Dictionary Corner

Now that we are approaching the forty-fourth year of Doctor Who we have seen many changes. Not only have the Doctor, the companions, the monsters and the format changed but also the language.

Looking at the language and scripts of William Hartnell (World’s End), Tom Baker (The Sontaran Experiment and the City of Death), Sylvester McCoy (Remembrance of the Daleks) and Christopher Eccleston (The Empty Child) we can look over every decade (except the 1990s when Doctor Who was virtually “cancelled” apart from one day in 1996) and see how much language has changed in forty-four years. The method is to look at the first page of each of these scripts, when the Doctor’s language is more natural and not completely involved in the eventual story and by using two Tom Baker scripts, it should become apparent whether the an alien companion instead of a human one affects his language.

The first in a series of articles will look at the change in archaic language (language used to give an old-fashioned flavour) in Doctor Who.

Starting with 1964 and William Hartnell, archaisms take the form of full phrases rather that just the occasional archaic word. When peering through the TARDIS scanner saying “It’s not clear, it’s not clear at all,” or when referring to the decayed ruins of a Dalek dominated London saying “take a look for yourselves,” he uses archaisms. Singularly, you might agree these words are not archaic but when grouped together, they create an archaic sound. From the viewpoint of 2007, they appear archaic but possibly weren’t in 1964 (those who were there will have to let me know). If our ‘New New Doctor’ were to utter these phrases today, he would say “take a look yourselves,” and “it’s not clear.”

Travelling through time to 1975, the Doctor has regenerated into his fourth distinct body but his language still bares the archaic mark of the first. However, the Doctor has moved away from full archaic phrases and have moved towards two-word phrases such as “Old chap,” and “Pithily put,” from The Sontaran Experiment. The Doctor acquires this language from Harry, who, being our stereotypical and old fashioned companion, refers the Sarah as “old thing,” but more to come on language acquisition later.

In 1979, the Doctor has the same body but has swapped companions, opting for a fellow Time Lord companion, Romana and has materialised in Paris for the City of Death. Without Harry by this side, the archaic influence on Tom Baker’s language has diminished and only uses the one archaism in the form of “one,” as in “is one bovvered?” The BBC and Doctor Who were moving away from the Queen’s English in 1979, so this could be explained as a left over remnant of that language.

Taking a time tract to 1988, the scene of another Dalek invasion, the Doctor has now taken his seventh form but still uses archaic language. Unlike Tom Baker, his archaisms are not affected by the language of his companion Ace, who likes to use slang such as “ya know.” The Doctor much prefers his archaisms like “consumables,” and “undertake.” The writers maybe just wanted to create a definite contrast between the Doctor and Ace or perhaps it was a part of his overall characterisation, to be more old-fashioned. Another theory is that by 1988, Doctor Who as we knew it had been running for twenty-five years so some aspects of the language, like archaisms, might have been stereotypical and only used because that is what we, the fans, expect from the Doctor’s language. Maybe this is why, by 2005, a long over due new series of Doctor Who featured none of these old aspects that had been established since the 1960s.

Overall, the main reason the Doctor uses archaisms is because he is characterised as a timeless alien, not belonging to any point in history, just wandering through time putting right the wrongs. That means his language does not have to identify with a particular decade or time period. This role is left to the language of the companion like the 1970s feminist, Sarah or the 1980s teenager, Ace. Archaic language has always been used in Doctor Who (up until 2005) but their causes have changed. Hartnell uses them because they are part of everyday speech. TB’s archaisms derive from language acquisition and an influence from Queen’s English whereas McCoy’s archaisms are deliberate character features. The only dramatic change takes place for the Doctor’s return in 2005 when he was reinvented to be an ordinary genius, whose language would not alienate a general audience but just that of us, the long standing fans.

Begin ending credits music “theme sting” and a next time trailer……

…… Do you want to read more? Because if you do then I should warn you, you’re going to read all sorts of things; repetitions, inversions, high register words, which will all build up to one surprising development later on in the series (almost like a series arc). It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe and it won’t be calm but make sure to come back next time…….it could be the read of a life time.

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