Star Trek chemistry blooper?

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Barbara and I, having both seen so many Star Trek episodes, both from the first (Shatner) series and the second (Stewart) series, couldn't resist going to see the new prequel movie Star Trek at a huge cinema in London's Leicester Square the other day. (My god, is THX sound loud these days. Take earplugs unless you are fully accustomed to the sound of a full-scale artillery bombardment. We forgot to.) Of course, this is Language Log, not Science Fiction Movie Log, so to even mention it here I need a linguistic hook. And I don't have a really good one: there are no alien tongues like Klingon in this film (unless you count the young Chekhov's sometimes rather heavy Russian accent), and although I spotted some discreet rewording of the famous "seek out new life" prologue, recited before the closing credits, there's nothing very interesting. But I did notice one tiny thing: a sign on a big assembly of tubes and tanks in the bowels of the Enterprise that said "INERT REACTANT". I hate to be a pedant here (that's my day job), but really, was there no one on the set who could point out that a chemical substance is inert if and only if it cannot be a reactant? Am I wrong, chemists?

Perhaps Language Log readers will have spotted more noteworthy linguistic points in the film. Come on, Trekkies, comments are open!

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72 Comments »

  1. Derek Balsam said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    It's a perfectly fine phrase and used in chemistry.

    The phrase "inert reactant" can easily be found in a Google search in reputable chemistry books and refereed journal articles. It simply means a reactant that is in a (currently) inert state.

    E.g. "Metal Ions in Biochemistry" by P. K. Bhattacharya.

    [Ah! So it is me that is the ignorant one as regards chemistry. So be it. I will add a question mark at the end of the title of the post, since there is no blooper other than my ignorant questioning. Let this be a lesson to us all: we should never take what we know about individual word meanings and imagine that we can deduce the correct meanings of technical phrases.

    By the way, it becomes clear just after the scene with the sign in it that the inert reactant in question is... water. But in a comment below, Ray Girvan gives an example of where one might actually describe water as an inert reactant. —GKP]

  2. Thomas Westgard said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    I used to have an inert reactant, but then we broke up.

  3. greg said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    Wait, Chekov's inability to say Victor with a V instead of a W isn't a notable linguistic hook for you? Considering it isn't something Russians do?

  4. godcyning said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Yeah, most of the time when something's inert it means it's unreactive. But it's all relative – you can MAKE it react if you put it in the right conditions (usually ridiculous pressure or temperature). So really "unreactive" means something more like "REALLY slow to react appreciably", so in practice is unreactive…and then again, you can use inert to refer to specific conditions, like "inert to acid" or "inert to substitution reactions"…nitrogen is commonly used in the lab as an "inert gas", but has on occasion reacted in experiments, unbeknownst to the chemists. It was a big mystery for a long time before someone figured out their "inert gas" was participating in the reaction. At least it's better than the old days when hydrogen gas was used as the "inert gas". I mean, one wrong move and kaboom!

  5. Rolig said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Greg, I haven't yet seen the movie, so I don't know how the actor Anton Yelchin (born in Leningrad, but emigrated to the US with his parents at a young age) handles the Russian accent, but I do know from experience that some Russians often pronounce the v-sound in English in a way that native English speakers here as a w-sound. Of course Russian has a "v" and so Russians like Volokh (whose comment you linked to) are surprised to be told that they pronounce "v" like "w". I'm not a professional linguist, so I will let someon who is explain it properly, but in certain contexts the Russian "v" is quite different from the English "v" (maybe the lips are more rounded), and as a result native English speakers perceive the sound as a "w".

  6. Pavel Iosad said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Well, there's the matter of the young Kirk actually knowing that xenolinguistics would be not (only) learning to speak alien languages, but also studying their (and I quote) phonology, morphology and syntax. That was quite impressive.

    On Chekov's Russian accent, it was, to my ears as a Russian speaker, extremely believable, except for the w/v confusion (which I believe he introduced for continuity with the original series).

  7. Karen said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    @Greg – I have known many Russians who said Wiktor and wodka when speaking English. I don't know why – I'm going to guess it's because their V isn't actually the same as ours, so we don't hear the V we're expecting and instead interpret what we hear as a W.

  8. Eli said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    Yeah, and what about the comment about linguists having talented tongues? I cheered when I heard that.

    You know, between being cunning linguists and having talented tongues, it's a wonder MOTASs* don't just flock to us. Haven't they heard? Does the LSA need to start a campaign?

