Cabal Television

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(Tip of the hat to Rubrick for the title.)

OK, I'm in room Key 5 (I guess that's Francis Scott Key) at the Baltimore Hilton, where the LSA symposium "Medialingual: Representing Language in Film and Television", organized by Walt Wolfram, is just getting started.

Here's Walt's Intro, from the meeting handbook:

This symposium considers the role of the media in the public presentation of language issues. As a field, linguistics lags behind other social and natural sciences in the presentation of a public image through the media. Although there are a number of linguistic issues that might be chosen for public media presentation, this symposium focuses on issues of language and society, in particular, on language change, language variation, language endangerment, and language preservation and documentation. How do we present our research for formal and informal public education? How do we balance our technical expertise with an authentic portrayal of the language communities which we have engaged in our research? And how do we present important issues about the social life of language in a way that is appealing to the public interest, factually faithful, and authentically representative? Each of the participants in this symposium has been actively engaged in media productions that have led to local, regional, and national media portrayals receiving considerable attention and positive reception by the general public and/or particular language communities. Media venues presented and discussed range from documentaries produced for film festivals, museum exhibitions, and public television, to curriculum materials used in revitalization, preservation, and formal educational programs. Formats range from real-life filming to simulated models and animation. The unique presentation format of the symposium allows each participant to present a body of illustrative vignettes from their productions as well as to discuss their rationale for the presentation format and production process.

The first segment features David Harrison, who is showing a trailer for The Linguists, and a passage from the film, and will then talk about some related things.  I might have to leave about 5:00, unfortunately, so David's discussion might be the last part of this session that I get to see.

David showed the segments from the film that take place in Siberia and in Arizona.

He's talking about how he started the project five years before the result was released.  For him, the PR aspect of the movie was partly a recruiting tool for undergraduate courses… He cites a bunch of firsts (the first NSF-funded film premiered at Sundance, for example).

The seven most popular questions he's been asked at screenings:

What's the difference between a language and a dialect?

Do different languages imply different world views?

Is it really worthwhile to save an endangered language?

Is it possible to bring an endangered language back?

Are there many people doing this kind of work? How do I get trained to do it?

What's happened to the various characters?

He discusses the motivations and the reactions of the speakers featured in the film.

A criticism: The movie is too fast-paced, it telescopes large-scale and long-term projects and makes them seem like a quick drop-in interaction. David: this is valid, but …

Another: the film recapitulates "discourses of colonialism" by showing two white male linguists in control of interactions with indigenous people.  David: "I look forward to similar efforts from native speakers of endangered languages" — he points to a recent work called When it's gone, it's gone.

(Note that you can buy a copy of the movie on DVD for $30.)

The second speaker is Ashley Stinnett from Arizona, who is showing some clips from a film in progress called Voyagers on the Ring of Fire, about the colonization of the Pacific. One of the clips shows a sort of video-documented Swadesh word list from speakers in different parts of the islands of Sumba, Flores, and Nias. She shows two different versions of this clip, the second one with much more background video, more explanatory voice-overs, etc., including discussion of combining linguistic and genetic data. The second clip also has more ethnographic and historical material, and some segments showing how the team introduced themselves to the people in a new area.

Based on these short samples, this is going to be a terrific movie. Unfortunately, at this point I need to leave for a scheduled meeting!


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    I'm struggling to think of any (documentary) presentations of language endangerment/preservation on recent British TV. It comes up on the news very occasionally, but that's about it. Maybe I just missed it, but it's the sort of thing that would definitely catch my eye. I remember thinking that Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages would make a great TV doco. I did Brian Friel's Translations for A-level, if that counts.

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    January 7, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    The last two presentations were also very good. Tamrika Khvtisiashvili showed her work with claymation, animating traditional Gosiute Shoshone stories using audio partly from archived fieldwork from decades ago, and partly using more recently elicited clips, overall from a variety of dialects and age groups. Walt Wolfram finished up (before Sue Penfield's final discussion) with a sampling of videos he's worked on at NC State, including the Outer Banks dialect of English.

  3. The effin' bear said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    Hey, was there any meaning to the Key 5 ~ Francis Scott Key comment, and if so can you please explain?

  4. Dan T. said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    Apparently, some of that hotel's meeting rooms are named after Francis Scott Key, with a number appended. While hotel rooms generally have locks which require keys to get through, that's probably not what inspires the naming of that particular room. Usually the convention areas of hotels have groups of rooms with some (often relevant to local history or culture) name and various numbers or letters after it; sometimes the whole group of rooms under a given name is divided only by removable partitions so that they can be removed to use it as a grand ballroom for large events.

  5. Scott said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    I had not heard of "The Linguists". In fact, I had never really thought too much about the presentation of linguists in mass media. I definitely want to check it out. Thank you for this.

  6. The effin' bear said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    Dan, thanks for filling me in. I figured that that was the case, but thought I might go ahead and ask. (What's the harm of a query under an anonymous moniker?) And thank you Mark for an insightful entry. That is somewhat disappointing to hear about the film, and perhaps they should have spent some time filming a non-white linguist also involved in the documentation of endangered/underdescribed languages, in order to offset the film's pretense of being about a couple of nerdy imperialists going around with laptops, asking indigenous folk to say their vowels.

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