Films of linguistic interest

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’ll get a 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):

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome - language inspired by Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker

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.


52 Responses to Films of linguistic interest

  1. Carol Saller says:

    I just saw Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), in which I had to laugh at a young woman saying she speaks Latvian “just enough to get about”: I have no idea whether the actors are actually speaking Latvian, but it sounds convincing!

    • Roger says:

      Two Hollywood westerns, The Searchers, 1956, colour, and Trooper Hook, 1957, black and white, deal with white women taken captive by Native Americans; by Comanches in the first,
      Apaches in the second.
      The Searchers is based on the captivity story of the (historical) Cynthia Anne Parker, though the film’s setting as to time period is off by about 30 years. The real Cynthia Anne spent most of a lifetime with the Comanches. She came back barely able to speak English, and her return to white settler society reads like sheer misery.
      Natalie Wood is the filmic equivalent of Cynthia Anne in The Searchers. She transitions back to her own (white) people with nothing more than an initial raising of her fists against John Wayne, he as the prime searcher in the film.
      Trooper Hook’s Barbara Stanwyck, by contrast, returns from captivity among the Apaches speaking with the same familiar drawl as in all her films.
      Cynthia Anne also spoke, i.e., had learned, (some) Spanish, which was a second language among tribes of the southern plains (and indicative of the history of European contact;
      i.e., of the Spanish West before the arrival of settlers from the eastern U.S.).
      There’s a very good account of the Cynthia Anne story and other captivities in “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker
      and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful tribe in American history”; auth S.C. Gwynne, 2010; print and also CD audio.
      There’s also a full treatment of the captivity story and the film in another text: The Searchers: the making of an American legend; auth Glenn Frankel, 2013.

  2. Roger says:

    I’ve seen a few of the films on the other list. It includes Nineteen Eighty Four — but which version? The old black and white with
    Edmund O’Brien and Michael Redgrave does very little with the
    topic that preoccupied the book’s author.
    Language is usually too metacognitive to be a suitable topic for films.
    Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are certainly exceptions, but they have other positives going for them. MFL is a filmic sensation.
    The same applies to biopics about writers and writing: Films are not books, and most writers are not athletic types like Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Sebastien Foucan, Esther Williams, or the many stunt-men who make film action possible. By contrast, Rod Taylor as Sean O’Casey is a good example of the non-filmic nature of writing. Writing is pens, pencils and paper, typewriters, keyboards. While they are writing, writers don’t move much, they mostly sit; unlike artists they don’t even walk around with sketch pads. Or if they go in search of dangerous experience, fine, but James Bond already does all that.
    “Salinger”, which I haven’t seen, is just out, but I read that it presents its writerly subject mainly through still photographs (!)
    There’s a “Passages from Finnegans Wake” (1966) from the language-obsessed book. I haven’t seen that either, and Amazon doesn’t show it. But how could any film ever deliver FW, especially in only 92 minutes, unless it were very many hours long and the whole book were presented as a reading via the screen, backed up with some attempt at visuals.
    And take Kerouac’s On the Road, 1957 — a marvel of language,
    but it was 50+ years before anyone got around to making a film from the book, and one wonders why they bothered. If only it had been filmed back when it was a best-seller, it might have captured
    something of the spirit of those times and by now be an interesting museum piece.
    And John dos Passos’s USA trilogy — JdP eclipsed Hemingway, briefly (very briefly) in the 1930s: he was on the August 10 1936 cover of Time magazine. The trilogy is an epic, as long or longer than War and Peace, but it has never been filmed (nor have any of JdP’s books). It’s not hard to guess why.
    But language through radio, now that’s different.

  3. Stan says:

    Carol: It’s a good line! I don’t know if it’s authentic Latvian either, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Roger: Passages from Finnegans Wake is by Mary Ellen Bute and is available at UbuWeb; it’s a laudable and suitably disorienting effort at interpreting some of the book for film. Funny you should mention language through radio: the audio track of Pontypool was edited to make an effective radio play for the BBC World Service, but it doesn’t appear to be online anymore, or I might have linked to it. Films about writers and writing might be worth a post of their own – thanks for the idea.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Drifting back into the mists of time… well, 1981 to be precise, with the release of the film “Quest for Fire”, many skeptics were concerned about how the filmmakers would handle the communications/ language elements, since the simple narrative takes place in Paleolithic Europe, tens-of-thousands of years ago, when Cro-Magnon man was essentially on the ascent and the earlier Neanderthals were fast fading as a viable human evolutionary subset.

