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.
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?
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.”
Affixes are normally added to the start or end of a word, where they’re called prefixes and suffixes, respectively. But sometimes they appear in the middle, as infixes. (There are several other categories of affix.)
Infixation in English is often jocular or playful, as in “Homer-ic” edumacation, or Ned-Flandersy scrum-diddly-umptious, where diddly is infixed and um is reduplicated. (If you’re unfamiliar with reduplication, you might want to click that link for a summary: it’s relevant to what follows.)
Another familiar form of infixation is expletive infixation, as in absofuckinglutely, where the infix serves to intensify the expression. Less rude is absobloodylutely, and milder still but retaining the structure is absoposilutely, which borrows posi from positively.
I didn’t expect to see absoposilutely in the subtitles of a Korean horror film, but there it was. It seems unlikely that it was used as a straightforward synonym for absolutely. It made me wonder whether Korean has an analogous system of emphatic infixation, or what kind of morphological construction the translation might have served to suggest.
I know very little about the Korean language, but I found an interesting paper, Hyung-Soo Kim’s “A new look at partial reduplication in Korean” (PDF), that discusses “the problem of having to accept infixation only in partial reduplication in Korean because there is no evidence for infixation elsewhere in Korean morphology.”
So a partial answer to my question is that Korean doesn’t appear to have infixation,* but it does have internal partial reduplication, an instance of which may have been what was translated into absoposilutely in the film subtitles. But that last part’s a guess.
For more on the use and variety of affixes, see my post “Morphogasmic affixation” and the links therein. You might also enjoy John J. McCarthy’s “Prosodic structure and expletive infixation” (PDF), which characterises expletive infixes according to metric phonology – that is, it offers an explanation for why we tend to say absofuckinglutely rather than abfuckingsolutely or absolutefuckingly. If we say it at all.
* Other sources I looked at include Jongho Jun, “Variable affix position in Korean partial reduplication” (PDF); Alan C. L. Yu, “A Natural History of Infixation” (PDF); and a few items on Google Books. [Edit: I removed a quote from Hyung-Soo Kim’s paper because it didn't really serve the purposes of this post.]
The analogy is Emerson’s, from his essay on poets. I was re-reading it around the time the Fortnightly Review asked me to write something about The King’s Speech, and Emerson’s essay has a passage that is remarkably suited to one of the film’s principal themes: the occasional difficulty of fluid expression. This coincidence led me down several trains of thought that emerged as the article from which I now quote:
The familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how astonishing even its basic mechanics are. Breath swells from our lungs, moving up through the trachea to be shaped by vocal cords, tongue, teeth, jaws and lips and emerge from our mouths as a series of sonic pulses that spread as waves into the world around us. Ears are shaped to receive these vibrations, turn them into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain, where these “rivers of electricity” are unpacked at high speed as sounds, words, and (ideally) sense in other people’s minds.
It is an intricate system that blends physics and biology in a kind of spontaneous everyday alchemy. So much can go wrong, the wonder is that it so often doesn’t. But when we falter, and falter repeatedly, our vulnerable sense of ourselves is undermined. Language is an intimate part of our identity, and for most people it begins with speech and stays centred there. Even when we read, we speak to ourselves. To speak publicly, we must play a role: it is a performance; to do it well, we must be comfortable in the role. To speak like a king, Albert had to feel like one – and he didn’t, at least not at first.
The King’s Speech has been showered with awards, including a Best Picture Oscar, and has received much critical and public acclaim. Not unanimously, of course: its politics and historical authenticity have been soundly challenged. But it’s an enjoyable, effective, and interesting film.
My short essay is called “Radio signals and royal symbols: Language and The King’s Speech”. It’s not a review: more a series of notes on speech, sound, symbols, and the cultural significance of radio at the time George VI’s voice was required to make a declaration of war.
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A note on the Fortnightly Review: first published in 1865, its founder, Anthony Trollope, wanted it to be “impartial and absolutely honest, thoroughly eclectic, opening its columns to all opinions, without any pretensions to editorial consistency or harmony”. It was an editorial experiment; so too is the new series, which is edited by Anthony O’Hear and Denis Boyles.