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Hilversum, Motala, Beromünster, Sottens, Daventry….


For those of us living in Holland, ‘Hilversum’ is shorthand for national broadcasting. Both public and commercial TV and radio channels have long been concentrated in this medium-sized town to the south-east of Amsterdam. I’m so used to the name that I hardly give it a second thought. But then today I found myself reading a Wikipedia article on an even smaller Swedish town.

Motala had always stuck in my mind as the place where the fictional American tourist Roseanna McGraw’s body was dredged up after she was murdered on a coast-to-coast cruise boat, in the first of detective writers Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s famous Martin Beck series (which I find to my amazement was first published in 1965, almost half a century ago).

Then, reading on, I discovered that for decades Motala had been the source of Sweden’s long-wave radio transmissions. And suddenly, after slumbering in the back of my brain since childhood, an old litany came to mind: Hilversum, Motala, Beromünster, Sottens, Daventry….

In the days before the ‘tranny’ (the cheap, paperback-sized transistor radio that delivered pop music to my bedroom from off-shore ‘pirate’ stations such as Radio London and Radio Caroline), the only source of radio reception in my parents’ home was an inelegant object large and heavy enough to brain a burglar with. And on the front was a screen marked with two dozen names of what I now know to be long-wave radio transmitters scattered the length and breadth of Europe. But back then they were nothing but mysterious groups of letters. Since my parents were entirely monolingual and I would not discover my linguistic potential for some years to come, we never tuned in to anything but British broadcasts. I must surely have asked what all the weird names on this otherwise ordinary household appliance meant, but I don’t think I ever received an answer – for the names were not famous in their own right (for instance as capital cities), and my parents probably had no idea what they were either, let alone where. In the absence of geostationary satellites, the various countries tended to broadcast from centrally located, elevated points with the widest possible transmission range, often near small and otherwise insignificant towns or even villages – such as Hilversum, Motala, Beromünster, Sottens and Daventry.

So, courtesy of Wikipedia (which on such uncontroversial matters as these can generally be relied on), I’ve just taken another trip down memory lane, and up a few side alleys. Not many of the old transmitters are now in service (Hilversum is exceptional in still being a major broadcasting centre), and some of the buildings (as in Motala) have become museums of a bygone age. Like so many British place names, it turns out Daventry wasn’t pronounced the way it looked, but as ‘Daintry’. But the BBC didn’t know that, or else didn’t care – and so from 1932 onwards the Empire Service (forerunner to the World Service) announced itself to listeners around the globe with the words ‘Dav-en-try calling’. I can imagine local people in fits of laughter at the stuck-up Home Counties accent – ‘oooh, get them with their DAV-en-try!’ But before long the traditional pronunciation had all but died out. The power of the media.

Some of the names are surprising. The Dutch-looking Sottens, for instance, is in fact a hamlet in rural French Switzerland and the site of one of the surviving transmitters, whose broadcasts can still be received throughout Europe. Across the language border is Beromünster, long the source of German Switzerland’s long-wave transmissions – but there the station was closed down just a few years ago, perhaps set to become another museum. I get a sad feeling of irreparable loss, of old but proud technology shunted aside in an over-hurried, over-heated world.

And then there are the names I’m no longer sure of. Was Oulu in western Finland one of them (and did I then think of it as rhyming with Lulu?), or was it Lahti (rhyming with party?) in the centre of the country? Or the village of Allouis, almost dead-centre in France, and still transmitting to this day? Or Saarbrücken in Germany? Don’t think so. Or was it Saarlouis, a combination of the two? Denmark’s Kalundborg, again fairly central? Yes, that seems to ring a bell.

As my seven-year-old eyes gazed day after day at all those oddly un-English names, was a seed somehow planted in my mind? I’m sure this is just the kind of seemingly random thing that can tip the balance one way or the other in our individual development.

Did the burglar-brain-box help make me a glot? I kind of hope so. And if it did, thank you, Hilversum.


From → Languages, Society

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