    Clearly, the filmmakers had no clue as to how these early humans communicated amongst themselves, or between individual tribes. But I’m sure they didn’t want their dialogue track to be a mere litany of grunts, snorts, and growls.

    In doing a quick Wiki-search I discovered that the Neanderthal ‘speech’ in the film was invented by author Anthony Burgess, whilst the Cro-Magnon ‘language’ was based on actual “Cree/ Inuit” dialect.

    It was reported in the press that several First Nation Canadian Cree and Inuits who viewed the film shortly after its wide theatrical release were amused by the fact that most of their ‘native’ words used in the movie didn’t correspond w/ what was transpiring in the plot line, on-screen. But I suspect it was convincing enough for most non-Native American movie-goers?

    Interestingly, Desmond Morris, renowned back-in-the-day for his then ground-breaking book, “The Naked Ape”, gave the actors directional advice on gesture and appropriate body language for the film. (But dragging women by the hair was clearly verboten.)

    • Roger says:

      Re: we can’t possibly know how Neanderthals communicated — but two anthro types took a shot at imagining it in “How to think like a Neandertal”, authors Thomas Wynne and Frederick Coolidge, 2012, OUP. They do a good inferential analysis.

  5. dw says:

    “The Passion of The Christ” is supposedly in first-century Aramaic. No idea how accurate it is.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @dw: According to ‘Wiki’ sources the original script for Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’* was penned in English, then translated for the screen dialogue into (Italianate) Latin, “reconstructed Aramaic”, and Hebrew, by Jesuit scholar, Prof. William Fulco, from Loyola Marymount University here in SoCal.

      The Roman personages in the piece apparently spoke an “ecclesiastical” Latin, as opposed to a “classical”, or academic form.

      So, I would imagine the Aramaic dialogue was fairly spot-on, but subject to the actor’s facility in grasping the proper pronunciation, and signature inflections.

      Of course, English subtitles were required.

      *Did not see the film in its entirety, although I viewed several snippets of the more violent, and bloody passages from the movie as the overblown media frenzy over Gibson’s opus raged on for several weeks following its wide release.

      Interestingly, Gibson’s later 2006 released “Apocalypto”, his Pre-Columbian-based blood-and-gore followup to his ‘Passion’, even though hard to watch, at times, w/ its brutal ritual displays of blood-letting and human sacrifice (heads will roll!), for me, seemed to exhibit a certain authenticity, reflecting those actual historical times. In other words, the violence and gore didn’t seem gratuitous. The story line was also convincing. Credit, as well, to Gibson for insisting on using the native Yucatec Maya dialect throughout. (Commenter Tony McGuInness alluded to this point in an earlier post…. credit where credit is due, eh?)

      • Roger says:

        The Eagle, film, 2011, is set in far northern Scotland in AD 140.
        It’s the lost Roman Legion vs. the Seal People, who would have been Picts. But these Picts speak Gaelic, which arrived in Scotland only three centuries later than the film’s setting, and mainly in the west, not in the far north or north-east.
        But we’re not supposed to know the difference, since whatever the Pictish language was, it became extinct over a thousand years ago and left little trace beyond fragmentary epigraphic inscriptions. Pictish might have been a form of British Celtic, or a different form of continental Celtic, or it might have been pre-Celtic, meaning not Celtic at all, let alone Gaelic. Druids in 2013 probably settle for Brittonic, or Brythonic, if they like the spelling
        better that way.

  6. John Cowan says:

    Tom Stoppard’s plays Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth, especially the former, are written in a version of English in which the words are all normal but have completely different meanings. They are usually performed together, and one such performance has been filmed.

  7. Stan says:

    Alex: I never saw Quest for Fire, but I may be tempted now if only to see what Anthony Burgess did for it. Desmond Morris wrote a good book on gestures in different European countries, which I liked more than his popular anthropology works, by and large.

    dw: Some of it is, supposedly. I still haven’t watched it. LanguageHat has a short discussion on this, though the link to an interview with the translator doesn’t seem to work.

    John: Thanks for those suggestions. I haven’t seen or read either Stoppard.

  8. I remember liking the film The Cuckoo. Set in Lapland durring WW2, the gimmick is that there are only three characters, and each speaks a different language (Finnish, Russian, and Saami.)

  9. sue walder says:

    The Lord of The Rings trilogy is an obvious choice. I’d also recommend Joss Whedon’s film Serenity – a space-western that picks up from the TV series Firefly (which I sadly never saw). Really playful language – strange yet familiar, eg: She is starting to damage my calm!. I also loved the dialogue in the Coen brothers’ recent version of True Grit: And ‘futile’, Marshal Cogburn, ‘pursuit would be futile’? It’s not spelled “f-u-d-e-l.”

