A student, interested in maybe doing some linguistic research one day, writes to ask if there are any totally unexplored regions on the linguistics planet. I remember thinking about this for a paper I gave to the British Association of Applied Linguistics in 2002. A number of topics (or questions, if you prefer) came to mind where, even if the occasional study exists, there is certainly no established body of research. For instance:
There is as yet no field of 'theatrical linguistics' - or maybe 'theatrical phonetics' would be a better label - to answer questions like 'Why are some actors’ vocal performances more effective than others?' 'What was it exactly that made John Gielgud’s voice so memorable?' 'What phonetic techniques and materials might be devised to help actors and directors?' Actor son Ben tells me that, when he was training, it was really hard finding high-quality taped materials on regional accents, at the level of detail he would need for a particular character.
There is as yet no field of 'musical linguistics' to answer questions like: 'Why are some languages suitable to opera and not others?' 'Why is English the language of pop music?' 'Is there something about the structure of English which makes it suit rock-and-roll, or reggae?' I wonder if one could ever devise a more linguistically representative and diverse (i.e. non-English) Eurovision song contest?
There is as yet no field of 'forensic internet linguistics'. I went to a conference in Brussels in 2002 on Internet security in the face of increased threats from hacking, fraud, and cyberterrorism. A wide range of questions was being addressed to do with methods of spam exclusion, porn filtering, linguistic identification of forged messages, and so on, all of which presupposed a descriptive linguistic frame of reference for what I have elsewhere called ‘Internet linguistics’, and which hardly yet exists.
And there are other undeveloped branches of Internet linguistics. 'What kind of language should we use on the Internet?' 'How can Internet language be taught to children?' 'How does the arrival of the Internet impact on children’s abilities to read and write?' This might one day be a field called 'applied educational internet linguistics'.
Very little relevant work has been done. Even some very basic questions haven't been addressed - such as how to describe the linguistic features in use. To explore such topics as the difference between Gielgud and Olivier’s voices would need a fuller phonetic transcription of tones of voice than we currently have. Similarly, current transcriptions are not really capable of investigating musicological questions. For instance, how on earth does one transcribe musical quotations in speech - cases where a musical extract is given a generalized linguistic interpretation?
A common contemporary example is the theme from Jaws. The jocular expression of an approaching dangerous social situation is often conveyed by its ominous low-pitched glissando quavers. Try transcribing that. Or (to take other examples I have heard over the months in conversational settings - not always very well performed, but sufficiently recognizable for me to note them down): the theme from The Twilight Zone, Dr Who, Dragnet, the shower-room scene in Psycho, Laurel and Hardy’s clumsy walk music, the riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The extract may be highly stereotyped and brief. Someone who arrives in a room with something special may accompany it with ‘Ta-raa’, or the racecourse riff, or the whistled motif from Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western films, or the chase music from a Keystone Kops film. Devotees of The Prisoner cult TV series introduce its musical motifs into their speech to the point where one would dearly like to see the balloon guardians of The Village appear and hustle them away!
I had a personal close encounter with a new linguistics field just a couple of years ago. At the beginning of 2004 I was approached to help the Shakespeare's Globe company in London put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in 'original pronunciation' - that is, as close as possible to how the words would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I wrote it all up afterwards in a book, Pronouncing Shakespeare. But until then, I had never conceived that there might be a field called, roughly, 'applied historical theatrical linguistics'.