Sociolinguist turns script doctor
by Leslie Vryenhoek
A play opening in Boston this week is a little more authentic than it might have been, thanks to the expertise of Memorial’s Dr. Gerard Van Herk.
Dr. Van Herk, Canada Research Chair in Sociolinguistics, served as a “script doctor” for the USS Constitution Museum’s production I Shall Ever Be Under Obligation to You: Wounded Sailors and Widowed Pensioners of the War of 1812.
The opportunity arose when Dr. Van Herk saw a notice on a linguists’ listserv from the museum. “They were looking for somebody who could tell them about 19th-century African-American English,” he explained. He responded, and put together a few pages of information for them.
“I told them you can’t have the white sailors sound like they’re Oxford educated and load the black sailors up with dialect, so then they asked me to look over all the scripts,” he said. “There were a few things that they had done that were not quite right, and a lot of speech that was just too formal.”
Dr. Van Herk’s comments were included in the final production, which opens at the museum on June 30.
It’s not the first time he’s done something like this he’s also helped with making animators’ dialogue more authentic at a historical site in Williamsburg and the USS Constitution Museum has indicated an interest in relying further on his expertise as they produce videos and recordings.
“People are more sensitive these days to getting it right, because when they get it wrong they hear about it,” he noted.