No dawn for ape-language theory

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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.

What we see is a confused melange of half-hearted hand-sign language and occasional hoarsely croaked spoken sentences. Some of the time we were looking at subtitled sign-language conversations, though it is utterly unclear where the apes got the hang of sign language, since originally only one orangutan had been raised on sign; but at various dramatic points, when some ape was angry or wanted to say something to a human, vocalizations would mysteriously emerge. It was as if the film-makers thought that at moments of drama we wouldn't want to be bothered with subtitles.

Within the vocalized sentences, all sorts of things were inconsistent: sometimes little words like is or the were omitted, giving the apes a kind of Tarzan-speak, but sometimes they were included, and occasionally an ape (not only Caesar) would apparently understand a sentence of considerable complexity and subtlety.

My theory of the theory that the scriptwriters had concerning the apes' command of language is that they had no theory. They vacillated between sign and English and Tarzanian at random.

I cannot judge the authenticity of the sign language shown, but to me it looked suspiciously terse to correspond to the elaborate propositions in the subtitles. And the spoken language vacillated between crude pidgin and occasional sophisticated grasp of English. Language was never a priority for the scriptwriters (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver).

The screen credits go on for about a quarter of an hour; whole cities of people were employed doing the mocap and the explosions and the stunts and the digital special effects; but I don't believe I saw a line in there for a linguistics adviser.

Because as we have so often noted, when it comes to language, people just make stuff up.

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