    * MOTAS = Member Of The Appropriate Sex

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    As Derek says.

    An example might be the reaction between metallic sodium and water.

    In this case, the sodium is the "reactive reactant" (i.e. the one which is reactive in general, and driving the reaction), and the water the "inert reactant" (since, so speak, it's the passive partner in the reaction and by itself generally inert and unreactive).

  10. Jonah said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    @Greg, Rolig,
    Indeed, the Russian v sound is closer to an approximant, a sound formed with a fairly wide constriction in the vocal tract (or the lips, in this case) than it is to our English v. An English v is usually described as a fricative, a sound with a constriction narrow enough to cause turbulent, noisy airflow. Although we don't have a bilabial approximant in English (the Russian v sound), we do have something similar: a glide (something like an approximant) formed with constrictions at the lips and the back of the tongue. This is our /w/ sound, and it's probably more similar perceptually to the Russian v than our v sound is.

  11. Charles said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    Let me just add, I had an example of v/w confusion that did not make sense to me but the speakers were German and Swiss-German.

    They had trouble pronouncing the word "valve", and it kept coming out with [w] sounds. I questioned, why would that cause trouble, when German has a [v] sound in words like "Wie", "Warum", and so forth. And it especially puzzled me because the standard German pronunciation of "v" is [f].

    My theory was that it could have been overcompensation – they spend so much time remembering to pronounce "water" with a [w] instead of "Wasser" with a [v], that they start replacing genuine [v] sounds with [w]. But my German colleague responded, in fact, that certain dialects of German do pronounce "v" as [w] and this was the source of their confusion.

  12. Charles said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    [addendum to previous post]
    When I suggested they imagine the word as if it were "Walw" written in german, both of them were able to pronounce [valv] with no difficulty. But habitually they keep going back to the [w] sometimes.

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    The lack of Klingon in the movie was actually enough of a news hook for Arika Okrent to write a fun history of the language for Slate. (Unsurprisingly, it was given a Whorf Lite headline: "There's No Klingon Word for Hello.")

    Guess we'll have to wait for James Cameron's Avatar for some real xenolinguistics to sink our teeth into…

  14. Amy Stoller said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Although the W substitution for V is less common than the V substitution for W, I have heard it occasionally in my Russian clients (and frequently in my German and Austrian clients), who come to me to work on their American English pronunciation.

    When coaching native speakers of English in Russian accents (and in German accents), I usually advise against using W-for-V; but that's because it tends to get a laugh from American audiences where no laugh is wanted in the performance, not because it is not authentic. In Russian characters, it does also bring Walter Koenig's Chekov immediately to mind, at least in audiences of a certain vintage.

  15. Ellen said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Several commenters to the post Greg linked to make the point that Russians do, some of them, sometimes, use W instead of V. This comment a good (or so it seems to me) theory why. http://volokh.com/posts/1242082715.shtml#582742

  16. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    On w-for-v:

    I taught ESL back in the 80's Amnesty Program. My students were Hispanic, and since it was a community-based program, many lived on a street called "Wood," which they habitually pronounced "Good Street." Eventually, I realized it was not the sound of the W that threw them, but the letter itself. Spanish doesn't really use it. (Whence the G, I still can't guess.) I achieved some corrective success when I chalked "Juod Street," on the board, the "ju" being as close an approximation to "w" as I could think of (leaving aside the aspiration and velar friction of some Mexican regional accents).

    Likewise, Russian lacks a letter shaped like a V. The closest in appearance looks like a Y or y (and I guess is the Cyrillic descendant of a Greek upsilon). It is pronounced something like a U.

    Now, if you saw a word that looked like like UODKA, how would you attempt to pronounce it? I figure you'd produce something like a "w," especially if you were confident and gave it some speed.

    So I'm speculating that the "Pavel Substitution" is an artifact of literacy and would not be heard from Slavs who had learned English only by speaking and hearing it.

  17. Felix said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    I laughed that Uhura spoke "all three dialects of Romulan". On a whole planet, one with numerous interstellar outposts, they only have 3 dialects? I know that is consistant with the original flavor of the series, but funny anyhow.

    [Yes; to have only three dialects that one would need to boast of being able to speak, the planet would need to have had a history of no more than about a century or two, assuming that language change proceeds among the Romulans at a similar pace to its progress on Earth. Perhaps the Romulans were a small and close-knit group until quite recent times, and then their numbers exploded rapidly, in three main locations. —GKP]

    Still, it was definitely a pro-linguist movie. How often have linguists been portrayed as hot babes in film?

