Mick Jagger has appeared on Sentence first before, in my post about “bad” grammar in song lyrics. But I was surprised to learn that the Rolling Stones singer and occasional actor is something of an amateur linguist. Here, from Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless, is a note written in Camisea, Peru, in February 1981:
We shot some footage with Mick [Jagger] and the little Indian boy who is called McNamara in the film, and both of them did such a good job that the team broke into applause. During the scene Mick was bitten on the shoulder by one of the monkeys and laughed so uproariously about it afterward that it sounded like a donkey braying. Whenever we take a break he distracts me with clever little lectures on English dialects and the development of the language since the late Middle Ages.
Herzog’s book is a darkly poetic account of the director’s protracted attempts to film Fitzcarraldo, the centrepiece of which involves hauling a ship over a mountain in Peru. At one point Herzog, faced with the “obscene, explicit malice of the jungle”, describes feeling “like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel.” There are no such sentences in the book, which I highly recommend.
And in case you were wondering: Jagger’s role was later cut from the script, through no fault of his own.
Remember Story Bud?, the video of Irish slang and colloquialisms I shared here in February? Director Jenny Keogh has filmed a second clip, How’s About Ye?, in the same style, and it’s great fun altogether.
There are on-screen glosses for the phrases, but because the delivery and editing are rapid-fire – and some of the accents are strong – I’ve added Jenny’s transcript below, with a few tweaks.
In related news, Jenny is working on a feature-length film comprising more of these videos along with expert interviews and other footage. She’s holding “Phrase Donor Clinics” around Ireland to collect phrases from the public to use in the film.
Jenny is crowdfunding this on Fund it, an Irish Kickstarter-type website, so if you’d like to support this very worthy project, you can. There’s two weeks left to contribute; pledges from €15 up earn a reward, and if funding falls short, you won’t be charged. You can find out more at JennyKeogh.com and on the Story Bud? Facebook page.
Reading a review of the 1983 fantasy film Hundra (a feminist knockoff of Conan the Barbarian), I came across a pretty unusual word, albeit one that almost looks perfectly normal. Film historian Paul Mavis, at DVD Talk, says the film’s creators:
set about to make a spoofy fantasy adventure thats focus would be on a gorgeous, blonde, man-hating super-warrior who was subservient to no one.
Few readers would pause over that thats: its meaning is clear in context, and it draws little attention to itself, its ungrammaticality thoroughly overshadowed by the line’s sensational imagery. Who’d be distracted by the subtle asymmetry of English’s relative pronoun system when there are man-hating super-warriors striding about?
Irish Folk Furniture is a stop-motion documentary, 8½ minutes long, that won an award for animation at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Director Tony Donoghue thought it might be too specialist to appeal widely, but it has charmed its way around the festival circuit. I recommend it warmly.
The film celebrates the tradition and use of farmhouse furniture in Ireland, with 16 items restored to a functional state. This is furniture not usually seen as beautiful – or starring in a film – but whose appeal lies in its very ordinariness and utility, and in the history it amasses over generations of use.
It’s a quiet gem in both form and content: as if Jan Švankmajer had rambled down a boreen in Tipperary. Dressers and flour bins wheel around the countryside while their owners chat away. The film is gently funny, beautifully shot, and features some lovely rural Irish accents and syntax, e.g. done as preterite in “we done a good bit on ’em”.
I wanted to link to the original on Donoghue’s YouTube page, but that video has since been set to private, so here it is from another page:
Edit: I’ve removed the video after seeing a comment on YouTube from Tony Donoghue saying his film was only meant to be online for the two weeks of Sundance, and that its continued online presence may undermine its film festival run.
If it reappears legitimately, I’ll reinstate it here.
I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your policework there, Lou.
I’ve always loved the Coen brothers’ films, and Fargo (1996) was the first I saw on the big screen. Since then I’ve returned to it several times, and consider it one of their best. (I’m tempted to write about why, but I should stick to language here.)
Fargo is eminently quotable, and its regional Minnesota accents – the brothers are natives – add greatly to its character and texture. Few viewers can resist trying out an “Oh yah”, “Aw geez” or “You betcha” after seeing it. Here’s a charming scene featuring local actor and theatre director Bain Boehlke (skip to 0:30):
For Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), linguist Marc Okrand was asked to develop the Klingon language. Most of it he made up, but there was some raw material to begin with: Klingon names, improvised speech from an earlier film, and aspects of Klingon culture (they are a warrior race, honourable and direct).
“Human languages are very patterned,” he says. “There’s no 100% rules, but there’s a lot of tendencies, and more-likely-than-nots.” Creating Klingon allowed him to subvert these patterns. So, for example, syntactically Klingon has OVS (object-verb-subject) word order, which is very rare in human languages.
Because Okrand was working with filmmakers to a studio budget and schedule, he couldn’t be too fussy. Sometimes he would make adjustments to the language (phonetic, lexical, or grammatical) simply in order to accommodate an actor’s imprecise delivery of a line.
You can’t help being influenced by what you know, which (for me) was a bit of Spanish, French and American Indian. I also knew Southeast Asian languages. I’d be writing something and suddenly realize that it sounded like Navajo. I’d stop and make sure the next thing sounded as different as it could possibly be.
Okrand wrote a Klingon dictionary (which to date has sold hundreds of thousands of copies), and the language soon took on a life of its own. It remains a niche within other niches — Star Trek, conlanging — but by the standards of invented languages, it is thriving.
The Klingon Language Institute, founded in 1992, publishes a quarterly journal (HolQeD) and a literary supplement, offers resources for people who want to learn Klingon, and has created an extended corpus of Klingon vocabulary. People get married in Klingon ceremonies; one man tried (unsuccessfully) to make it his son’s native tongue.
Few of its many enthusiasts are fluent, but all are surely encouraged by the growing body of Klingon literature, which includes translations of Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, and other great works.* Arika Okrent, a linguist who has studied Klingon, told me a Kama Sutra translation may be on the way.
both flouts and follows known linguistic principles, and its real sophistication lies in the balance between the two tendencies. It gets its alien quality from the aspects that set it apart from natural languages . . . . Yet at the same time it has the feel of a natural language. A linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it with the same tools he would use in describing a remote Amazon language.
In the video below (21 minutes), Marc Okrand explains how he created Klingon. If you’re into Star Trek or constructed languages, you’ve probably seen it already. If, like me, you’re not particularly so, don’t be put off. It’s aimed at a general audience, and anyone curious about how languages work is likely to find it interesting.
* Jeremy Kahn saysGilgamesh seems most suited to Klingon; Hamlet “seems more of a Romulan thing; Tao [Te Ching]: Vulcan.”