Antarctic base developed a private language based on a videotape?
August 3, 2006 2:36 PM   Subscribe

UrbanLegendFilter: Anyone ever hear of the isolated Antarctic base where the crew watched the same videotape over and over, went crazy, and started speaking their own private language?

It was told to me like this: there was this Antarctic base, see, that lost contact with the outside world one particularly bad winter. Someone at the base had the bright idea of making a videotape consisting of clips of all the "best parts" of the crew's favourite porn, sketch comedy, and various other videos. The tape (which was known only as The Tape) became so popular that watching it was almost a religious ritual, and the crew's spoken language began to consist more and more of in-jokes referring to the tape, in-jokes referring to the in-jokes, in-jokes referring to the in-jokes referring to the... You get the idea. When the crew was finally rescued in the spring, no one from the outside could understand a word they were saying. Their language had drifted so far from the larger culture that it took a lengthy period of rehabilitation before the communication gap could be bridged.

A cautionary tale, yes. But (1) is it true? (I realise parts of it seem implausible.) And (2) where did the story come from, true or not?
posted by rwhe to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing comes up on snopes.
posted by Amizu at 2:53 PM on August 3, 2006

Best answer: Here's something.
posted by peep at 2:58 PM on August 3, 2006

There's a reference to it on alt.mimetics from back in 1995, which itself notes that it's probably an urban legend. It sure sounds like one to me.
posted by BackwardsCity at 2:58 PM on August 3, 2006

You win this round, peep.
posted by BackwardsCity at 2:58 PM on August 3, 2006

haha! by mere seconds.
posted by peep at 3:02 PM on August 3, 2006

(I was disappointed that I couldn't find more - I was hoping it was part of a short story or something. I would read it.)
posted by peep at 3:03 PM on August 3, 2006

Sounds like some of the plot elements from Infinite Jest (a tape that is so entertaining that it kills you, another film called "The Joke", self-recursiveness, "private language" {which is a Wittgenstein term, btw} etc.). There are some Antarctic pilots who die in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but they don't die from watching a tape.
posted by mattbucher at 3:03 PM on August 3, 2006

(Reference to 1995 usenet post removed on preview)

Wintering on the ice is pretty rough. This article mentions several incidents where people went crazy from cabin fever... mutinies, arson, assault. But no mention of people losing basic language skills, which to me suggests the event either never took place, or has been wildly exagerated beyond recognition.
posted by justkevin at 3:06 PM on August 3, 2006

I can't recall the source, or even the correct terminology, but language drift (my own term), the tendency for the languages of isolated populations to diverge, is apparently very real, and can occur with surprising rapidity.

The story, of course, is not true...
posted by The Confessor at 3:10 PM on August 3, 2006


Any chance that Infinite Jest might have borrowed from this Monty Python sketch?

posted by The Confessor at 3:15 PM on August 3, 2006

This somehow resonates with Howard Hughes watching Ice Station Zebra over and over in his decline.
posted by adamrice at 3:22 PM on August 3, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, thanks, peep et al.! I didn't broken-telephone the legend out of proportion, at least. If anything, the Usenet retelling is even weirder than mine, with The Tape becoming the basis for the cultists' ethics, etc.

But where did this story come from? If it's false, who made it up and why? Did the Usenet poster create it on the spot? At least it's been tracked this far.

By the way, the story reminds me of the cultists who worship the electric fan in The Big U, Neal Stephenson's first novel.
posted by rwhe at 4:09 PM on August 3, 2006

There was also that one time, where the Norweigan crew found what appeared to be an ancient crash of a alien ship, and they found this ... thing ... inside it ...
posted by frogan at 5:16 PM on August 3, 2006

the crew's spoken language began to consist more and more of in-jokes referring to the tape, in-jokes referring to the in-jokes, in-jokes referring to the in-jokes referring to the...

Oh dear...we may be looking at the end result of MeFi.
posted by davidmsc at 7:08 PM on August 3, 2006

This is, and is not, related. In the 19th century a European ship sailing in northern Canadian waters got caught in the ice, and was stuck for the winter. The crew had a lot of the newly-invented canned food to eat and weren't in any danger of starvation, but in the early days of canned food the cans were put together and sealed using lead/tin solder, and the food they were eating got contaminated with high levels of lead.

One of them died and the others buried his body in the permafrost. Eventually the others decided they needed to leave the ship and try to move overland to safety; no trace of them has been found.

However, there's ample evidence that by that point they were all completely out of their minds. Among other things, they went to enormous effort to cut the figurehead off their ship and to haul it away with them.

About 25 years ago (IIRC, which I might not) a research team went and exhumed the one remaining corpse and took samples from it, which confirmed that they were suffering from extreme lead poisoning. At the levels found, it would have caused serious mental problems.

If you've heard the term "Mad as a Hatter", it's due to the fact that in the 18th and 19th Centuries, hat makers used lead salts in their hat-making processes, and because like most heavy metals lead is a cumulative poison it eventually built up to the point of causing strange behavior because of its neurological effects. That's the same thing that would have happened to the men from that ship.

So there can be reasons other than isolation etc why men in situations like that could go mad. But in the era of video-tape recorders there no longer is any lead in cans, so lead poisoning couldn't have been a factor in this purported case, had it happened (which apparently it did not).
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:00 PM on August 3, 2006

Response by poster: As I said, some parts of this seem implausible to me, but nothing in the story seems impossible. Why are so many people saying, "Well, obviously that didn't happen"? Anyone care to show why it's impossible? Ghod knows, being in my wife's family is kind of like being in a private-language cult (and I say that with love)...
posted by rwhe at 10:02 PM on August 3, 2006

RWHE: you win a prize. "private language cult" is nowhere on Google.
posted by craniac at 10:48 PM on August 3, 2006

Rats; you're right about hatters. Rats, rats, rats. I must have had a senior moment, as it were...
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:10 PM on August 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

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