  18. Dev Thakur said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    on g-for-w in Spanish:

    There are examples of words beginning with "w" imported into Spanish that then begin with "g" … to the Spanish ear the "g" is a very light consonant and so "gua" approximates "wa" and "güi" approximates "wi". Examples: guachimán (watchman) and güisqui (whisky).

    Words that retain the initial "w" are sometimes pronounced with this barely perceptible "g" or, if they are of German origin for example, are pronounced with a "b", e.g. "wagneriano" (Wagnerian). (In Spanish, except in speakers influenced by French and English, b and v represent the same bilabial sound).

  19. egaliede said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    On the subject of German pronunciation of English v, I don´t think it´s just a matter of some German dialects saying [w] in the place of [v].

    As a teenager, I went on a trip to Germany with my father who had lived there for a number of years. I remember very clearly being told by a number of German friends of his, from Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Nuremberg and Munich, on separate occasions, "How delightful that you could come to wisit!" Other than this peculiarity, they all spoke extremely good English, and having later studied German with the help of these same friends, I can attest that their pronunciation of "v" and "w" was completely standard, as [f] and [v] respectively.

  20. Dierk said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    One of the problems with ST [and loads of other hard SF] for me has always been the completely non-believable "Evolution" of life on other planets. Regardless if it is Romulans, Klingons, Ferengi* – there always just one race inhabiting whole planets. And this race is rather uniform.

    Reminds me, an alien race coming to Earth, will it really look for humans as domineering species or aren't bugs, ants and grasses more likely?

    *Do I really know this nonsense?!

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Sinhala doesn't distinguish between 'v' and 'w'. I'm normally referred to as Mr. Stew.

  22. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff

    Now, if you saw a word that looked like like UODKA, how would you attempt to pronounce it? I figure you'd produce something like a "w," especially if you were confident and gave it some speed.

    I'm a little confused by your reasoning here, Jeff. Why, when the word водка, "vodka", is a Russian word (borrowed into English) would the spelling of it in the Roman alphabet cause a difference in pronunciation for Russian speakers? I think the phonology of Russian is at work here, as many commenters above have suggested, not spelling (in whatever script).

  23. godcyning said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    All three dialects of Romulan, that's interesting. I mean, it's strange enough for an entire planet to have one language. In any case…it's possible they're using the word dialect loosely, kind of like "dialects of Chinese".

    And who knows, on the relative scope of planetary languages, maybe linguistic terminology will change so that everything spoken on Romulus is "Romulan", and each Romulan language is referred to as a "Romulan dialect".

  24. Pavel Iosad said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    Further on [v]/[w], it is definitely not him saying the Russian [v] and heard by English speakers as [w]. He really does say [w], which sounds extremely weird to Russian ears, because otherwise his Russian is impeccable, with all the right vowels, trouble with nonstrident coronal fricatives and even intonation.

  25. greg said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    That is interesting about the v/w problem. When I posted the link to Volokh, I hadn't read a lot of the comments there, including the one specifically linked by one of the other commenters here. I just went and found the link because I'd read it a few days back and never did check back for more comments there.

    @Dierk – there are several instances in the Star Trek universe of differences among populations of various worlds. The biggest one that I can think of is that Romulans are actually descended from Vulcans, but ones who followed a path of not restraining their emotions several hundreds/thousands of years earlier. And who's to say that there aren't racial differences. Just because they all have the same skin color doesn't mean much as their 'racial' differences could be anything ranging from eye color to number of ridges to pattern of scales or something else that we would never even notice.

  26. Adrian said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Has anyone found any good papers online about the v/w distinction? It occurs to me that many people from the Indian subcontinent (?seem to) pronounce "village" as "willage", etc.

  27. mollymooly said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Yelchin's V-W mangling is a deliberate in-joke homage to Koenig's original; just as when Star Wars was remastered the famous sight of a stormtrooper banging his head on a door was enhanced with a comedy sound effect.

    More generally, the Wikipedia article on hypercorrection is…not very good.

