Headline Pidgin
A Condensed Language

Newspaper headlines are written in a specialized pidgin language whose proper interpretation requires some experience. The headline is an early precursor of the sound bite, reducing an entire article to a short and snappy summary intended to entice the reader.

Some words and phrases only occur in headlines. Think of prexy and veep, for instance.

In Michael Frayn's novel, The Tin Men, written in 1965, an institute is exploring the computerization of those fields of human endeavor that seem to be describable in terms of a finite number of options. Frayn suggests that certain newspaper articles such as

appear regularly, and follow a strictly stylized pattern, so that a computer could randomly generate the version of the article needed for today's issue of the newspaper.

Frayn then focuses on the sublanguage used in the headlines, and muses about what he calls UHL, or Unit Headline Language, a comprehensive lexicon of the multi-purpose monosyllables that show up in headlines. He imagines how one day's headline of STRIKE THREAT can be easily modified for the following day into any of:

Getting into the spirit of a game, his character notes that a series of related headlines could be generated, growing longer each day:

Moreover, units of the language could be joined at random to form plausible headlines:

These idle and amusing thoughts were reexamined by Steven Pinker, in "The Language Instinct", when he discussed and rejected the notion that plausible English sentences could be generated almost automatically, by analyzing a vast corpus of text, and recording, for each word, all the words that could immediately succeed it, and the probabilities of each such word occurring.

Ron Rosenbaum, in Slate Magazine, 24 February 2010, imagined works of literature as they might be headlined in the New York Post.

Anna Karenina:



        KID: "GHOST DAD"

Last modified on 04 May 2006.