LINGUIST List 16.1639

Mon May 23 2005

Sum: Linguistically Significant Films

Editor for this issue: Megan Zdrojkowski <>


        1.    Michael Barrie, Linguistically Significant Films

Message 1: Linguistically Significant Films
Date: 17-May-2005
From: Michael Barrie <>
Subject: Linguistically Significant Films

I have received such a large number of replies to my query on
linguistically significant films that I have categorized them as shown
below. Thank-you to all who replied. I have also incorporated the results
of the earlier list
( ) so as to create
one large master list. If a film fits into more than one category, it is
listed in all relevant categories. Many films were mentioned merely because
of the language the film is in. For example, Atanarjuat was offered because
the enitre film is in Inuktitut. Clearly, I cannot list every film that
happens to be in some language or other, but films in Inuktitut are few and
far between, so I created a category ''Films in uncommonly screened
languages''. Some people gave lots of information about the film in
question...others a very brief mention. The information compiled below
reflects this. If anyone wants more information on a particular film, I
suggest going to to find out more. Finally, I have
decided to edit out extremely little. Thus a film's inclusion on this list
may seem dubious to some; however, I leave that for the reader to decide.

0. Other sources

Sum: Films and Documentaries on Endangered Languages

Website for a course on Language and Popular Culture (contains link to film

1. Fiction

1.1 Interesting characters/careers related to linguistics

Chan is Missing (directed by Wayne Wang), 1982 has a sociolinguist
character based loosely on Deborah Tannen.

There's a ''star Trek TNG episode with a deaf character who uses telepathy
with 3 different people who ''interpret'' for him. When they all die, Data
learns ASL in record time.

C.J.Cherryh's ''Foreigner'' series, the fate of two species depends on a
translator/diplomat. Bilingualism and a solid grasp of grammar play an
important role in this series.

Nell 1994 Michael Apted. A young girl has grown up in isolation with her
mother, who is speechless as the result of a stroke. After the death of the
mother, she is forced to encounter the outside world, where a cold-hearted
psyhologist is more interested in studying the language-deprived Nell than
in helping her. Starring Jodie Foster.

Clear & Present Danger (1994) - forensic linguistics

The Fugitive (1993) - forensic linguistics & speech recognition

Ball of Fire 1941 Howard Hawks. A lexicographer (Gary Cooper) realising
that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated visits a nightclub in
order to update it. It turns out that the nightclub singer is engaged to a
gangster on the run from the police.

The exorcist 1973 William Friedkin. This horror classic features linguists
from the Georgetown University linguistics department decoding a message
from the devil by playing a tape backwards. In reverse, the devil
apparently speaks standard American English.

Barwy ochronne (Camouflage) 1977 Krzysztof Zanussi. A Polish film in which
the action revolves around a linguistics summer school.

Iceman 1984 Fred Schepisi. A neandertal man is found frozen into ice, is
defrosted, and found to be alive and kicking. His guttural growls are
deciphered by an ''MIT linguist'', aided by a ''Pitch-Stress Meter''.

1.2 Interesting/unlikely/bizarre linguistic phenomena

There's a ''star Trek TNG episode with a deaf character who uses telepathy
with 3 different people who ''interpret'' for him. When they all die, Data
learns ASL in record time.

''Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'',has the concept of the Babelfish,
which goes in your ear and ''translates'' - book, TV series, radio series,
and film.

Lost in Translation (2004) - linguistic contact

_Kukushka_ (_The Cuckoo_) (2002), directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. It's
about three people, a Finn, a Saami, & a Russian, thrown together during
WWII with no lingua franca among them

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - wordplay abounds and is sometimes
anactual game on screen

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. 1999. Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch.
(French/English miscommunication)

''Nirgendwo in Afrika'' (Nowhere in Africa). It has nice illustrations of
bilingualism/multilingualism, code-switching, and child L2 acquisition.

A movie with Alan Arkin called Slums of Beverly Hills has a made-up
language, game language, used by the two female leads.

My Cousin Vinny in intro classes. Working class NY ''lawyer'' [Joe Pesci]
defends his road tripping cousin in a court of law in Georgia. Famous for
the expression ''the two yoots (youths)''. Dialects in contact, you could
call it.

Sneakers 1992 Phil Alden Robinson. The film is about cryptography, but also
features an intriguing use of speaker identification. Cast includes Robert
Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix.

