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Rules of reporting: the principles of representing spoken discourse in the Records Office of the Finnish parliament

Eero Voutilainen (speaker, Finland)

The third contribution is the presentation by Mr. Eero Voutilainen of a paper co-authored by three delegates from the Records Office of the Finnish parliament: Ms. Maarit Peltola, Mr. Teuvo Rãty and Mr. Niklas Varisto. Mr. Voutilainen is a part-time reporter at the Finnish parliament, and a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki, working on a PhD-thesis that deals with parliamentary language and interaction in Finland.

Mr. Voutilainen’s presentation is based on recent discussions and developments at the Finnish Records Office. The aim of his contribution is to continue the useful discussion on the principles of reporting that took place at the last year’s IPRS meeting in Prague. His intention is to discuss from a practical point of view the linguistic decisions that are made in reporting.

The principles of reporting in the Finnish parliament have changed very much in the last few decades. A quotation that dates from the late nineteenth century, shows that the reporter’s job in those early days was to “correct a contentually and technically bad speech into exemplary condition regarding both matter and linguistic form”, and to “compose confusing statements into such shape that it was easy to get a hold of their content”. In practice, this meant quite heavy editing, resulting in a big difference between original speeches and the speeches published in the records. MPs complained at the time that individual speeches, as represented in the report, sounded “like they were given by one man”. These quotations well reflect the situation of parliamentary reporting in Finland until the late 1980s.

From that time onward, Finnish parliamentary reporters have paid more attention to the authenticity and individuality of the speeches, as a result of many changes, both inside and outside the parliament. In the 1950s, speeches started to be recorded with audio recorders. This enabled the reporters to pay more attention to linguistic details, and made it easier to determine the faithfulness of the written record. More recently, online video broadcasts have raised the question of how much difference there should be between the video and the written record, since both are now accessible to everyone and easy to compare. The parliamentary speech culture, and language attitudes in general, have changed a lot as well. Modern parliamentary speeches show considerable stylistic variation. Differences from the written standard language are not always seen as simply wrong. On the contrary, they can be important in marking the individual style and the political image of the MP.

Overall, these changes have led to a shift from standardization towards more toleration of naturally occurring linguistic variation. This in turn has led to a need for new reporting principles and systematic guidelines for reporting. The aim of the Finnish Records Office is to publish an introduction to its principles on its web pages, in order for readers to know exactly what kind of changes are being made in the reporting process.

Mr. Voutilainen then proceeds to giving a general overview of the relationships between spoken and written language. Speech and writing are in a sense fundamentally different. Therefore, it is only natural that they do not always follow the same logic or even the same grammar. Plenary sittings in parliament appear to be somewhere between both categories, speech and writing, because the main speeches are generally written beforehand, and only one speaker is allowed to speak at a time.

According to Mr. Voutilainen, reporting can never be completely neutral or objective, because converting speech into writing entails many choices. All these choices affect how the MP and his or her speech are viewed by the public. Mr. Voutilainen argues that this makes it necessary to consider why and for whom the report is made. The point of view of the Finnish Records Office is that the record is an open source of information, and that the citizens and the media are the key audiences. This choice has important consequences for the principles of reporting. The Finnish Records Office follows a wide definition of grammatical correctness. Even deviations from the written standard language may be important in creating the individual style and image of the MP, which means that reporters should be very careful in their so called corrections. The key goal of the record is to make sure that the reader can understand the proceedings in the same way as the hearer of the proceedings, neither worse nor better.

Reporting demands a never ending balancing between opposed, and sometimes conflicting, phenomena, like speech and writing, authenticity and readability, and written language and linguistic variation, e.g. regional dialect or personal style.

Mr. Voutilainen then turns to the more concrete features of the practices of reporting in the Finnish parliament. The first aspect that he is considering, is the grammar of the speeches. Reporters in the Finnish parliament do not treat all the grammatical features in the same way. Mr. Voutilainen proposes a division in four categories.

  1. Variation in speech sounds is usually standardized for the sake of readability. Exceptions are made only if the non-standard feature has particular rhetorical importance, for example as a dialect marker that ties the speaker to a certain regional or social group.
  2. Words are usually left as they are. They usually do not damage readability, but may give important information about for example the regional background and personal style of the speaker.
  3. Combinations of words, or phrases, are sometimes altered slightly to help the reader. Some small differences from the standard language would draw more attention in writing than they do in original speech, because even the same feature may be linked to different ideologies, values or attitudes when seen in writing than when heard in speech.
  4. At the sentence level, much personal variation is tolerated as regards for example word order, if it does not cause big problems for reading. However, there are many types of asymmetric structures in spoken language that result from the fact that speech production happens in real time. These types of expressions are often changed into their written language equivalents, if they are not particularly significant rhetorically. For instance, “This is a remarkable thing this government proposal” might be changed, for the sake of readability, into “This government proposal is a remarkable thing”.

