Monday, 14 November 2011

On reading me loud and clear

A correspondent, having encountered such usages as 'Do you read me?' and 'I'm reading you loud and clear' in radio interaction, wonders what is meant by 'read' instead of 'hear'. It's an interesting example, as these are well-used expressions used in films and television where radiotelephony is a part of the plot, but they must seem odd to learners of English. For a start, the collocation of read and loud is unusual. And if it's radio, what is being read?

The interpretation is clear enough. The question asks about the quality of the signal being received. The response affirms that the signal is of good quality. The expressions are part of the jargon of two-way radio communication: read has been used along with copy ('Do you copy?'), receive, and other conventions, such as Roger (acknowledging receipt of the message). As radio is the medium, we might have expected a different form of words: 'Do you hear me?' and 'I'm hearing you loud and clear', where the collocations are normal. So what motivated read?

I've not been able to find a source which explicates the point. The usage has been around since 1930, according to the OED. (Receive in this sense is a little older; copy in this sense is not recorded in the OED.) My suspicion is that it was the ambiguity in hear which led to the search for alternatives. 'Do you hear me?' can actually have a negative interpretation, expressing attitudes ranging from mild insistence to aggressive rudeness - 'Are you listening to me?', 'I'm not going to say this again'... - the effect being reinforced by the absence of any facial expressions which might soften the force of the language.

But why read? Presumably it was motivated by the visual display on the receiving equipment, which would show a point of origin or frequency of the signal. This would often be the name of a place or a set of letters and numerals. But even if it were simply a waveform, then there was ample precedent for applying the verb in this way. Read had already been widely used in a range of senses other than that of interpreting conventional written language, as in to study, observe, or interpret something ('reading thoughts/my mind/ my heart/ the road...'). It seems to have been a natural development. As I say, I haven't found a source in the 1920s or 1930s which explicitly discusses this use of the verb, so if any reader is aware of one, do let me know.

Loud and clear was a collocation long before radio telephony. The first recorded use of it is in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass: 'I said it very loud and clear; I went and shouted in his ear.' That's how it stayed, resisting prescriptive criticism (that it should be loudly and clearly). And it remains the number one choice, beating the phonetic alphabet alternative (Lima and Charlie) and the fascinating 'I read you five by five'.

This was a response (also not in the OED) where the first number indicated the strength of a signal and the second indicated its readability. Each was rated on a scale from 1 to 5: signal strength went from 'loud' through 'good', 'weak', and 'very weak' to 'fading'; readability went from 'clear' through 'readable', 'unreadable', and 'distorted' to 'having interference'. So, if you read something '5 by 5' you could hear the signal well and also understand what was being said.

The origins of the expression are unclear, though it seems likely that it's another of those expressions based on parts of the body. One commentator suggests that it began with early pilots having to communicate with a controller, before taking off, by signalling with their hands, and showing with their fingers the quality of their radio reception. Plausible - but again, it would be nice to find a written source.


David Crosbie said...

Any idea why the two expressions involve different verbal aspects?

in Do you read me? there's Present Simple for a what I was taught to call a 'stative verb of inert perception'. So why don't we say I read you loud and clear?

Could it be that the Present Progressive statement I'm reading you loud and clear is not so inert — more like I can hear you and I'm listening?

DC said...

I've come across both. I wasn't intending my illustration to be exclusive. I reckon this is just the normal aspectual distinction between simple and progressive.

John said...

It sounds too simple to be plausible, David, but could the expression also reflect that when we are reading something, we are also 'hearing' it in our heads as we translate symbols on the page into the sounds which comprise words?

DC said...

Of course, but any use of the verb could be given an interpretation in this way, not just the radio one, so we still need to explain why this specific usage developed.

Jim said...

Perhaps "read" is not a substitute for "hear" at all, but for "understand". In the early days of radio I can imagine that it was easy to hear something, but scarcely guaranteed to be understood clearly, and "read" became a short and crisp way of expressing the latter over the air.

John Bagnall said...

Might not the use of "read" be linked to the means of sending messages via earlier signalling technologies. Not just those which were essentially visual (bonfires, semaphore, signalling mirrors)but also radio telegraphy? A written message had first to be transcribed by an operator into Morse, which the operator at the receiving station then transcribed back to be "read" by the recipient.

Marc Leavitt said...

I think that we can take the radio usage of "read" as an alternative to "understand." The widespread use of read, as in "reading the tea leaves," or "reading the expression on your face," would seem to bear this out.

DC said...

'Read' isn't just a substitute for 'understand', as the early tech manuals make it clear that the exchange is to acknowledge both signal strength (hearing) and message comprehensibility.

I like the notion of linking this usage with earlier signalling technologies. That makes sense. But I haven't found any sources which explicitly make the link.

louisvillian said...

Sorry for the long delay, but I just found this blog.

I believe that Mr. Bagnall may be the closest to the right answer here. Certainly "copy" refers originally to telegraphy, where the receiving party would literally copy the stream of dots and dashes to be translated to letters and words. I suspect "read"ing is not too much of a jump from that usage.