===(taken from posting on Language Endagerment)
Endangered Languages, language endangerment or revitalization. I am aware
of two such productions: ''Vanishing Voices'' on Chulym (Turkic) by
American PBS and ''De lêste lûden fan in taal'' (''The last sounds of a
language'') by Frisian Television, also on Siberian lgs, I believe.
===( )

El Norte. 1983. director: Gregory Nava.
(English, Spanish, and Maya used by Guatemalan immigrants exhibit the
sociolinguistic complexity of their predicament)

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. 1982. director: Robert M. Young.
(languages in contact issue. It shows how the mistranslation of a word by
an interpreter causes a man to be sent to jail.)

Princess Caraboo. 1994. director: Michael Austin.
(language creation)

Nell (1994) - woman grows up with impoverished language and is then found
and taught

Birth of a Nation (1982; 1997) - lip reading

Look who's Talking (1989) - very early language acquisition

Name of the Rose (2003) - code switching

Love Actually (2003) - Advanced L2 acquisition in 1 week

Born to Be Wild 1995 John Gray. One of the two main characters is a gorilla
named Katie who is being taught sign language.

2001 (1968) - HAL understands Natural Language

The Private life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - parasol code language

Stargate. 1994. director: Roland Emmerich.(historical linguistics, Ancient

Pygmalion/My Fair Lady 1937 /38/64 various. George Bernhard Shaw's
Pygmalion is familiar to most people.

The phonetician Henry Higgins (played by Leslie Howard in the 1938
version), one of the two main characters, is modelled on real-life linguist
Henry Sweet. The Dutch film version came in 1937, followed by an English
one the year after. The musical version ''My Fair Lady'' was filmed in 1964
with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

The Miracle Worker 1962 Arthur Penn. Depicts Helen Keller's acquisition of
tactile sign language.

L'enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child) 1969 Francois Truffaut. The true story
about Victor, the language-deprived child found in south-western France in
the late 18th century.

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) 1974
Werner Herzog. Based on the true story of the boy found in Nuremberg in the
early 19th century. Kaspar Hauser is known as one of the few feral children
who actually did learn to speak.

Grand Illusion. 1937. director: Jean Renoir.
(use of French, German, and English as a marker of social standing among
WWI prisoners of war)

The Jennie Project 2001 Gary Nadeau. Two anthropologists adopt a chimp,
raise it with their own children, and teach it American Sign Language.

Windtalkers 2002 John Woo. A dramatised version of the actual use of Navaho
as a secret radio code during

World War II Pacific operations. Starring Nicholas Cage.

Enemy Mine. 1985. director: Wolfgang Petersen.
(sci-fi film with alien language acquisition)

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. 1985. director: George Miller.
(includes a creole spoken by children)

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. 1984.
director: Hugh Hudson. (ape-man acquires language in record time)

Bladerunner. 1982. director: Ridley Scott.
(evidence of a futuristic linguafranca)

Star Trek:TNG ''Darmok'' episode 102. 1991.
(alien language based upon metaphor and analogy)

Quest for Fire. 1981. director: Jean-Jacques Annaud.
(early human language)

A Great Wall. 1986. director: Peter Wang.
(cross-cultural communication in China)

A Clockwork Orange. 1971. director: Stanley Kubrick.
(language change)

1.3 Films in Uncommonly screened languages or many languages

''Beyond Silence'', a German film that contains DGS (German Sign Language)

Atanarjuat - Film in Inuktitut about the lives of the Inuit before European

Lord of the Rings - it is said that Tolkien created Middle Earth just to
explore and create new languages

Land of the Lost TV series - learning the fictional Paku language

Night on Earth. 1991. Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch. (episodes in English,
German Pidgin English, French, Italian, and Finnish)

Kill Bill. Vol 1/2. 2003/2004. Director: Quentin Tarantino. (The Bride
speaks English, Japanese, and Chinese [Mandarin and a bit of Cantonese -
The use of Cantonese in the film is to parody the low-budget kung-fu films
from Hong Kong])

''Nu Shu: A Hidden Langauge of Women in China''. It is about a secret
writing system used only by women in the Hunan province. Here is a link to
a distributor if you want to add that info. to your list. The distributor
has three other films that they categorize under ''language/linguistics''
if you do a search.

I haven't seen any of them and so can't say whether or not they are mainly
about language or not.

Time of the Gypsies Dom za vesanje (1988) Directed by Emir Kusturica.
Bosnia This may be the only movie ever to be shown with subtitles in every
country it ever played in. A bit melodramatic, but I would be hard pressed
to find another movie where all the characters spoke Romani.

The Missing (2003) (in which characters speak a dialect of Apache)

The Interpreter features a made-up African language based on Shone and
Swahili, created by an African linguist in London.