  28. Colin said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    @Dierk: I think I saw a darker skinned Vulcan or Romulan somewhere in the new ST film. I know one of the lousy ST spinoffs (Voyager, I think) had a Vulcan character played by an African American. Also, I think Romulans and Vulcans are supposed to be sort of different races of the same species – sharing a common ancestry but having gone separate ways some time previously. I don't have the time or energy to look all this up, so someone may correct me on that point. Anyhow, considering that humans are generally more integrated worldwide than ever before in history, it's not hard to imagine a technologically advanced society slowly losing "races" and regional differences over time as their society becomes more and more connected, much like Earth is becoming more and more integrated over time and those "tribal" alliegences are disappearing (again, slowly, but definitely occurring). It works for me.

    @Felix & godcyning (and Geoff): Consider that it seems that all Earthlings generally speak English in Star Trek. My understanding of the ST universe is that Earth has become a one-world government some time before. This doesn't seem too hard to imagine happening some day. Languages are dying out left and right on Earth currently. It's not hard to imagine Earth a few centuries from now where everyone speaks English (which would sensibly be called something like "Earthling" by non-Earthlings) and where there are very few other languages left with native speakers. Assuming Vulcan society followed a similar arc, where the species became more or less homogenized long before interstellar travel became possible for them, it seems reasonable for linguistic diversity to have narrowed to only 3 "dialects".

    Look at me, I'm actually defending Star Trek here! Listen, there's lots to gripe about in the Star Trek universe, but in this case I think things are fairly believable (which luckily works out well for the sake of simplicity).

  29. Ray Girvan said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Not forgetting the v/w issue in 19th century Cockney as in The Pickwick Papers

    '"Susan," says I–I wos took up wery short by this, Samivel; I von't deny it, my boy–"Susan," I says, "you've been a wery good vife to me altogether…"

  30. Michael W said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    I don't know recall the full details, but in the original series, the Romulans are met for the first time, and everyone looks at Spock quizzically, as they appear to be like him. He explains that they are somehow related. Uhura's knowledge may still make sense if they knew a little about Romulans but simply hadn't seen one before. I also think there was some sort of panspermia that was discovered in one of the newer series, to account for the remarkable number of humanoid species.

    It's conceivable that each planet has its own lingua franca, much like English might be for Earth without destroying other languages (or the current way it is in Indonesia or India). Thus 'Romulan' might just be the language understood by all and used in commerce with other species, and might even have dialects. (That's what I would call a 'fanwank', but apparently that word gets used differently by other people).

    Also, if the 'discreet rewording' refers to "where no one" — that was already changed, back when the series "Star Trek : The Next Generation" came out.

  31. Felix said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    I thought the same thing Colin, but then, how come Checkov has an accent? Surely that suggests that in the future there are still Earthlings who speak languages besides English.

  32. Ray Girvan said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    I also think there was some sort of panspermia that was discovered in one of the newer series
    Yeah. (GKP: forgive more fanwank): a humanoid precursor had preserved its memory by seeding life with DNA that would evolve toward humanoids differing not much except in style of forehead prosthetic. One of the geeky weaknesses of ST was why they hadn't twigged this common ancestry the first of many times interbreeding proved possible.

  33. GAC said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    1) Evolution — it was established in Next Generation that there was a humanoid progenitor race that seeded life on the planets. I'm not sure, but they look very much like the humanoid form of the Founders (Changelings) in the DS9 series.

    2) About everyone has mentioned the Vulcan/Romulan split. The Enterprise series covers it — not sure if it occurred at that point or if it was evident much earlier. Seems odd, given their long life-spans, that they would speak different languages just a couple hundred years after the split. I didn't see anyone mention where that was specifically referenced — a crewmember claiming he may not be able to distinguish Romulan from Vulcan (possible if they are closely related).

    3) And yeah, no alien languages to speak of. No Klingon makes sense since we didn't encounter actual Klingons in the movie, but I seem to recall there are also well constructed languages for the Vulcans that could have been used (a classical language and several modern vernaculars). Instead we have a translation convention going.

    4) Non-English languages did not disappear entirely in the Star Trek universe. In the original, Uhura's native language is Swahili (which she reverts to at one point after losing her memory — Star Trek has always had massive science errors), and there is a reference in one of the books to Picard trying (and failing) to learn Spanish from a fellow cadet. English (or Federation Standard) is used throughout the Federation — since humans rule that universe (which makes no sense — Vulcans should have been the dominant race in the Federation ).

