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 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?

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Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

June 16, 2011

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce

Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that ‘Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.’

He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.

Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake.

To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:

In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!

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Babbling twins

April 8, 2011

Some of you will have seen these videos already: Sam and Ren, fraternal twins, engaged in a conversation of very animated babbling. Regardless of your tolerance for cute-baby videos, the chat is great fun and quite fascinating to watch – especially the second video, which has been watched many millions of times in just a few weeks:



The boys’ mother is a twin herself, and she shares her family’s adventures here. (After the footage went viral, it wasn’t long before parodies popped up, but I’ve yet to see one worth linking to.) Some of the media coverage suggests the possibility that the twins have a “secret language”, but this is improbable. As Mark Liberman writes in a comment at Language Log,

It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording actually contains any communicated lexical material (as opposed to acting out conversational interaction without any propositional content). The “private languages” of siblings are not like this, for an obvious reason: it’s hard to develop an effective human spoken language with only one syllable. . . . It’s possible that variations in timing and pitch are carrying some quasi-lexical information here . . . but I rather doubt it.

Sam and Ren’s discussion might be minimal in its selection of syllables, but the twins show great range of tone, timing, and gesture. They deploy all sorts of conversational skills, and the fact that they are twins means each has a peer at a similar level of development with whom he can practise.

Many of their vocalisations take the form of reduplicated or reduplicative babbling (e.g., da-da-da), but there’s far more communication taking place than just repetition of simple utterances. Hope Dickinson, of the Speech-Language Pathology Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says the twins are

demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation. . . . One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. . . . There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.

Already, these twins have a greater command of turn-taking than some adults I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their infectious enthusiasm for, and delight in, simple conversation. Or not so simple. As the great computer intelligence Golem remarked, in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, “Babble can be highly complex!”


The blog As a Linguist has two excellent posts on the subject: “This just in…babies make noises!” and “I guess you had to be there“. Here’s an excerpt from the former:

We can’t say if the twins at that stage of development really can understand that the behavior they are practicing is language which communicates a very specific meaning. It may very well be that they are simply mimicking the entire behavior – intonation pattern, gestures, and turn-taking – and gaining an understanding that these actions and sounds produce certain results or behaviors when these large, lumbering adult creatures in the house perform them, and maybe they should learn to do the same.