Ian McMillan: Grappling to get to grips with an alien language

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Imagine the scene: the spaceship from the planet XDF38 is circling the earth; it’s arrived here after many light years of travelling from the far end of the universe, from a place way beyond our knowledge and understanding, and I’m not referring to Pateley Bridge here. The mission of these aliens, let’s call them Maureen and Stan, is to seek out intelligent life. And that’s why they’re circling Yorkshire because, even from a vast and unfathomable distance, they can tell we’re clever. But maybe they’ve arrived on the wrong day. Let’s face it, Saturday, January 4 is never a good day to examine any civilisation. It’s a nothing kind of day.

The spaceship lands in a village not too far from Barnsley. Maureen and Stan clamber out down the steps in their silver spacesuits and with their oxygen masks on because they’ve been told that the atmosphere in these parts is as thick as Yorkshire Pudding batter. That’s not true, of course, unless Yorkshire have just lost a match.

Maureen and Stan spot a local gentleman coming out of his house. He’s striding with purpose. He’s wearing what their in-helmet computers tell them is a ‘track suit’ and he’s carrying a large bag. They approach him and proffer the nine-fingered hand of friendship. He smiles and shakes his head. ‘If tha selling owt am not buying,’ he says, and walks towards his car.

Now, as you can probably imagine, this confuses Maureen and Stan. They’ve learned all the world’s languages including English but they can’t fathom a word the chap’s saying. The noises coming of his mouth sound like no language they have ever heard. He carries on, adding to their bafflement: ‘Tha seez, am gunner’t gym. Ah’ve hed a reyt time ovver Christmas but it’s me New Year’s Resolution tha seez: get fit.’

Somewhere in the jumble of words Maureen and Stan recognise a few syllables. They know what a New Year’s Resolution is; they’ve studied it. They speak, in their oddly metallic voices. ‘And do you think you will be able to keep up with your New Year’s Resolution?’ The man stops at the gate. To be honest, he’d rather talk than go to the gym, even if he does think he’s conversing with a couple who are still on their way home from the New Year’s Eve party at the Dog and Duck.

‘Well, tha knows, wife got me a gym membership for Christmas, like. She sez I were gerrin too lardy. She sez ah’ve got moor spare tyres than’t AA. She sez my chins wobble even when am sat doing nowt. She sez ah need to lose at leeast three ston. So that’s warram gunner do.’

Maureen and Stan are tossed around on a choppy linguistic sea once more but they smile and nod. ‘Ah reckon if ah gu ivvery day for just a couple of hours ah’ll be like a new man. Me ambition’s to gerra six pack bi Easter.’ Despite their best intergalactic efforts, Maureen and Stan are getting nothing from this conversation so they turn to go. Perhaps they’ll try the pillar box again. They’ve only gone a few yards before the tracksuited man says ‘Er...does tha want a cuppa? Ah can allus gu ter’t gym later.’ Maureen and Stan nod. Yorkshire folk turn out to be clever, after all.