    — in any case, Star Trek, despite having a couple fairly complete constructed languages, is often as bad or worse on linguistics as it is on other sciences, references to "polyglottal dialects" of Klingon, aliens that speak "in binary", and one episode of Enterprise where one of the xenolinguists makes a comment that the "grammar" of a language "sounds bilateral" upon first hearing it — before she can do any visible analysis.

  34. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    @Bryn LaFollette

    You're certainly correct about the pronunciation of vodka. A Russian mispronouncing that could exist only in fiction.

    I should have chosen a distinctly "English" word like "vacation" or "vandal" — something with no Russian counterpart. So let's ask: How might one see and then pronounce an unfamiliar word that looks like Uandal?

    I still suspect much of the phenomenon has orthographic origins of some sort. Maybe I nailed part of it, maybe not. When I first studied German, I could not for the life of me remember which U's took umlaut marks and which did not, so for a week or so I put them over all my U's indiscriminantly. I doubt I would have made that mistake if I had been learning the language through purely oral means.

    This whole matter would resolve more easily if we had an inventory of words that real Russians mispronounce in this way. It could be that many or most of the fictional examples just don't happen. Like middle-class white guys going to the hood and trying to speak the local dialect. If you haven't really learned it, but you think you have, you'll end up using double negatives "incorrectly" and sounding like an obvious foreigner.

  35. Bill Walderman said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    "Some Russians often pronounce the v-sound in English in a way that native English speakers hear as a w-sound."

    "Indeed, the Russian v sound is closer to an approximant, a sound formed with a fairly wide constriction in the vocal tract (or the lips, in this case) than it is to our English v."

    In southern Russian (and Ukrainian, too, I believe) the phonetic realization of the phoneme transliterated as "v" is really closer to English "w" (a bi-labial approximant?). I think that pronunciation is considered sub-standard, though. If I'm not mistaken, the pronunciation as a labio-dental continuant in the standard Russian dialect is a relatively recent historical development.

  36. Clay Kourte said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    Although another hook may not be needed, I remember one of my Linguistic profs (who later became my advisor) leading our intro phonetics class through a fairly in depth analysis of the ST lead-in: Space, the final frontier…etc. Perhaps someone would care to compare and contrast against the new intro?

    Haven't seen that prof for a very long time, but was happy to see him still kicking around on Language Log. And still with the Douglas Adams style sense of humor!

  37. Irene said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    GAC's last sentence refers to Star Trek aliens speaking "in binary". In the first season of ST:TNG there are aliens who speak in all zeros and ones. The name of the episode is something like, 00100011010.

  38. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    @Jeff

    I think you misunderstand me. As many on this post have already mentioned, the phoneme typically represented in English pronunciation as /v/, a labio-dental voiced fricative, is actually an approximant in Russian varying between very close and so wide as to become a bilabial approximant. What I'm saying is that in Russian the word "водка" is pronounced in some cases ['wotka]. Personally I don't think there's much of any role orthography is playing in the pronunciation phenomena being discussed here. It's the natural outcome of one language's phonology being applied by one of its speakers to another language.

    Phonological interference from one language on learning another is very consistent for a given speaker. It's not something that happens here and there depending upon how a given word is spelled, and so having some list of "true Russian mispronunciations" isn't really going to be of much use other than to confirm the phonological reality. And, this has already been confirmed by the comments of the actual Russian speakers above.

    As far as the story about your learning of German, I'm not sure I understand what it is you're saying you were having trouble with. Do you mean that you couldn't distinguish the pronunciation difference between the front and back rounded vowels or that you had trouble learning which symbol went with which vowel sound? I never experienced the problem you describe when I studied German, but then I had already studied quite a few other languages by that point.

  39. Rubrick said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    @BZ:

    (Unsurprisingly, it was given a Whorf Lite headline: "There's No Klingon Word for Hello.")

    Under the circumstances, they really should have used a Worf Lite headline.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    South Indians, Pickwick friend, mixing up v and w:

    I think that in both cases there is only one sound heard, but it is intermediate between the two. As in the case of a the same neutral tone viewed against a light or dark background and looking respectively much darker or lighter than it acally is, when we expect one of a pair of similar sounds and hear something intermediate between the two we think we are hearing the other one. So we hear v when we expect w and w when we expect v, when the speaker is pronouncing identical sounds. There is a similar example with French speakers using the same sound [i] for English [I] and [i:]: a little bit with a French accent sounds to English hearers like a leetle beet, while eat it sounds like it eat instead.