  10. Nell first came to mind, I see that’s on the list. Not much fun to watch though. Yep, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (w/ wonderful Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel), for language lunacy. I thought perhaps Fisher King, I guess because of how Robin Williams’ and Amanda Plummer’s characters’ use of language varies as their emotional/psychological states vary, but not sure if that’s as topical. Also perhaps ‘Angels in America’, both for Meryl Streep’s amazing multiple characters’ voices and the scene in the Hospital when Ben Shenkman’s character remembers a long-forgotten prayer in Hebrew due to the ghost’s recitation of it. Good Will Hunting for dialect. Another favorite film that might fit in here is Passion Fish, as Mary McDonnell’s character acclimates to being back home in Louisiana she adds in more regional dialect (and refers to the work it took to lose her native voice when younger). Word use: Guess Who – when Ashton Kutcher lets slip the horrifying ‘You People’ the whole scene shifts. Those are the first set that came to mind!

  11. julia suits says:

    For obsolete 30s and 40s slang, I don’t think you can’t beat Sturges’ “The Great McGinty.” Delicious phrasing, jam-packed and rapid-fired.

    • Roger says:

      Many of those early talkies (the word itself is “retro”) especially of the later 1930s into the 1940s, have some very witty dialogue.
      Sometimes it’s because the talk is lifted out of a witty book,
      but also because the script writers then just were very good
      — or very golden age and typical of their times. Their names may have appeared in the “credits”, but outside of that they were usually unknowns — Unless they were Faulkner or Graham Greene, already established and writing for the screen.
      Otherwise they were film workhorses who might have become best-selling novelists or playwrights if film hadn’t siphoned them off.

  12. julia suits says:

    For obsolete 30s and 40s slang, I don’t think you can beat Sturges’ “The Great McGinty.” Delicious phrasing, jam-packed and rapid-fired.

  13. Edward Banatt says:

    “Incubus” starring William Shatner, and “Angoro” were both performed entirely in Esperanto. (Incubus is available on youtube).

  14. Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” It’s set in a fictional European country, and they speak a believable euro-blend of a bunch of languages. Also, (spoiler alert) messages coded in music!

    • Roger says:

      I don’t remember where I heard or read it, but it seems Aboriginal actors performing in westerns as Red Indians would make wisecracks in their own languages about the filming process itself, and the non-Aboriginal film crew would assume they were just “talking gibberish”. But there’s probably a whole lot of clowning in “known” languages that goes on during film-making that the camera sometimes catches but most of the time doesn’t.

      • Roger says:

        The U.S. military in WWII found another use for little-known Aboriginal languages and their speakers, as code-talkers, the story of which has since been filmed.

  15. I found Trainspotting helpful when I was researching Scottish influences in the Pittsburgh dialect in college.

  16. Oh, and Ken Loach’s Kes. Although classified an “english language” film, I found the Yorkshire dialect just out of the range of mutual intelligibility. (This from someone who had little problem with Trainspotting.)

    Ooh, it’s on Youtube.

  17. Apocalypto – Mel Gibson’s very enjoyable foray into Yucatec Maya.

  18. James Callan says:

    Not as highbrow as Quest for Fire, but the 1981 comedy Caveman was entirely in “caveman dialogue,” and was released with a glossary:

    Star Trek III is the one where Mark Okrand started creating Klingon as an actual language. Same for Avatar, which included the constructed Na’vi language.

    And then there are films like Clueless, Brick, Heathers, and Mean Girls that codify and invent slang. (The Buffy TV series is probably champion of this, but the movie, alas, didn’t have the same gift.)

    • Roger says:

      I read that Clueless was a version of a Jane Austen story.
      I’ve never seen it, but if it used slang that way, good contrary.

  19. The Great Escape – Richard Attenborough is tricked into slipping out of German on the train platform.

    Inglourious Basterds – MichaelFassbender is caught out by using an incorrect hand sign for three beers.

    There’s another spy movie where a character crosses the numeral 7 and is rumbled – though that one is a very dim memory for me.

  20. How about a film that covers lexicography *and* linguistics? Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire” (1941), with Barbara Stanwyck as a slang-slinging nightclub chanteuse–hunky-dory! skidoo! yum-yum!–is great fun.

  21. There is also supposed to be an episode of Tarzan where the ‘natives’ are speaking Irish.

  22. patricia says:

    I’ve read that Austrian actor Paul Hoerbiger did not speak a word of English and memorized his lines phonetically for The Third Man.

