And who, exactly, are you?

I spent the last weekend, plus days before and after, in Portland, Oregon (at the 22nd annual convention of the usenet group soc.motss). This is a city that, even by the high standards of the urban European, has a truly impressive public transport system. Not only is it complete and fast, it’s also intelligently priced, ie, low, with free rides in the city center, and bike-friendly.

One bit of linguistic interest is worth mentioning here: The announcement made on some of the MAX light rail/streetcar/tramway (pick your term) lines to indicate at which side to get off the train at the next stop. Announcements in these trains are made by an automated, prerecorded voice, first in English, then in Spanish.

The text of the announcement, after indicating the next stop’s name?

Doors to my left.

This is a bit startling. I can see why an overly nit-picky planner would want to avoid “Doors to your left” — after all, passengers may be oriented every which way in the carriage. But saying “… my left” is presuming we have a speaker here. It’s not the driver. But someone or something speaking in a disembodied voice.

Now while there is indeed a well-defined left and right relative to a moving tramway, the problem is to ascribe a sense of agency to it that would allow it to speak to us in the first person.

I have not quite succeeded in finding out if the sentient tramway is restricted to the English — I thought I heard “puertas a la izquierda”, ie “doors to the left“, but this page claims it’s “puerta a mi izquierda”.

Portland, the City of Roses and sentient, anthropomorphic streetcars.

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