  41. H-Bob said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    Perhaps it's not a linguistic point but Kirk's mid-air rescue of Sulu after his fall from the platform was impossible unless gravity works differently on Vulcan. Shouldn't a high-tech movie at least acknowledge the oldest-known scientific experiment (Galileo) ?

  42. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    @Jeff,

    Just to try this the other way around, the point I'm trying to make here about orthography not being involved in this issue is illustrated by the following: Just because the work "водка" starts with a Cyrillic letter that looks like the Roman letter "B", an English speaker when speaking Russian is not going to be pronouncing it consistently as ['bodka]. Or likewise consistently pronounce правда in a way other than ['pravda], just because of its spelling.

  43. Colin said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    @Felix: I thought about Chekov too. And then I thought about the third-generation Mexican-Americans I know whose parents don't even speak Spanish, and yet have a distinctly Mexican-Spanish-inflected accent, purely because they grew up mostly interacting with other Mexican-Americans. The-region-formerly-known-as-Russia in this future one-world government would obviously still retain regional personality no matter how much English were to dominate the world of the future. But my point was not so much that all languages had died, just that English had come to dominate and mostly kill off other languages. It would seem reasonable (to me anyway) that Russian would be one of the last languages to die out if English had become the primary language of the one-world government of the future, seeing as it's among the top ten native languages in the world currently.

  44. mollymooly said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

    So, everyone speaks Federation Standard, but with different substrates, that only show up in their accents.

  45. Jon said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    H-Bob, although we are getting way off topic here, how is that a problem? Gravity isn't the only thing at play here and if Kirk reduces his profile (reduces his surface area and makes himself more aerodynamic) why couldn't he catch up to a flailing Sulu?

  46. tim said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    There's an interesting linguistic discontinuity between the new star trek film and star trek VI. In the new film, Uhura translates a Klingon distress signal. But in ST VI, her Klingon is lousy. She has to use a phonemic dictionary to carry out a simple conversation with a security ship, and nearly blows the whole thing with bad pronunciation, misconjugation, and garbled syntax.

  47. Felix said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    Well Tim, clearly she went back in time to an alternate reality through a black hole or something and took Klingon lessons – in all three dialects!

  48. Clark Cox said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    H-Bob, if you pay attention, you'll see that Sulu spreads his body out, extending his arms and legs, thereby giving himself the largest aerodynamic profile possible, while Kirk does the opposite, and pulls his limbs in close. Kirk would therefore have a much higher terminal velocity than Sulu. I've seen the same technique used by actual skydivers.

  49. Karen said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    In Ukrainian, the phonemes V and U (written В and У) alternate depending upon their environment. For instance, the preposition В (meaning "in, into") becomes У in certain situations, while the preposition У (meaning, roughly, "at, of") becomes В – they're even spelled that way. The same is true of words beginning with those letters – thus він ушов but вони вшли (he went, they went). Even when В is written, as in the genitive plural ending -ІВ many Ukrainians will pronounce it like English U/W (-yoo rather than -eev). V and W are tricky characters in Slavic!

  50. Karen said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    @Tim: I thought there weren't any Klingons in this one? Did she translate a Romulan distress call, perhaps? (I haven't seen it.)

  51. Aaron Davies said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    re ukrainian phonetics: in the latest indiana jones movie, indy pegs the "russian" girl as a ukrainian by commenting on her "wubble-yous"

  52. David Barnes said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    On the 3 dialects of Romulan… if there has been mass communication across the planet for hundreds of years, would you not expect the number of dialects to reduce? In the short time that Britain has had radio and telephone communication (and fast travel) dialects and accents have converged massively, and at some point won't we will all speak a common dialect?

  53. language hat said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    I find it hard to believe all this discussion over the v/w thing. As Pavel Iosad said in the sixth comment, it's an homage to the original; the actor himself (who was born in Leningrad) said: "With Chekhov, it was fun to capture the comedic aspects. Naturally, he’s kind of funny sometimes. I adjusted it, but I wanted to be close to the [original version]. Certain things I took: the v’s to the w’s. [Walter Koenig] says wessels. He doesn’t say the v, which is an odd choice. It’s the kind of choice that they made 40 years ago when he was this Cold War stereotype. But it’s fine. It’s great.” Yes, it's a linguistic element, but it has nothing to do with how real Russians actually speak. Otherwise, his accent was spot-on (not surprisingly), and at one point he lets loose with a perfect "ё-моё" (closer to "Fuck me!" than "Holy moly," pace the linked webpage).