    • Roger says:

      Peter Falk had to deliver a phonetically-Yugoslavian apology on behalf of a tv network there when it could not broadcast the weekly Columbo episode.
      Laurel and Hardy did a phonetic German for one of their films.

  23. Ben Zimmer says:

    James Callan suggests “Clueless” and other films that “codify and invent slang.” Ten years ago, I came up with my nominees for the ten most linguistically influential American movies since 1980:

    * Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
    * Valley Girl (1983)
    * Heathers (1989)
    * Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
    * Do the Right Thing (1989)
    * Boyz N the Hood (1991)
    * Wayne’s World (1992)
    * Clueless (1995)
    * Swingers (1996)
    * Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)

    (“Mean Girls” came out a year after I made the list — it certainly deserves a place on it.)

  24. Ben Zimmer says:

    (Sorry, “Buffy” the movie came out in 1992. The far more influential TV series premiered in 1997.)

  25. Stan says:

    Abbie: I hadn’t heard of The Cuckoo but I like the sound of it. Will keep an eye out. Kes I liked a lot (and also the book it was based on, A Kestrel for a Knave).

    Sue: Firefly is a good suggestion, though I wasn’t overly taken with it. I’m glad you mentioned the Coens: their films always have fun with language, as for example with the Minnesota dialects in Fargo. Lord of the Rings (the book) was inspired principally by linguistic creativity: Tolkien said it was “an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real”.

    Claire: Though I loved the Hitchhiker’s Guide book series, I didn’t bother with the recent film. Maybe I should. Thanks for your other interesting suggestions too; some I don’t know and others will be worth a rewatch.

    Julia: That sounds like a treat. I love Sturges but haven’t seen The Great McGinty.

    Edward: Thanks – I’m definitely adding those to the list.

    Arika: Nice suggestion! It’s years since I watched The Lady Vanishes but I’m pretty sure I’ve a DVD here somewhere.

    Emily: According to IMDb’s trivia page for Trainspotting,

    Various options were considered to make the film more intelligible for American audiences. Subtitles were ruled out as they would spoil the effect of using them in the disco scene. Instead, the actors re-recorded the first 20 minutes of dialog, softening their accents to atune American ears to the Scottish dialect.

    I remember an analogous phase of adjustment being necessary when I read the book (it was my first experience of Irvine Welsh).

    Tony: All good ideas, thanks – and a mystery for good measure! I’ll let you know if I find out about the spy who crossed his 7s. A Tarzan episode in Irish sounds fantastic.

    James: Caveman looks pretty bad but I might not be able to resist. I like your category of films that “codify and invent slang”, and agree that Buffy on TV reigns supreme here. Oddly enough I never watched it all (I’m about 5 seasons in), so I’ll have to do that before I take Michael Adams’s book Slayer Slang off the shelf.

    Nancy: Ball of Fire is very enjoyable. I included it in the post, though I didn’t mention Stanwyck’s memorable character.

    Patricia: That’s made me want to watch The Third Man again. Any excuse.

    Ben: Great list, and a very interesting discussion. It’s no accident, I suppose, that most or all of the films focus on teenagers or twenty-somethings.

    D-AW: “Stop trying to make X happen” persists as a catchphrase. A recent example: the NYRB Classics Twitter account asked if people were familiar with the phrase fetched up, as in “The car fetched up at the house”, to which someone replied, “Stop trying to make fetched up happen.”

  26. […] e.g. Sharktopus, Dinocroc, first suggested here; and cinelect, the idiosyncratic language used in a film (from a chat with James Callan and Ben Zimmer after my post on films of linguistic interest). […]

  27. CrypticCL says:

    The language of the minions in Despicable Me is ripe for further development.

  28. […] the language again, not in the flesh but in the form of a film – I wrote a post about films of linguistic interest and the comments soon filled up with tips; Edward Banatt suggested […]

  29. hamageddon says:

    OVX has some interesting takes on language esp in the 2nd and third act

  30. hamageddon says:

    cityspeak in Blade Runner

    Star Trek DS9

  31. Stan says:

    hamageddon: Great examples, thank you.

  32. […] no shortage of films of linguistic interest, but it’s not often I see a purely linguistic feature on a DVD. In fact, it’s the only one […]

  33. […] For other films of linguistic interest, see my 2013 post, um, ‘Films of linguistic interest’. […]

  34. […] Symbolic Species. It pops up in satirical form in genre culture like Pontypool, a Canadian horror film of linguistic interest, […]

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