Linguistics Movies and TV Show Episodes.

Gretchen McCulloch (a linguist previously seen at LH here and here) has posted A very long list of linguistics movies, documentaries, and TV show episodes which is exactly as advertised. It starts with “Arrival, 2016” (discussed at LH here) and ends with Whistles in the Mist (“Interesting questions about origin of lg. typology”); lots of intriguing-looking stuff in between, e.g.:

*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 everything. Very strange, not a crowdpleaser.

Followed immediately by “Being John Malkovich. Also features a single word language.” (The asterisk means it’s available on YouTube.)


  1. El Techo de la Ballena! I’ve been meaning to see it.

    There’s an old South Park episode about aliens from the planet Marklar, which is also the only word in their language.

  2. Oh yeah, I remember that one. It’s probably been added in the comments (which I had meant to call attention to).

  3. Not about linguistics but on the topic of parodying academia, I like Neil Gaiman’s Bitter Grounds, which to my mind manages to perfectly capture that particular sleep-deprived, past-the-deadline, barely-human alternate state of consciousness known to scholars everywhere (it also plays with the academic project, represented by anthropology, and with the absurdity of conferences—“nod, and tell them that that’s a really perceptive question, and that it’s addressed at length in the longer version of the paper, of which the one you are reading is an edited abstract”…). It’s my favorite short story of his, and it’s freely available online.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    of which the one you are reading is an edited abstract

    Not available in the natural sciences: we don’t read a paper, we present our work. When we don’t want to answer questions, we simply don’t leave time for questions; when that doesn’t work, one trick is to answer a completely different question, not unlike a politician, and confuse everyone to shut them up.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    we don’t read a paper, we present our work

    That is mostly the case in linguistics too. People who actually read their papers usually talk too fast. They look at the paper rather than the audience. In linguistics, as in math I suppose, you have to show at least examples of the data you are using, written either on a handout distributed to the audience (which can be taken home), or increasingly projected on a wide screen. As for questions, a good session chair will cut you off if you don’t stop when your time is up and it is the audience’s time to ask questions. Tricks to confuse the audience? I don’t think it is a very good idea.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    a good session chair will cut you off if you don’t stop when your time is up and it is the audience’s time to ask questions

    Few moderators are good. I’ve heard anxious people half-joking about using up their time to avoid having to take questions.

    (PowerPoint and the occasional PDF presentation have been universal at the conferences I’ve been to, admittedly only since 2004. I’ve seen 1 or 2 overhead projections, but nobody talking without visual aids.)

  7. It’s not a show or movie, but I’m reminded of Swiss author Peter Bichsel’s short story “Jodok lässt grüßen” in his Kindergeschichten, which — to not spoil the story — also involves a character using a single-word language.

  8. “Hodor.”
    (Not the same, but first thing that came to my mind.)

  9. David Eddyshaw says:


  10. There’s a 70’s documentary by a French director about two identical twins in California who were thought to communicate in their own language the name of which escapes me. It turns out that it’s just a very difficult to understand version of English with some German influence because that was their mother’s native language exacerbated by their isolation and difficult family circumstances.

  11. Lars (the original one) says:


  12. Long ago I read in Ripley’s Believe it or Not about an Amazonian tribe called the Inje-Inje whose language consisted of the word “inje” over and over. I didn’t believe it for a second and figured it was probably a story told by a nearby tribe.

  13. Eli Nelson says:

    @Ilya: I think you are referring to Poto and Cabengo

  14. marie-lucie says:

    DM: I’ve seen 1 or 2 overhead projections, but nobody talking without visual aids.)

    Most linguistics papers would be impossible to follow without some sort of visual aids, even if the language under study is well-known to audience members. Among visual aids, overhead projections are seen by everyone in the audience, but soon forgotten, while handouts (which also show data, with maps, diagrams etc, and usually also the structure of the talk) are seen (and can be taken home) by individual conference attendees.