    The accents were well done in general; I was astonished to learn that Simon Pegg, who plays Scottie, is not an actual Scot.

  54. language hat said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    Oh, and as for the "three dialects of Romulan," it is trivially easy to imagine realistic contexts in which that makes sense; for instance, although there are many dialects, there are only three that are useful for offworlders. Jeez, people, this is a Star Trek movie, not The Linguists; I'm pretty damn picky about language stuff, and I thought they handled it quite well (though of course I hope there will be actual offworld languages in the inevitable sequel).

  55. Sault said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    @Ray Grirvan
    If someone called water the inert reactant in a reaction between sodium and water, I would be inclined to look askance at them. The context of many of the google articles is of a reactant which has two forms, an inert and an activated reactive form. For instance in a gas phase reaction, molecules need to collide with high energy, so to be activated the reactants need to be already moving fast.
    Still, the labelling of a pipe as "reactant" is pretty strange. For a start, you'd expect the reaction to have more than one reactant, so that sign doesn't distinguish between them, and secondly, you wouldn't label a bottle full of dangerous chemicals "Dangerous chemicals" – you'd try to specify.

  56. Bill Walderman said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    When I was studying Russian (at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA), all of our teachers were native speakers. One of them, who was from (the) Ukraine, routinely pronounced his v's as w's (forgive the very unprofessional description, but you know what I mean). I once innocently commented on this, not in his presence, to another teacher, and was given to understand that this was not something I ought to be openly mentioning.

  57. HP said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    "How often have linguists been portrayed as hot babes in film?"

    Actually, I'm pretty sure that in both ST:Enterprise and Babylon 5 (or was it Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda? My Sci-Fu is weak) the linguists were portrayed as hot babes (if I'm not mistaken, hot Asian-American babes, but that's an issue for the sociologists).

    An odd thing about the Star Trek universe: At least in the most time-forward of the Star Trek works, there's something called a "Universal Translator," introduced, like the Heisenberg Compensators on the transporter, to explain the apparent skill of alien races to speak English on first contact. Not having seen the latest movie, I don't know if the Universal Translator exists, or if so, how it is worked into the plot. But I always found it interesting that the Universal Translator would preserve dialectical differences between varieties of spoken English, while rendering anyone who would've spoken either a minority language on Earth (such as Chakotay's Navajo) or an alien language (like Farengi) in standard midwestern American.

  58. Karen said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    The wackiest thing about the UT is that it knows when to leave something in the original language – like Klingon Q'apla, which is just "success".

  59. Marcos said,

    May 17, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    @HP: the UT was around in the original series – in fact, Spock created one from spare parts in one episode, "Changeling" I think. I'd be just as happy if they dropped that little bit of magic from the reboot…

  60. Karen said,

    May 17, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    "while rendering anyone who would've spoken either a minority language on Earth (such as Chakotay's Navajo) or an alien language (like Farengi) in standard midwestern American."

    I hadn't thought about this, but perhaps that's why Picard had so much trouble with Bajorans putting their surname first: all the people on Earth who do it were being translated into English order?

  61. vanya said,

    May 17, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    Simon Pegg's wife is from Glasgow, so he probably had some coaching. And aren't British actors generally more sensitive to regional accents than Americans?

  62. Amy Stoller said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @ Marie Lucie "There is a similar example with French speakers using the same sound [i] for English [I] and [i:]: a little bit with a French accent sounds to English hearers like a leetle beet, while eat it sounds like it eat instead."

    Exactly! While pronunciation may be exact, the way it is received or understood often isn't. In this sense, "accent" is as much a function of the way a listener's expectations are met or confounded as it is of the way a speaker speaks. The example I use with my clients is: If a Spanish speaker says, "I sit in the seat," the Anglophone understands "I seat in the sit." In both "sit" and "seat," the speaker has used the same vowel, [i̞] (the vowel of English "seat" but with the tongue lowered) – or perhaps [ɪ̝] (the vowel of English "sit" but with tongue raised).

