Archive for Language in the movies

No dawn for ape-language theory

As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

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"Jesus" in Dungan

Dungan is a Sinitic language spoken by the descendants of Hui (Muslim) refugees who fled from northwest China after a failed revolt against the Qing (Manchu) government about a century and a half ago.  Experiencing horrible losses along the way, their remnants settled in parts of what are now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where ultimately they thrived and are quite successful today, particularly in growing produce.

Naturally, separated as they were from their homeland and its speech community, the language of the Dungans has undergone considerable change, especially through the borrowing of terms from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and other languages.  Even more radical was the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for their writing system (nearly all of those who fled were illiterate in Chinese characters).

For a brief introduction to the Dungans and their language, see "Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet".

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Carmen in Korean and Cantonese

Reader Jean-Michel found an odd example of a Sinographic typo and it's got him stumped. This has to do with the Korean Blu-ray release of "As Tears Go By," the 1988 debut feature by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.

In Chinese the film is known as Wàngjiǎo kǎmén 旺角卡門 ("Mongkok Carmen") after the Bizet opera (though the resemblances are very superficial). What is strange, however, is that the Korean Blu-ray art, as illustrated below, initially gave the characters as Wàngjiǎo xiàwèn 旺角下問.

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Substituting Pinyin for unknown Chinese characters

On September 25, I posted on "Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia", which occasioned a vigorous debate. A few of the commenters thought the essay in question wasn't actually written by a student. Be that as it may, this habit of replacing characters by Pinyin is becoming more and more common, especially among young students. Let us look at this scene from the Chinese documentary "Qǐng tóu wǒ yī piào" 请投我一票 (Please vote for me) at (34:29).

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Japanesespanishmackerel

This will be a mini-disquisition on fish terminology, focusing on one particular species.

Reader hanmeng, after seeing a reference to bàyú 鲅鱼 (a kind of fish — discussion below) in the opening scene of the 32nd episode of " Méndì" 门第 ("family status; pedigree; ancestry; lineage; families related by marriage equal in social status" — title of a popular TV drama series), googled to find what the equivalent word is in English, and was directed to Baidu (a search engine for Chinese-language websites), where they render it as "Japanesespanishmack—erel".

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Linguistics Goes to Hollywood

On April 19, the Linguistics Department at UC San Diego (aka the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza) hosted a special event as part of our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Department.

The event was entitled Linguistics Goes to Hollywood: Creators of the Klingon, Na'vi and Dothraki Languages, a panel discussion featuring Marc Okrand (creator of Klingon, Star Trek), Paul Frommer (creator of Na'vi, Avatar), and David J. Peterson (creator of Dothraki, Game of Thrones).

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Historical sociolinguistics in the movies

From reader JM:

My son Chris (age 26) e-mailed me to ask which was correct: “younger than me” or “younger than I”.  He had been watching “The Patriot” (the movie with Mel Gibson), and noted the use of “younger than I.”  I assume that this would have been the standard in the late 1700s.  When he and I saw the movie “Lincoln” last weekend, I noted that Daniel Day Lewis pronounced what and which, etc. as [hw].  I gather (from Wikipedia, etc.) that the more common pronunciation in both the U.S. and the U.K. is now [w], but couldn’t find anything about the time course of this merger. Is it known for sure that Lincoln said [hw]? Just curious….don’t know anything about how much effort film directors put into this kind of historical accuracy.

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Skyfall

I felt that someone ought to report for you Language Log readers on the latest Bond movie, Skyfall. So after a hard eight hours of academic work in my office last Saturday, I selflessly continued my working day into overtime by walking from Brown University to the Providence Place Mall, there to attend a screening of Skyfall in Imax format. (You will recall that I have reported on movies for Language Log before, e.g. here and here and here and here and here.)

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Shades of gray of shocking lingo

I'm glad I'm not in the business of setting rules for the use of taboo language in film or broadcasting. I'd be tearing out my bleeping hair trying to articulate some non-abitrary, empirically defensible set of standards.

The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:

If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate. So Loach, whose new film is based in Glasgow, where the c-word abounds, has been forced to excise the more aggressive uses of the word in order for his film to be a 15. He is rightly annoyed that he has effectively been forced to censor "a word that goes back to Chaucer's time".

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"Downton Abbey" anachronisms: beyond nitpickery

I've been taking advantage of the rabid interest in "Downton Abbey" lately to report on some verbal anachronisms that have cropped up in the show's second season (originally broadcast on ITV in the UK late last year and now wrapping on PBS in the US). Over the past few days I've written about it in columns for The Boston Globe and the Visual Thesaurus, and I was interviewed on the topic for NPR Morning Edition earlier today. I also put together a video compilation of questionable lines from the show, and it's been making the rounds in culture-y corners of the blogosphere:

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"Please."

The new anglophone film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo directed by David Fincher is really superb. I don't know when I've seen such a gripping and well-told suspense mystery. And there's a wonderful piece of less-is-more (compare with the impressive example of absence of language that I described in my post about The Ides of March) when Lisbeth says she is reading Mikael's notes on his computer. "They're encrypted!" says Mikael indignantly. And Lisbeth raises her eyes for a half-second withering look and says, "Please." That syllable transmits a whole paragraph of exposition about her skill in the hacking arts. You can see in the way she says that single word that she is so skilled she thinks standard encryption is for babies and that Mikael is one.

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Write new speeches, don't borrow from Hollywood

The Australian minister of transport and infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, recently plunged himself into an embarrassing situation that will probably stain his reputation permanently (see the Daily Mail's coverage here). He delivered a speech in which one passage, a piece of nicely honed rhetoric about the leader of the opposition (the Liberal party), was lifted with hardly any alteration from a speech that Michael Douglas was seen giving in a 1995 American romantic comedy, The American President (script by Aaron Sorkin). Naturally the two speech segments are now available side by side on YouTube. Albanese's staff, who prepared the speech for him (Albanese claims never to have seen the movie) had apparently forgotten that (1) millions of Australians have in fact personally visited a movie theater, and (2) some of them remember at least parts of movies that they have seen.

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New releases: Marilyn and Ethan

You will recall that I tend to serve as Language Log's film columnist. I try to keep readers abreast of the linguistic lessons to be learned from the contemporary cinema. Some have suggested that all I'm really after is a chance to get my cinema tickets reimbursed out of Language Log's research expenses funds, but that is an unworthy thought and I will not dignify it with comment. The most recent films I've seen are My Week With Marilyn and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.

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Create a language, go to jail

I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson, founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)

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Doing without language

As you know, I undertake the arduous task of covering the vast universe of movies for Language Log. (This at least is the way I write up the paperwork that gets all my cinematic entertainment charged to the Language Log corporate expense account on a fully IRS-defensible basis.) The film I saw today, one of the best political dramas in ten or twenty years, has a humbling lesson for linguists, in a sort of zen way.

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