November 13, 2006

Plain english creeps into police radio transmissions

An Arlington Virginia policeman uses his high-tech radio to call for help, shouting "ten thirteen," meaning "officer down." In nearby Bethesda Maryland, other officers ignore his message because to them it means "request wrecker." Hmm. this could be a problem, to say the least.

The Washington Post reports that the Virginia State Police have had enough of such confusion and are instituting a radically new policy that calls for abandoning "10 codes" used in daily transmissions in favor of -- you guessed it --plain English.

There is a history behind the language planning currently used on police radios. It started back in the 1920s, when police had only one channel to work with. But over the years, in a Tower of Babel fashion, separate police departments began to develop their own meanings for their "10 code" numbers. In the  densely populated area around the District of Columbia the separate law enforcement agencies of the states and counties, along with the Pentagon, ATF and FBI, gradually created their own "10 code" meanings. Fine and dandy -- except when they communicate with each other across jurisdictions, which turns out to be very frequently.

Sociolinguists describe three types of language planning: corpus planning, status planning, and acquisition planning. Corpus planning is what the Virginia State Police seem to be trying to carry out here. This involves creating new forms of language, modifying old ones, or selecting from among alternative existing forms. This is not the same as status planning, which involves such things as deciding on an official or national language, thereby assigning status to that choice. Many Language Log posts (here), (here), (here), and (here), for example, have dealt with America's ongoing efforts to make English the official language, an excursion into status planning. It doesn't seem likely that the Virginia State Police are aiming at status here. As for acquisition planning, it remains to be seen whether this effort  in language planning will succeed in teaching the new forms effectively or create an incentive for officers to learn how to use plain English instead of their more familiar "10 codes."

Language planning changes aren't easy to accomplish. On May 19, 2006, the US Senate, influenced by a group called U.S. Englishvoted to make English the "national" (interestingly, not "official") language of the country. But 27 states have elevated "national language" to their state's "official language." This is a clear example of status planning (proclaiming English to have more status than any other language) but acquisition planning may prove to be a bit more difficult.  Already there is resistance to this venture, as the Post reports. Some cops say that they're more comfortable with the old "10 code" system and they think this in-group jargon is nifty because it marks their status as police. They reason that if doctors and lawyers can have their language codes, why can't police? Other officers express some difficulty in even remembering what the plain English is for their codes. Still others worry that their transmission will now become understandable to the general public (as if they weren't already available on the internet).

We'll have to see what happens on this one.

Update: Grant Barrett writes that one side-aspect of the dropping of "10 codes" is that the trunk radio systems now so prevalent in policing make the masking of police intent and action less necessary, since it's more difficult to monitor trunking than it is in the old analog systems.

So maybe this Virginia State Police language planning is just a practical matter after all.

Posted by Roger Shuy at November 13, 2006 04:27 PM