chapter  7
18 Pages

‘Molding hearts … Leading minds … Touching lives’: practice as the new discourse?

Two language practices – regular, repeated social activities involving language – are airline safety instructions and writing postcards. Both are fairly common and easily recognizable, though they differ in a number of ways. The airline safety instructions are highly regularized. The answer to why this is so is not hard: they are regulated to be so. From national and international air regulations and the particular interpretations of airlines, there is only a certain amount of leeway. Typically they include information about safety belts and their buckles (how to do them up, why you should keep them on at all times), lifejackets (where they are – different in business and economy – how to put them on, do them up and so on), escape routes (your nearest escape exit, the lights on the floor), the brace position (can you reach the seat in front of you?), oxygen masks (put your own on first). These instructions may differ across airlines (almost always the same within) – the Qantas safety check starts with the odd line ‘Subtly, every airplane is different’ (for discussion see Wajnryb, 2009) – but they generally convey the same information in similar ways. Indeed this is one of the well-known problems with them: most passengers have heard it before, or think they have. This is partly because this is such a closed domain, but it is also because they are not so much socially regulated as industry mandated. One way in which postcard writing and safety instructions are superficially

different is that one is oral and the other written, at least so it appears. As literacy studies have long told us, however, this distinction is problematic (Gee, 1990): while an airline safety check is spoken, it is always scripted. There is supposed to be as little variation as possible. At another level, it is also generally written to be a spoken text. Clearly, we need to think in terms of register here, rather than mode. It is the nature of the text rather than the fact that it is spoken or written that matters. Postcards present a rather different case. At one level they may look like the opposite of the airline safety check: a written text in oral register, rather than an oral text in written register: ‘Hi. Having a fabulous time here … ’. But postcards are much harder to pin down (we can pin them up but not pin them down). On the one hand, we might observe, for example, that the common missing pronoun is something of a generic convention (perhaps with its origins in spatial limits), not simply an oral convention. On the other hand, like email (which may also operate at times as an oral register in writing), we in fact have a much more messy and unmanageable category. If you look through collections of postcards (you can find them for sale in some flea markets and second-hand book stores), it is in fact remarkable how diverse the texts may be: some are formal (depending on the writer, the addressee, the topic, the period it was written and so on), some minimal (‘See you next week’; ‘bon anniversaire’; ‘This is from Daddy who hopes you are a good little girl’). In fact, although we might be able to describe some form of generic characteristics to certain sorts of postcards, written by certain sorts of people, in a certain era, postcard writing is a widely variant activity. I shall return to the implications of this point later.