    Re: Indian pronunciation of [v]: As I understand it, standard Hindi and most other Indian vernaculars do not differentiate between /v/ (voiced labiodental fricative) and /w/ (voiced labiovelar approximant). Instead, most Indians use a frictionless labio-dental approximant [ʋ] for words with either sound, possibly in free variation with [v] and/or [w]. So "wine" and "vine" are often homophones, while their reception is governed by the listener's acuity and expectations. I have had two Indian clients to date, both of whom used this "intermediate" consonant in English, but inconsistently. I have submitted samples, with analysis, of both speakers to the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA), should anyone be interested. http://web.ku.edu/~idea/editor/stollera.htm

  63. marie-lucie said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    Amy, yes, the same thing is at work in the two cases. Perception depends as much on the phonological system of the hearer as that of the speaker, and each carries its own expectations.

  64. Darryl McAdams said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    Wow, such discussion over Chekov's v/w thing!

    Guys, it comes down to this: Chekov was originally played by Walter Koenig, and Koenig was mimicking his Polish grandmother to add what amount of Slavicness he could to the character.

    That's all there is to it.

  65. Alon Lischinsky said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 7:13 am

    @Spell Me Jeff: Spanish-speakers, with some minor sociolectal variations, insert an epenthetic [ɰ] before sentence-initial [w]. It's got nothing to do with spelling, as the same phenomenon occurs in patrimonial Spanish words, such as "huevo" (egg), which is pronounced ['ɰwe.βo] far more often than ['we.βo].

    IANAD, but my own informal impression is that rural dialects of Rio de la Plata Spanish (and possibly others) tend to merge approximant + [w] clusters into [gw]. Fake phonetic spellings often write "agüelo" [a'ɰwe.lo] for standard "abuelo" (grandfather).

    I'd love to hear from a real dialectologist™ on the topic, though.

  66. marie-lucie said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Reinforcement of w into gw had occurred earlier in the adaptation of foreign w-initial words into Spanish and French, as in Sp guarda, Old French guarde (hence English guard) from Germanic *ward- (hence English ward, warden). Similarly, Basque had initial w as in the root *wask of the Latinized Vasconia, which evolved into Old French Guascogne (Modern Gascogne), the name of an area of Southern France which was Basque-speaking in ancient times.

  67. John Cowan said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 2:59 am

    It's perfectly natural that Klingon has no neutral greeting. If a superior wants to speak to an inferior, he just starts to talk about whatever the conversation is going to be about. If an inferior wants to speak to a superior, he just silently makes his interest visible until the superior says — not unnaturally — "What do you want?" In the Empire (as in many stratified human cultures), there are no equals.

    And of course, the Klingon for "Goodbye" is walking away.

  68. Alon Lischinsky said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    That's a fascinating observation, marie-lucie. I hadn't thought about earlier borrowings, but numerous examples come immediately to mind (e.g., "gualda" < Germ. *walda, "guachimán" /g/, as in "guarro". You wouldn't know of anyone who's worked on the subject, would you?

  69. Nathan Myers said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    My favorite example of one sound being used for two foreign consonants, and perceived by native speakers as the opposite, comes from Indonesia, where the band "Fink Ployd" was (and may well still be!) popular.

  70. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    @Nathan: I'm not sure if the consonants are "perceived by native speakers as the opposite" in this case. Indonesian speakers have historically lacked /f/ in their phonemic inventory, treating it as an allophone of /p/. So "Pink Floyd" would be nativized as "Pink Ployd." Nowadays, though, Indonesians increasingly have a phonemic distinction between /f/ and /p/, at least in European and Arabic loanwords. Some speakers end up hypercorrecting — saying "Fink Floyd," for instance. Others know there's an /f/ in there somewhere but end up misplacing it — hence "Fink Ployd."

    Similarly, English "photocopy" was traditionally nativized in Indonesia as [potokopi] but is now increasingly pronounced as [fotokopi] (and spelled that way). But you'll still see signs on some Indonesian photocopy shops with the hypercorrect form "fotokofi," or the even more confused "potokofi."

  71. Nathan Myers said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

    Benjamin: I was last in Indonesia in the early '90s, but the local "p" sound in Ubud, Bali (and some other places, e.g. Yogyakarta) was distinctly softer than ours (er, mine), and was used interchangeably for both "p" and "f". In the latter, it seemed a plosive "f". The band name certainly sounded like "Fink Ployd" to this native listener, as it did to my American and European acquaintances, and the speakers were certainly not confused about what they meant to say. Things might have been different in Jakarta.

  72. Maurice said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Hot-babe linguists? Well, Nicole Kidman took the title role in the film "The Interpreter."

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