Monday, April 10, 2017

Jean-Paul Vinay

This post is about Jean-Paul Vinay, a Canadian whose work is used worldwide, but most people ho use his work have never heard of him, and credit it vaguely to "the military." He was a linguist, not a member of the armed forces.

In 1950, he founded the department of linguistics at the Université de Montréal where he set up the university's linguistics program as well as courses in translation and interpretation. He served as chairman of the department until 1966. In 1968, he joined the University of Victoria in British Columbia and headed their linguistics department. He retired from the university as Emeritus Professor of Linguistics in 1976.

In 1958, he co-authored Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais, a comparative stylistics textbook considered to be a pioneering work in translation pedagogy. The work is recognized internationally, has recently been translated into English and is still used in translation and linguistics courses today. In addition, he was the editor-in-chief for The Canadian Dictionary/Dictionnaire canadien, published by McClelland and Stewart in 1962.

Jean-Paul Vinay is considered to be among those who have profoundly influenced the development of translation in Canada. He died eighteen years ago today, in Victoria, British Columbia on April 10, 1999. Translation style guides are very important in Canada, and people in his field and family probable honour him for those, but that's not the achievement I'm referring to.

He's the guy who designed the ICAO radio phonetic alphabet. His original 1952 version ran Alpha, Bravo, Coca or Coco, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Metro, Nectar, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Union, Victor, Whiskey, Extra or X-extra, Yankee, Zulu.

So yeah, for anyone familiar with today's version: Coco, Metro, Nectar, Union, and Extra are pretty odd. People didn't like them, for various reasons, and we settled into the current version. I found this discussion of the choices of words interesting.

The tendency of infer that because a word may appear “bad” in isolation, either phonetically, structurally or because it is unfamiliar and that its replacement by an apparently “good” word will achieve an improvement, is one to be considered with the utmost caution. The criterion as to whether a word is “good” or “bad” is fundamentally the measure of its success in relation to all the other alphabet words (and with spoken numerals), together with its success for transmission in noise. For example, the word “”FOOTBALL” has a higher articulation score than the present spelling alphabet word “FOXTROT” i.e. it is correctly identified when it is spoken, a greater percentage of the time. “FOXTROT” however, is the preferred word because it is less often erroneously recorded when other words in the spelling alphabet are spoken; therefore, the overall intelligibility of the alphabet is raised by using “foxtrot” rather than “football”.

I wonder what Q would have been had a non-Canadian concocted it.


Colin said...

Although this is south-of-the-border, I think you will enjoy it:

Dave Starr said...

Thanks for a very interesting and otherwise unknown factoid. What would have represented the letter "Q" if a Canadian had not designed the current alphabet? Hard to say. IIRC correctly, in the 1950's and 60's when I first started flying and using the radio, we loosely used an alphabet borrowed from the US military in WW-II. (Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog ....) "Q" was "Queen", I believe.

Sarah said...

Hi Aviatrix, good to see some writing from you again! I had almost lost the habit of checking this blog.

The Зелінська document was interesting. Making word choice as language independent and clear as possible is a perfect job for a linguist like Mssr Vinay. For instance, the official spelling of "alfa" I had not heard before. Makes sense that "alpha" might not be read by a non-English speaker. And I do enjoy the French hard "Quebec". It is clearer than the inevitable English qwee words like "queen" or "question".

The alphabet (alfabet?) is ingrained in aviationese now. It's a little odd to hear old movies use the previous able-baker one, though without it the world would never have had the success of "easy company" of 101st airborne fame in WW2. And "foxtrot" lives on long after the dance is lost in the memory of our great grandmothers.

I have to laugh at my attempts to use it on the phone. Very rarely people instantly get it (usually places like ordering from aircraft parts stores), more often we get into impromptu interchanges like .... "um, N as in nancy, O as in opera, P as in ... piano, E as in Elephant" in response. I try. If nothing else it's a secret handshake for aviators.

Dov said...

I was fortunate enough to study for my doctorate with Jean Paul Vinay. His Monday night lecture (attended by most of the department, started with a fascinating discussion of a new topic in linguistics (I remember his introducing Chomsky's work to us) and then moved to comparative stylistics, his approach to translation. It was a great experience of applied linguistics.
Bernard Spolsky