmEng speaker, but I'm assuming it's more idiomatic to BrEng speakers rather than being some industry-only nerdviewism. On the other hand, if there aren't a lot of fatalities involving foreigners who failed to mind the gap because they didn't understand the admonition, perhaps that just shows the whole thing is unnecessary anyway.

    In the days before the introduction of standardized robot-voices, the conductors of NYC subways were all supposed to follow script and make the prescribed demand to "stand clear of the closing doors" before closing the doors, but they would do so at different speeds, with different accents and intonations etc., and the variousness of the ways in which the formula was complied with was one of the minor pleasures of riding the subway.

  26. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    Police do it too, at least when testifying in court. One police witness in the O.J. Simpson trial was described by a reporter as "a man who never got out of a car when he could exit a vehicle."

  27. J. Walker said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

    George Carlin talked about this phenomenon in his fantastic 15 minute dissection of an airline's safety announcements.

    "People add extra words when they want things to sound important than they really are. . . boarding process . . . sounds important . . . it isn't! It's just a bunch of people getting on an airplane."

    If you haven't seen it, it's a must watch:

    In two parts:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DagVklB4VHQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjKciefHo38

  28. Martin B said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

    The older elevators on Melbourne train stations label the level of the exit (as opposed to the platform) with 'C' for 'Concourse'. Fortunately there is little chance of confusion since there are in most cases only two options, but it always strikes me that 'concourse' is a word that is essentially never used by native speakers and must be incomprehensible to most non-native speakers.

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