Archive for Language in the movies

Language is messy, part 2: Arabic script in "Arrival"

A few days ago I posted the trailer for the forthcoming science-fiction movie "Arrival," based on Ted Chiang's linguistically rich tale of alien contact, "Story of Your Life." While most commenters have wondered how well Chiang's xenolinguistics will translate to the big screen, a couple of eagle-eyed observers noted something worrying in the trailer: incredibly sloppy use of Arabic script.

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"Language is messy," says our new linguistic hero

In the new trailer for the science-fiction movie "Arrival," Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, some sort of mastermind in xenolinguistics. "You're at the top of everyone's list when it comes to translations," says Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), before whisking her off to meet the newly arrived aliens she's tasked with interpreting. She seems to get on with them just fine, while acknowledging that "language is messy."

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The Finn-donesian of "The Force Awakens"

Tasu LeechFor my language column in the Wall Street Journal this week, I describe how some alien-speak in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" ended up being created by a young Finnish YouTube sensation, tailor-made for Indonesian actors. We could call it "Finn-donesian," though the character Finn doesn't actually speak it. Rather, the dialogue was designed for the Kanjiklub gang, who briefly face off against Han Solo and Chewbacca on a space freighter packed with slithery Rathtars.

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"Sherlock Holmes" and "clubfoot" in Chinese

Over at China Economic Review, Hudson Lockett has written an interesting piece worthy of the celebrated British sleuth:

"The game is afoot! Why Chinese Sherlock fans are as confused as everyone else" (1/3/16)

It's all about how the Chinese term — mǎtí nèifān zú 马蹄内翻足 — for a congenital deformity referred to in English as "clubfoot" (talipes equinovarus [CTEV]) figures in the "slaveringly awaited"

New Year’s Day special episode of the series starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch.

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"Lobsters": a perplexing stop motion film

Matt Anderson called my attention to a short (15:49), enigmatic 1959 Chinese film:

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The writing on the wall

Why won't they call in a linguist?

The producers of "Homeland," a TV spy drama, were filming a scene (shot in Berlin) in which one of the show's main characters walks through a refugee camp run by Hezbollah, and they employed a group of Arabic-speaking graffiti artists to daub the walls with authentic slogans saying "Muhammed is the greatest." (Presumably referring to the revered Arabian prophet, but sounding a bit more like an allusion to the celebrated American boxer; who knows.) But they forgot to hire a trusted Arabic-competent linguist to proofread. They had no idea what the artists had written on the set walls. It turned out to be slogans like "Homeland is not a series," "Homeland is racist," and "Homeland is rubbish." And those graffiti duly appeared on TV (whereupon the guerilla artists, not wanting their subversion to be missed, revealed what they had done).

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Fake Obama, fake English

Earlier today, BBC News posted this article:

"Chinese Obama speaks 'fake' English" (9/21/15)

Embedded at the top of the article is this video in which actor Xiao Jiguo displays his talents at impersonating Obama:

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Devilishly difficult "dialect"

Are some languages innately more difficult than others?  In "Difficult languages" (1/2/10), Bill Poser addressed this question from various angles.  I've heard it said that Georgian is incredibly difficult because it possesses an "impossible" verbal system, has ergativity and other features that make for "interesting" learning, and so forth.  Yet, in comparison with some of the North Caucasian languages (whose relationship to K'art'velian [or South Caucasian], the language family to which Georgian belongs — along with Svan, Chan/Megrelian/Mingrelian/Laz, is perhaps more an areal phenomenon than a genetic relationship), it is relatively simple. The North Caucasian languages have an abundance of phonemes and an even more complex grammatical system.  John Colarusso has written an excellent grammar of Kabardinian, which gives a good idea of the complexity of this Northwest Caucasian language.

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A movie about a dictionary

I love dictionaries as much as anyone, but I'm not sure that I'd ever advocate making a film about any of my favorite dictionaries.  Yet this has now been suggested for the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn 新华字典 (trad. 新華字典) (New China character dictionary):

"Will You Watch a Movie Based on Dictionary?" (Anhui News 7/8/15)

At first, one might think this is satire, but when you read this Chinese article about it, you realize they're serious.

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Let Me In 4

Referring to its title as "Kochinglish", Kendall Willets called my attention to the following Korean TV show:

논란을 넘어 감동으로, 인생대반전 메이크오버쇼

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"Imitation Game" codebreakers also played the palindrome game

Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Is this the best palindrome ever created in English? Many think so. (I agree.) But did you know that it was made by the British mathematician Peter Hilton, while working alongside Alan Turing as an "Enigma" codebreaker during World War II? If you've seen The Imitation Game, you might remember Matthew Beard's portrayal of young Hilton. (The film embellishes his true story, giving him a brother serving on a Royal Navy ship targeted by the Germans.)

Even more amazingly, "Doc, note I dissent…" was actually the result of a palindrome competition held by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (who, as the movie shows, were quite good at UK-style cryptic crosswords, too). The competition was, like the rest of the goings-on at Bletchley Park, shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Now for the first time, Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist Magazine, tells the full story of the codebreakers' palindrome game. Read all about on Vocabulary.com here.

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Reflections on "Inherent Vice"

Last night I went out to see Inherent Vice, the only film so far made of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two and a half hours of bafflement later, the credits rolled. I was with two distinguished computational linguists, Mark Steedman and Bonnie Webber. "It was more coherent than the book," said Mark, who liked the film. Bonnie and I weren't so sure. Today there was a lot of talk in the British media about how people have been walking out without staying to the end (Owen Jones says he actually lost the will to live). I have only seen one movie in many years that was so bad that I walked out, and my will to live was undiminished by Inherent Vice; but I needed to go home and read the Wikipedia plot summary to make sure I had grasped something of what was going on. ("This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed," says a note at the top by an unidentified Wikipedian. Yes! It is, and I'm very grateful. Please don't try to "help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise." I need it just the way it is.)

The language angle on this, I hear you ask? I don't just post film reviews here in order to ensure that the cost of my cinema tickets can be charged to Language Log's corporate American Express card as a business expense. Oh, no. There's always a linguistic hook.

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Expendables 3: World Series

There are some intriguing features about this Japanese poster for Expendables 3:

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