Daughters of the Dust. 1992. director: Julie Dash. (film with lots of
Gullah, spoken on Dafauskie Island on the Georgia coast.)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) - now extinct [Iroquoian] language spoken

The Passion of Christ (2004) - dead languages

Trainspotting - endangered language and rude words

4 weddings & a funeral (1994) - sign language

Dances with Wolves (with Kevin Kostner) - film about a European explorer
who learns Dakota.

El Norte. 1983. director: Gregory Nava.
(English, Spanish, and Maya used by Guatemalan immigrants exhibit the
sociolinguistic complexity of their predicament)

Children of a Lesser God. 1986. director: Randa Haines. (ASL and lip reading)

The Gods Must be Crazy. 1981. director: Jamie Uys. (language with clicks)

Black Robe. 1991. director: Bruce Beresford. (Algonquian language in the
17th or 18th century)

The Harder they Come. 1973. director: Perry Henzell. (lots of Jamaican creole)

Picture Bride. 1994. director: Kayo Hatta.
(dialogue mostly Hawaiian plantation pidgin. some discussion of
lexical differences)

1.4 Accents and Idiolectal phenomena

Lord of the Rings trilogy for overall language design - but particularly
for the Gollum character's

language variety - hobbitses etc.

Renee Zellweger in the Bridget Jones films

Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors

Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke (brilliant Australian accent)

Annette Bening in Being Julia (stunning 30's RP accent).

Mary Poppins (1964) - bad cockney

Pygmalion. 1938. director: Anthony Asquith. (film adaptation of G. B. Shaw
play about phonetician's relationship with dialect modification)

My Fair Lady. 1964. director: George Cukor. (musical version of Pygmalion)

Singing in the Rain. 1952. director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen.
(dialect modification and phonetics)

Riff Raff (1990) directed by Ken Loach. UK This film about a group of
construction workers features working class dialects. What was significant
about the film is that it had English language subtitles for English
speaking audiences.

Six Degrees of Separation (1993) directed by Fred Schepisis. US A retelling
of Pygmalion in a contemporary NYC setting. Worth noticing for the
foregrounding of class and language.

Road Scholar (1993) directed by Roger Weisberg. US Poet and NPR commentator
takes a road trip across the US shortly after getting his driver's license
after being a pedestrian for twenty years. Language and region are
foregrounded. Also features some American language and culture.

My Cousin Vinnie turns on a linguistic phenomenon. In New York speech, a
sarcastic statement can be made in a flat intonation ''yeah, I'm the bank
robber'' (read: ''yeah, I'm the bank robber, like the pope is Hindu'') but
is interpreted unsarcastically, in this movie (by non-New Yorkers, perhaps
unfamiliar with this style) as a confession. It's a great example of
regional differences (or simply how intonation can be ambiguous, and lead
to opposite claims, like the sentence ''I can't recommend her highly
enough'' (from Fromkin Rodman &Hyams).

''THE APOSTLE'' starring Charles Duvall: Samples of revival preaching
register in deep South (Texas, Louisiana) as well as very authentic samples
of deep South SWVE and AAVE. Also, ''Bullsworth'' a White politician
trying to act and ''sound'' Black an attempt to curry Black votes.

Code 46, with Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. All the characters speak in
this language that is mostly English but freely code-switches with Spanish
(primarily), French, Arabic and Chinese.

'Black and White', a 'based on a true story' Australian flim featuring a
storyline where the defence argues that a 'confession' presented to the
court in Standard Autralian English shouldn't be admitted as it was highly
unlikely that this was an accurate representaion of what the Aborignial
defendant could have produced. It even features the linguist Strehlow (big
name in early Australian linguistics, and anthropology) as an expert

South Park, The Movie (1997) - Canadian diphthong (monopthongised);
sociolinguistics of taboo words

A Thousand Clowns 1965 Fred Coe. Includes a dialect identification
Wunderkind (''Upper East Side, but you spent a couple of years in Chicago'').

Conceiving Ada 1997 Lynn Hershman-Leeson. A computer genius manages to
communicate with the dead, and reaches Ada Lovelace, a forerunner of sorts
for computational linguistics.

1.5 Other (humour, etc)

Monty Python: Life of Brian. John Cleese as Roman Officer explains Latin

Carry on X-ing (varied)- double entendre

Trainspotting - endangered language and rude words

Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) - no speech, all song

Star Trek films (1993;1996, etc) - linguist (Mark Okrand) hired to create

Being John Malkovich (1999) - one word language

South Park, The Movie (1997) - Canadian diphthong (monopthongised);
sociolinguistics of taboo words

The Private life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - parasol code language

Robinson Crusoe on Mars. 1964. director: Byron Haskin.(language teaching to
an alien)

The Statue 1971 Rodney Amateau. British linguist wins the Nobel prize for
having invented a universal

language (how come there is no such prize in real life?). His wife is
commisioned to sculpt a statue of him, but she makes it more endowed than
her linguist husband actually is.