  15. I still have handouts from the ’70s!

  16. marie-lucie says:

    I have quite a collection. Sometimes one of them comes in handy when it gives details about a language or family which I have recently decided I should learn about.

  17. And some key papers are only available as a handout for an old talk, which is not archived in any library, and whose author is either dead or is not in the habit of answering mail.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t know why I’ve never encountered handouts even at the smallest conferences I’ve been to. Maybe people are simply used to the larger ones, where it’s too hard to estimate the size of your audience in advance (1000 to 2000 people, 3 parallel sessions). On the other hand, the abstracts are published the same year in some way or other (often before the conference), and are distributed to all participants before the conference, so you can at least cite the abstracts if they don’t become papers for another 10 years.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    My conferences of choice are relatively small, even if there are several concurrent sessions.

  20. “Hodor.”
    (Not the same, but first thing that came to my mind.)

    Well, maybe not exactly the same, but Game of Thrones hires linguists to invent languages — Dothraki, Valyrian — and then has its actors learn the English meaning until they’re comfortable with the emotion of the dialogue and then learn the translation, which they say makes them feel that emotion far more. Even if some of these actors couldn’t articulate the difference between a phoneme and allophone, they sure as hell know its significance.

    Also, re Hodor (spoiler, though I’ll be as vague as possible): the scene in which we finally learn how he came by his name is typically misunderstood by pretty much everyone whose writing about it I’ve read. Our beloved mute giant didn’t willingly sacrificing himself; his will and much else were taken from him by Bran, who had yet to learn to control himself, or rather his new self. What we witnessed is an entire life rewritten — heinously — all in a moment. It’s a hard scene to watch regardless, but it’s even harder when you realize that there’s no moral silver lining. Hodor was sacrificed; he didn’t — couldn’t — sacrifice himself. It’s like people forget that this is Game of Thrones. Without even knowing it, at least not till the very end, Bran uses Hodor his whole life: to carry him around as a child, to entertain him with his goofiness and stupidity (for which Bran’s responsible), to carry him beyond the wall years later, to kill people when they’re captured by the Night’s Watch mutineers, and finally to give Bran a chance to escape from what seemed like certain death. Bran didn’t mean to give Hodor an awful life and use him like that, but intentions hardly matter here (they never really matter in Game of Thrones). Almost worst of all, awful as all that may be, it’s nonetheless necessary. Tywin wouldn’t have blinked an eye, and regardless of what you might think of him, he understood that world better than anybody. And this is a fight — like all others actually (though still, this time especially), that our heroes have to win.

  21. The “language with only one word” concept also occurs in Borges’ short story Undr, although there it’s only a poetic register.

    One might also mention Pokemon in this connection; they say their names over and over again (as of course do some real birds like the chickadee and the killdeer).Which raises interesting questions when one of them starts apparently speaking human language:

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Rumor has it that somewhere in London (East End?) everything can be said by using the right intonation of fuck.

  23. Do you mean Baltimore?

  24. The Wire is over! North Philly’s worse than Baltimore these days. Some parts of Miami, too. And the South Bronx has gotten rough as ever. Gary, Indiana is a lesser known but far scarier city. Though these days Chicago is putting them all to shame. That said, the murder rates may be way down, but White Chapel and Limehouse still have their cachet, or at least should (where but the East End?), if not as many caches of guns.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    My source was about London, but of course I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this also works in several other places.

  26. Lars (the original one) says:

    Or dude for teenage boys.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: Rumor has it that somewhere in London (East End?) everything can be said by using the right intonation of fuck.

    In Northern Norway you could do that with helvete “hell”.

    I think you need to keep modals and other function words, though. Actually, this might be a good test for grammaticalization and functional versus semantic load.

  28. I see there’s a new animated short based on Flann O’Brien’s “An Béal Bocht / The Poor Mouth.” That should qualify, especially if it includes the scene in which a group of linguists mistakes a pig for a peasant, and tries to transcribe his exceptionally pure Irish.

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