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How a Linguistics Degree led me to Screenwriting

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My love for linguistics was a bit of a late bloomer; it only appeared in around 2017. At that time, I was desperately looking for a university course that I would genuinely enjoy sinking my teeth into, but to no avail. I had only ever enjoyed my Theatre Studies and Performing Arts classes prior to this, and I knew deep down that I wasn’t good enough to continue pursuing these subjects at university level. So, I was stuck. That is, I was stuck until I stumbled across a book about the history of the English language, which immediately captured my attention and eventually led me to applying for Linguistics at a number of universities. Soon after, in 2018, I began studying Linguistics at the University of Cambridge.

It’s been a few years since then, and now I’m reconsidering continuing a career in theatre all over again. Why? Well, put simply, because of linguistics.

Until linguistics came into my life, I had always approached my love for theatre from a performer’s perspective. Being on stage was, in my opinion, one of the best feelings a person could have. However, in the summer of 2019, I performed in a show called The Ladies written by the wonderful Al Tyrrell, which changed this perspective entirely. Al is an amazing writer, and their dialogue felt very “real” to perform in a way that I had never really experienced before. It wasn’t “real” in the typical ‘Stanislavski, feel the pain and emotion of your character!’ way, but it was real in the sense that my character – and, in fact, all of the characters – felt like people I might actually meet on the street. They felt natural. Natural, and real. Immediately, my linguistic senses began tingling. What was it about Al’s writing that made their characters more realistic than any other script I had seen?

Very quickly, I found myself diving into the knowledge provided by my degree. I realised that there were three linguistic phenomena that appeared constantly in every day speech, but were regularly omitted in classic script writing:

–          Slips of the tongue: At some point in almost every real world conversation, a speaker will commit a ‘slip of the tongue’. This is when the final spoken utterance is not the utterance that was originally intended to be spoken. This phenomenon usually occurs due to an accidental switching of words or sounds by the speaker (e.g. saying ‘I’m correcting speakly right now’ when you mean to say ‘I’m speaking correctly right now’). This phenomenon is very rarely found onstage.

–          Resolution of misunderstanding: Whilst it’s extremely common to see two characters have a misunderstanding onstage, it’s very rare to see their confusion discussed and quelled rationally. Misunderstandings even form the entire premise of some shows; just look at Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors! In the real world, however, misunderstandings like this are usually clarified and ironed out immediately when one speaker says ‘hang on, I think I’ve missed something’ to the other.

–          Phatics: Phatics is the linguistic phenomenon in which speakers feel the need to consistently fill in conversations with short meaningless phrases to prove their interest to another speaker. This involves anything from consistently responding with ‘yes, oh yes, hmmm, yes’ when another person is speaking, to feeling the need to interrupt another speaker with a related anecdote that empathises with what they are saying. It may be a fancy word, but realistically everyone knows what phatics is and makes use of it daily. Yet, you so rarely see this happen onstage. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a character interrupt another character’s monologue to provide a useless anecdote that shows their interest? It never happens.

Looking at these phenomena, I quickly realised that the dialogue everybody calls ‘natural’ is actually inherently unnatural. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was practice writing scripts and see how far I could push the natural elements of conversation into onstage dialogue. It was at that moment that I realised what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: study the intricacies and complexities of real-world conversation through linguistics and screenwriting.

This was a pretty huge conclusion for me, and now I write like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve written a musical, some plays, a few short film scripts and – you’ll never believe it – some blogs too. The overall aim of all this is to one day achieve natural dialogue in the way that Al Tyrrell did, and create a piece as wonderful as theirs. Who knows, maybe one day one of my scripts will even be published and performed, and my dream career in the theatre will finally be realised.

So, what’s this all about? Why am I writing this blog? Believe it or not, it isn’t just so I can ramble about myself on paper. Actually, I’m writing this blog to let all future students know that your degree might well lead you to places you never knew you wanted to go, and that’s okay. Don’t get stuck in your head too much about what course to choose. Pick one that you genuinely find interesting, and things should fall into place from there.

Author
About Arthur Roadnight
Arthur is in his third year studying Linguistics at Christ's College, Cambridge. Having taken the 'Psychology of Language Learning and Processing' paper in his second year, Arthur has now found a particular love for how syntax is processed in the brain. In particular, he has discovered a strong interest in the comparative study of structural music processing and structural linguistic processing: a topic which has become the basis for his dissertation. Outside of his studies, Arthur is very active in the theatre community, having performed in a number of plays, musicals, and sketch shows. Through this, he has found a passion for scriptwriting and he plans to apply for a masters in 'Writing for Performance' after his degree is done.

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