Het Dak van de Walvis (On Top of the Whale) 1982 Raoul Ruiz. Parody of much
of western academia. A group of field linguists set out to study an exotic
language which consists only of one single word, which therefore means

Sherman's March 1986 Ross McElwee. Features the hippie linguist Winnie,
from whose mouth we have the following memorable quote: ''I've told you
that for a very long time, I've believed that the only important things in
life are linguistics and sex. So it's easy to see how one would get
involved with a linguistics professor''.

Stargate 1994 Roland Emmerich. American soldiers (led by Kurt Russell) and
an Egyptologist are transported to a far-away planet from where they have
difficulties getting home. Fortunately, a thorough knowledge of
hieroglyphics proves useful.

1.6 Novels

_Babel 17_, Sameul Delaney An alien race plans a takeover of humanity via
corrupting language. Linguist hero must discover the plot. (Delaney's
_Neveryona_ books also have some interesting stuff on how language,
metaphor and symbolism might develop in early civilisation.)

_The Embedding_, Ian Watson Linguist hero is exploring language embedding
processes. Aliens make contact with Earth, communicate using the principles
of Universal Grammar and propose trade of information,involving finding
unusual thought-language processes. (Actually a highly ironic and bleak tale.)

_Snowcrash_, Neal Stephenson A language-is-a-virus theme, set in a
cyberpunk future where computer viruses invade the mind.

_The Dispossessed_, Ursula Le Guin Set in twin worlds with contrasting
societies, one a carefully balanced, austere egalitarian collective, the
other a rigid, extravagant, hierarchical oligarchy, with languages
reflecting/reflected by the social organisation. (Le Guin's _Earthsea_
books are also interesting, using the language-is-power theme for the
world's language of magic, i.e. knowingsomething's/someone's true name
gives one power over it/them.)

_Feersum Endjinn_, Iain M. Banks Partly first-person narrative written in
`fonetik' style, supposedly portraying the character's particular mode of
thought, a sort of see-things-as-they-are idea.

_Out of the Silent Planet_, C.S. Lewis The inhabitants of Mars cannot
conceive of unjust or immoral acts, and our hero has to explain these human
concepts to them in their own language which lacks terms for them.

_Startide Rising_, David Brin (And probably other novels set in the same
universe: the Uplift series). A Universe with many races and languages
(including a dozen or so artificial lingue franche) where humans have made
dolphins intelligent, with their own language. They speak in Haiku.

_The Man-Kzin Wars_ series, Larry Niven Warrior race of anthropomorphic
tigers speaks language reflecting their ethos (à la Klingon).

_Genetic Soldier_, George Turner A shipload of scientists from the
near-future returns, due to relativity, to a more distant-future
post-holocaust Earth where English has evolved - linguist co-hero bridges
the gap.

1984, George Orwell - Government attempts to control thought by
manipulating language. By making language simpler, the idea is that people
will be less creative.

Atlantis: the lost empire 2001 Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise. Disney animation
in which a decipherer of ancient languages is crucial to the finding of the
lost continent. Michael J. Fox does the linguist's voice.

Conceiving Ada 1997 Lynn Hershman-Leeson. A computer genius manages to
communicate with the dead, and reaches Ada Lovelace, a forerunner of sorts
for computational linguistics.

2. Documentaries

2.1 Films on Language in general

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media 1992 Mark Achbar & Peter
Wintonick. Yes, this documentary about the man himself actually was shown
at the cinemas. As the title suggests, though, it is more concerned with
Chomsky's political side than with linguistics. Ten years later followed
Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times, directed by John Junkerman.

The Human Language Series . 1995. director: Gene Searchinger.
NY: Ways of Knowing.
part 1. Discovering Human Language
part 2. Acquiring Human Language
part 3. The Human Language Evolves
(general linguistics and linguistic theory)

The Singer's Voice. 1993. By Joan Wall and Robert Caldwell.
Dallas TX: Pst... Inc.

The Secret of the Wild Child. 1994. director: Linda Garmon.
(NOVA documentary about Genie)

Signs of the Apes, Songs of the Whales. 1988. director: Linda
Harrar. (Nova documentary about animal language)

2.2 Films on English

PBS production of ''The Story of English''

American Tongues. 1987.
By Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez. NY: Center for New American

2.3 Films on other languages

Stepping Razor Red X. 1992. director: Nicholas Campbell.
(documentary with Jamaican Creole)

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics