After watching the experimental French film Themroc (1973), about a man who rejects society to become a city-dwelling caveman, I was amused to see its Wikipedia page say the language used in the film is “Gibberish” – meaning nonsense language.
It’s true – dialogue in Themroc is minimal, and where communication occurs it takes such forms as babble, grunts, murmurs, and howls. So quite aside from its subversive politics it’s an interesting film from a linguistic point of view. Which got me to wondering: What other films belong in that category?
Pontypool soon came to mind. I liked this Canadian film a lot, but it’s hard to say much about it without giving away key plot points. Even a single word could spoil it. So if you haven’t seen it and aren’t averse to low-key horror, consider this a recommendation. And if you’re into linguistics you might get an additional kick out of how the film treats language.
Language also plays a prominent role in the Academy Award–nominated Greek film Dogtooth, aka Kynodontas. Again I’m loath to detail it because it loses effect if you know what to expect. So I’ll just say it’s a memorable and disturbing family drama, reminiscent of the better Dogme films, that creatively exploits the arbitrariness of the sign.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser by the great Werner Herzog takes as its subject a man isolated from almost all human contact until adulthood. His speech ability therefore is severely impaired, until he becomes a public figure. The more conventional Nell covers its idioglossic ground less successfully but is worth mentioning here for comparison.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange boasts a novel dialect, Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat, while Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has a similar offering, though in this and other ways it borrows heavily and without credit from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a book I’ll write about separately another time. This GIF shows some of Thunderdome’s morphological mutations (you may need to click on it to animate it):
The ’40s screwball comedy Ball of Fire features a team of academics compiling an encyclopedia, one of whom (played by Gary Cooper) is collecting slang terms. Another vintage movie with linguistic content is My Fair Lady, which riffs on phonetics as a marker of social class. The play that inspired it was also notorious for its use of bloody, a far more offensive expletive then than it is today.
And then there are films that rely heavily on wordplay, such as The Princess Bride and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. No doubt you can name others; this post is just an off-the-top-of-my-head set. I’ve ignored conlangs and obscure foreign languages as criteria, but I’d be interested to hear of any noteworthy examples.
I ran a search and found a linguists’ list on Linguist List of linguistically significant films. It includes some I’ve mentioned (calling Thunderdome’s wordcraft a creole), and it also tipped me off about Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China, which sounds interesting – though strictly speaking it’s about a writing system rather than a language. Speaking of documentaries, The Grammar of Happiness is quite good, despite its title.
If you have any more suggestions, or thoughts on the films I’ve mentioned, please add them in a comment, with spoiler warnings if necessary. I’ll update if I think of more.
I received a lot of suggestions on Twitter, some of which I’ve added below. Also, LanguageHat has followed up on this, and the comments on his post supply more suggestions.