Films of linguistic interest

September 23, 2013

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 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?

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The slangy business of bird-dogging

August 22, 2013

Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a notorious film that effectively brought down the United Artists (UA) studio.

Steven Bach - Final Cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - book coverRecalling an argument he had with fellow producer David Field about work politics, Bach uses the term bird-dog in a way that appears to be slang and primarily American.

I’d come across bird-dog before, probably in a novel, in the sense steal (or try to steal) another person’s date, but here I learned of its analogous use in business – steal (or try to steal) another person’s project:

“How about the time I called Freddy Raphael—“

“In France,” he interrupted quietly.

“He lives in France. Where else was I supposed to call him?”

“You called him about my project.”

“I called him about UA’s project, to say I was glad we had made the deal, welcome aboard, be brilliant. I’ve known Freddy for years, and I was glad he was working for us, and I wanted to say so.”

“You were bird-dogging my project,” he said quietly. “I brought that project into the company, and I didn’t think you should have called him without my permission. The minute you got off the phone with Freddy, he called me in California because he thought you were bird-dogging, too.”

“And Alan Pakula is sitting upstairs with a pack of lousy preview cards thinking that we’re bird-dogging Mike Medavoy’s project. Is everybody nuts around here or what?” I downed the rest of my brandy and signalled for a refill. David bit his tongue and glared behind me at the wall.

Dictionaries that include bird-dog, such as the OED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, indicate other senses dating from the 1930s or 40s that come from the actions of the eponymous hunting animal: the verb has both transitive and intransitive senses having to do with following or closely watching a subject of interest, or scouting (e.g., for talent).

Another sense is that of dogged pursuit, as in bird-dogging someone for information or answers. There’s also the aforementioned sense: of stealing (or trying to steal) someone else’s date. This, I would guess, led to the business-related meaning we see in Bach’s book. Despite my unfamiliarity with the usage, I was able to infer its meaning from the context.

Just as well: aside from its standard meanings, bird dog has an array of (contradictory) slang ones. Jonathon Green includes seven noun and eight verb senses in Chambers Slang Dictionary, including (n.) receiver of stolen goods; one who lures victims into positions of vulnerability; an assistant, esp. in police or journalism; and (v.) to eavesdrop; to pimp for, to solicit for another person; to watch over, to protect.


Mick Jagger, amateur linguist

May 16, 2013

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.

Werner Herzog - Conquest of the Useless - Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo - book coverHerzog’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.


Fargo accent and dialect notes

November 12, 2012

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):

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Slang ‘helmer’ and the fun of new words

March 6, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, The fun of new words considers the pleasure we get from playing with words, letters and language, with special focus on neologisms:

Wordplay, in a word, is fun. It can break ice and break conventions, exercise the mind and stretch the imagination. Language, like physical play, is a medium through which we can indulge our creative instincts. Some people channel this into inventing entire languages; more commonly it manifests in our love of coining and using new words. . . .

Portmanteaus are an especially popular type of new word. Here, much of the groundwork has already been laid in the form of two or more existing words. There is a surreal kind of entertainment in seeing words joined improbably together, and when newspaper headlines join in the game, these blends spread all the faster. [more]

Next, Helmer at the helm sketches the development of helm from its origin as a nautical term to later senses that have nothing directly to do with steering a ship:

Inevitably, the word has developed metaphorical uses. At the helm means in charge, and you can be at the helm of a government, business, sports team, film production, and so on. Words such as steer, saddle, and pilot have broadened similarly, from navigation and transport to more figurative senses: a steering group could be in the saddle guiding the direction of a pilot project. . . .

I’m especially taken by a Hollywood slang usage:

Helmer in particular interests me. Most commonly it appears as a surname, but in US English it has become a synonym for film (or TV) director. I see this usage especially in film reviews and reporting, for example in the Hollywood Reporter (“the helmer’s 1978 horror classic”) and Variety (“the helmer switches to color”).

Helmer appears in Variety‘s slanguage dictionary, which contains what Julian Gough, in a comment, describes as “an internally consistent version of English that reads like the snappy, jazzy dialogue in a Howard Hawks script”.

You can read the rest here, or browse my archive of Macmillan articles.


How the Klingon language was invented

November 22, 2011

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.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal if he drew from real languages, he replied:

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.

In Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, she describes Klingon as “the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one”; in this respect it is similar to Na’vi and Tolkien’s languages. She writes that Klingon

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 says Gilgamesh seems most suited to Klingon; Hamlet “seems more of a Romulan thing; Tao [Te Ching]: Vulcan.”


Old books in an old wheelbarrow

March 16, 2009

Stan Carey - books in a wheelbarrow

These are props that my friends used in a short film they shot over the weekend. They took the wheelbarrow to a bookshop, filled it with books, and took it for a walk. I can’t tell you where, why, or what happens to the books, because it would spoil the surprise when you watch the film on its international premiere.

Stan Carey - light reflector

Here is a pair of crew members standing over a light reflector. If we had been making a cheap fantasy film it could have served as a Golden Mirror of Mystery. You may be relieved to learn that we weren’t and it didn’t.

Stan Carey - shed interior

INT. SHED – EVENING

My involvement in the film was peripheral, mostly as book lender and set photographer. Depending on what happens in post-production editing, I may have an inadvertent cameo as “tourist who quickly gets out of the way of the wheelbarrow”.

There might also be a cameo by this cat:

Stan Carey - funny cat

The cat made a series of funny faces as it scratched itself against the stub of a shrub. I suggested a career in silent films, and it purred in apparent approval.


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