Mr. Voutilainen goes on to discuss several categories of speech phenomena and the way the Finnish Records Office deals with these phenomena when drawing up the account.

So called false starts and self-corrections and are systematically corrected to match the speaker’s final intention, if it is possible to know that from the speech without any far-fetched interpretation. For instance: “And this is... These things must not be mixed up” is put down in writing as “These things must not be mixed up”. Unfinished structures are avoided if possible. If not, interruptions are marked with three full stops. “Planning expressions”, i.e. expressions that are clearly the result of the fact that spoken language is time-bound, are removed, if this does not change the meaning of the expression.

Blunders and slips of the tongue are always corrected in obvious cases, unless other MPs bring them up afterwards. In that case, it would be very strange to correct them. The main principle is that an expression is considered a blunder if the right way of saying it can be considered common knowledge, either generally or within the parliament. For instance, “Indifference towards the law diminishes unfortunately” can be changed into “Indifference towards the law increases unfortunately”, if it is clear from the context that this is what is meant. Even so, it is sometimes very hard to distinguish so called innocent blunders from ignorance.

Erroneous claims, false citations and inappropriate conduct are not corrected in the record, because this would contradict the principle of open information in parliament. Moreover, the MP is always responsible for his or her speech, not the reporter who is transcribing. According to the rules in Finnish parliament, accusing someone of lying or being a liar is not allowed. However, if an MP says “You are a liar”, this is included in the record. Other types of inappropriate conduct that are not corrected in the record, include indiscrete word choices, swearwords et cetera.

Non-verbal actions and events are marked in the record when the reporter feels that it is necessary. As regards prosody, emphasis or tone of voice, it is sometimes necessary to change the word order in Finnish, in order to express the intended meaning. For instance, “There has been only conversation in that regard”, can better be represented in writing by “There has been conversation only in that regard”, because otherwise the word “only” seems to refer to the wrong element. Gestures, movements and events are marked between square brackets if that is necessary in order to fully understand the speech. For instance: “Here it is. [MP waved the budget proposal in his hand.]”

A final category that Mr. Voutilainen discusses, is that of so called “unnecessary” words. Planning expressions, e.g. words such as “like”, “kind of” et cetera, are an example. Another group consists of sentence-initial particles like “and”, “but”, “well”, “so”, which are very common in spoken language. If none of these particles were erased from the record, this would be confusing, because clauses in spoken language are very often connected to each other by these particles. Thirdly, mannerisms or expressions that the MPs overproduce when planning the speech in real time, are removed from the report as well. However, it is important to always ask what makes us think that something in the speech is unnecessary. Different people find different things unnecessary. Are parliamentary reporters willing to make that choice for the potential readers?

Mr. Voutilainen concludes by considering some possible directions for further development in the reporting principles. The first could be to bring the written record even closer to the video recording in order to move it further towards authenticity, and to erase any so called unflattering differences between the video and the written record. The opposite option would be to consciously move away from the original recording by standardizing the language of the written record. This would favour readability and, possibly, some aesthetic norms at the expense of authenticity. There would always be the video recording available to those who want to know how things were specifically said. Even more radical would be the choice to move towards written summaries of the discussion, approved by the MPs. This would emphasize content over form and make the report shorter. However, this would give considerable power and responsibility to the reporters. One remaining option would be to abandon written reports altogether and replace them with video links to the records. This option has actually been suggested once in the Finnish parliament, because it would bring considerable savings. However, it would also reduce the accessibility of the plenary sitting, by making it harder to do automatic searches and statistics, quick browsing, and so on.

After the presentation, questions are asked on the topic of blunders. Reporters of the Finnish Records Office may choose to correct a blunder, unless another MP is commenting on it. In the latter case, they don’t make any changes. If there are no comments, and if the speaker says it right a first or a third time, reporters may decide case by case what to do. Mr. Herbert Houdijk asks about the situation when a blunder is not commented on during the debate and has been corrected in the report, but is heavily discussed in the media afterwards. Mr. Voutilainen admits that it would be embarrassing if that were to happen, but to his knowledge something like that has never happened in Finland.

The presentation slides for this presentation are available on our Downloads page.

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