The secret of Shu-Shan

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Long-time readers will know that I sometimes attend films that I deem to be of linguistic interest and report on them for Language Log (here and here, for example). I attended another screening today: I went to see Johnny English Reborn.

Was there serious linguistic content to report on, you instinctively ask? Of course there was, of course there was. You surely cannot seriously think that I would attend a lowbrow Bond-spoofing comedy starring Rowan Atkinson and pretend there was linguistic interest just so that I could charge the price of my ticket on Language Log's corporate American Express card! Ha! No, no, no.

A small but crucial plot point turns on secret agent Johnny English (Atkinson) using his expert knowledge of the Orient (he has spent five years in exile learning martial arts and mental discipline in China and Tibet) to interpret the name SUSAN as a Mandarin Chinese name pronounced roughly shu-shan. And it is not revealing too much to tell you that the sound employed by the perfectionist Rowan Atkinson as his pronunciation of those initial fricatives is the retroflex fricative [ʂ] (with tongue tip slightly curled back), slightly labialized (i.e., with a little lip rounding), which lends it a nicely pedantic Mandarin-ish flavor.

In addition, you can witness Johnny English saying to his puzzled adversary during some hand-to-hand combat, in apparently fluent Mandarin (with English subtitles), "You have met your matchstick." (We will be trying to check on the actual Mandarin text with our specialist Victor Mair, though this will be difficult: he is a serious Sinological scholar, and getting him into a cinema to see a 101-minute Bond spoof is going to need either subterfuge or threats.)

Yes, I can report that there is much in this excellent film for the linguist to relish. It's not just a load of absurd sight gags and butt jokes and Bond-style super-weapons and vehicle chases and smashing old ladies over the head with metal trays under the mistaken impression that they are disguised assassins. Not at all. I go to movies on your behalf with the serious motive of gathering linguistic material, and I'm not interested in simply misusing Language Log's expense account so I can pee myself laughing on a Sunday night. Though in this particular case I have to admit that there probably wasn't a dry seat in the house.

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