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This sports commentator has an amazing ability to maintain structure in long sentences
Researcher says that chess commentator Torstein Bae deserves a lot of credit for keeping Norwegians glued to chess broadcasts around Christmas time.
“Torstein Bae does the opposite of what teachers and journalists do. He speaks in long sentences with many subordinate clauses. Teachers and journalists prefer short sentences with few subclauses,” says Elin Gunleifsen, associate professor at the University of Agder (UiA).
She is a language researcher and chess enthusiast who has delved into two of her favourite pastimes simultaneously: Chess and languages.
She has written a study on the language of Torstein Bae. He is a commentator for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK who explains past moves and potential future moves when Magnus Carlsen plays chess.
Brilliant players require competent commentators
Carlsen has won everything worth winning in chess. Wherever he competes, he still emerges victorious – for the most part. He has also played a key role in making chess popular.
“But chess is a complex game, and a commentator like Torstein Bae has made chess understandable for many through his use of clear language. He also deserves some of the credit for making chess popular,” Gunleifsen says.
And she adds:
“Commentating on brilliant players like Carlsen requires high expertise. Bae showcases Magnus Carlsen’s extraordinary chess moves to the viewers. There is no doubt that his commentary helps viewers follow the moves."
While Carlsen keeps his pieces in order, Bae maintains order in his sentences. They are often long, filled with digressions and numerous subclauses. But they always have a point. The main ideas are always highlighted.
“He repeats important things and emphasises moves and connections viewers need to be attentive to in order to understand the flow of the game,” she says.
Studied the language used in the 2019 World Championship
Gunleifsen watched the chess games as they were broadcast live on NRK. But afterwards, she listened to about eight and a half hours of commentary from the 2019 World Rapid Chess Championship.
She rewound, listened, and pondered. She took notes and analysed. What is it, linguistically, that makes Bae's language work so well?
“His language is spontaneous speech and direct communication with the viewers. Bae comments on what is happening here and now, and the potential consequences for the next move,” Gunleifsen says.
Long and clear sentences
In 2020, Bae was awarded the Media Prize from Riksmålsforbundet, a language-conservative association. In the speech dedicated to Bae, it was noted that he has a vibrant and enthusiastic use of language.
Riksmålsforbundet believed, as Gunleifsen does, that Bae’s language use greatly contributes to spreading chess enthusiasm throughout the country.
Gunleifsen says that Bae explains complex connections in a simple manner.
“He speaks in complete sentences. He doesn’t lose track of the main idea. Bae has a remarkable ability to maintain the structure in long sentences,” she says.
The most important thing first
Torstein Bae keeps the viewers informed about what has happened, what might happen, and what is actually happening on the board. In other words, he juggles the past, present, and potential future.
To maintain clarity regarding these temporal aspects, he comments or clarifies the aspect of time in a special way, according to the language researcher. Here is an example of typical Bae language that Gunleifsen uses in her study:
"Magnus now has a slight advantage."
In this sentence, ‘now’ (the adverb) is emphasised. The word ‘now’ modifies ‘has’ (the verb). In Norwegian, it is more common to place ‘now’ after ‘has’. However, the researcher explains that by using an unusual placement, Torstein Bae highlights what the viewer needs to grasp first.
Highlights main points
“Bae is skilled at emphasising the most essential thing happening. He first says what the listener needs to know to be able to understand the rest of the sentence. Word and phrase placement may be unconventional, but it is still effective and clear language,” Gunleifsen explains.
In her study, she points out that some of Bae’s language choices might be deemed incorrect based on grammar and syntax rules. However, she concludes that good language use is not necessarily one that is grammatically correct, but one that is functional.
“Effective language fulfils its purpose, meaning that it works in context,” she says.
She also reminds us that linguists are not typically as fixated on correct grammar as many believe. They are more concerned with whether the language serves its purpose and is suitable in each given context.
Gunleifsen, E. “Torstein Bae nå spiller sitt adverbial énfrem”– en analyse av karakteristiske trekk i talespråket tilNRKs sjakkekspert og -kommentator (Torstein Bae now plays his adverbial one forward - an analysis of characteristic features in the speech of NRK’s chess expert and commentator), Norwegian Linguistic Journal, 2023.
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