Blade Runner and Urban Languages.

Apparently 3:AM Magazine (“Whatever it is, we’re against it”) has an occasional “Minute 9” series of essays discussing the ninth minute of a movie, and the latest is “Minute 9: Blade Runner” by Des Barry. It begins:

Torrential rain and flickering neon, pedestrians of miscellaneous ethnicities bump umbrellas, struggle through tight alleyways between a downmarket electronics store and a line of crowded street-food stalls. Seated at the counter of a sushi bar, close-up on his face and open shoulders, an unnamed man in a noir-style classic trench coat rubs the splinters off his chopsticks. Behind his right shoulder appears a uniformed torso with a police badge pinned to a bulky stab-vest. The cop has a deep bass voice:

—Hey, idi-wa.

It goes on to discuss the mishmash of languages known as “Cityspeak” which I posted about back in 2003; alas, much of the discussion is vitiated by Barry’s apparent ignorance of the page I posted then (which is, commendably, still there) — he uses absurdly mistranscribed versions of the dialogue (e.g., “aduanon koverhsim angam bitte” for azonnal kövessen engem bitte). But I liked his final reflection on modern urban life:

Now I live in another Pacific Rim city with a mixed — but not identical — ethnic make-up. It’s only 2023 — not so far from 2019 — but when I walk the streets of Naarm/Melbourne, the streets of Chinatown in the early evening winter darkness, umbrellaed under the steady rain and the flashing neon, with electric delivery bikes weaving crazily through the foot traffic, I get regular flashes of scenes from Blade Runner. I hear Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, English, various versions of South American and European Spanish, French, Italian, Indonesian, versions of Arabic and African languages; and on more formal occasions Woiwurrung, the local Indigenous language. Languages mixed with English insertions, yes, but no hybrid language. Not yet. But I can imagine it coming.

(I still remember the thrill of that linguistic mix coming from the screen when I first saw the movie, over four decades ago now.)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    The detail that “the local Indigenous language” only turns up on “more formal occasions” struck me as quite odd. But googling suggests that it is maybe extinct (the wiki article about it is notable for use of past tense in its description of the language’s features). So maybe people who don’t actually speak it purport to utter a few words in a conjectural recreation of it on formal occasions? I expect that there must be some non-zero number of people walking around Melbourne who can speak *some* indigenous Australian language even if not the one most commonly spoken on the site of future-Melbourne 200+ years ago. But maybe those speakers have no place in the romantic tableau Barry is trying to construct?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I gather that a number of North American languages are now really only used on formal/ceremonial occasions: people subscribe to the idea that their language is basically a cultural identifier rather than a tool for everyday life. The high status of such use unfortunately does not negate the fact that such a limitation is a sign that the language is moribund, if not already dead.

    Even with Welsh, which is by no means moribund (diolch i Dduw), preservation and maintenance efforts are skewed toward middle-class concerns. Language as cultural ornament … it’s a sign of endangerment, alas.

  3. I expect that there must be some non-zero number of people walking around Melbourne who can speak *some* indigenous Australian language even if not the one most commonly spoken on the site of future-Melbourne 200+ years ago.

    First let’s distinguish Greater Melbourne – a vast metropolitan spread, much of it suburban wasteland – from the centre of Melbourne, the “Golden Mile” with which this author is concerned. “Chinatown”, focused on Little Bourke Street, is a portion of this latter. There are pockets in the inner suburbs where an Indigenous presence has traditionally been maintained; but even in pre-gentrified Fitzroy I doubt that any sustained Woiwurrung would have been heard. And I have not encountered any recognisably Indigenous language in central Melbourne: mere absence of evidence, but still. Contrast this with other parts of the continent, like our Northern Territory. I have a niece who lives in the thick of Indigenous country there, and the local languages are thriving along with various types of “Kriol”.

    In central Melbourne one encounters a rich variety of tongues: more than in many suburbs, less than in many others. In Springvale, Box Hill, and a few other locales you get Vietnamese, Cambodian, Myanmar, and a goodly quota of Chinese ethnicities and languages. All wonderful, as is the Indian, Afghan, and Pakistani mix in Dandenong.

    In the country town which my wife and I moved to from Melbourne, just before the pandemic, we’re surrounded by Sicilians and other Italians; there’s a Maltese cultural centre nearby, and I’ve met and had pleasant dialogue with Rohingya refugees while shopping.

    There are similar stories across the country. Most of us revel in this diversity. On my flight back from Bali yesterday (yes, again I was there) I was surrounded by three generations of a family originally from China’s Shandong province, returning to Point Cook (a south-western suburb). We chatted aimiably and at length, mostly in English but sprinkled with Putonghua for the monolingual grandparents. I helped look after the kids, and we had a great time.

    “Languages mixed with English insertions, yes, but no hybrid language. Not yet. But I can imagine it coming,” writes our author. Well, I see no signs of it. Despite the teeming diversity of cultures and languages in Australia, cross-learning and blending are strikingly absent. Multilingualism among immigrants, yes; new hybrids, only in tightly limited circumstances and not involving L1 anglophones.

  4. Andrew Dunbar says

    Except for Noongar/Nyungar in Perth, I believe almost all the indigenous languages from the areas of the state and territory capital cities have long been extinct. Even Noongar apparently only had 240 speakers. One of the Darwin languages had a dozen speakers left a decade ago. Kaurna in Adelaide seemed to have a relatively successful revival in recent decades after losing its last native speaker a century ago.

    I grew up in Melbourne and don’t remember even seeing an aboriginal person until I did a road trip to Lakes Entrance in the late ’80s. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speaking an aboriginal language in person despite living about a year each in Townsville and Redfern which both had large indigenous populations.

    The part about formal occasions I am assuming refers to the recent embrace of Welcome to Country ceremonies by various government and other bodies in the last 10 or 20 years. I don’t think I’ve been around for one in person but I assume some are conducted at least partly in aboriginal languages, perhaps reconstructed or revived.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    The local name for the Songhay language of Timbuktu actually means “Urban Language”:

    (And the name of Koyraboro Senni, the Songhay of Gao, means “Urbanite Language.”)

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    The wiki article on “Demographics of Melbourne” asserts that its residents “speak over 233 languages and dialects and follow 116 religious faiths,” but does not provide a comprehensive list of either.* As of either 2016 or 2021 (some editing would help) “0.5% of the population … identified as Indigenous Australians.” Obviously “identifying” as such doesn’t necessarily predict a particularly high likelihood of fluency in an indigenous language.

    *The most commonly-spoken non-English languages are said to be Mandarin, Vietnamese, Greek, Punjabi, and Arabic.

  7. CuConnacht says

    Except for Indonesian and Woiwurrung (and perhaps Japanese), the list of languages is surprisingly similar to what one might hear walking along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Add Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, etc to the Jackson Heights list.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Table 13c in this “General Community Profile” from the 2021 Australian census (accessible at the URL right after this sentence) gives their stats on languages spoken in Greater Melbourne.

    Out of approx. 4.9M people, of whom about 3M speak only English, 651 are reported to speak “Australian Indigenous Languages,” not further broken down. The number of Spanish speakers is around 40K, which is frankly more than I would have guessed, although it’s probably close to impossible these days to find a sizable city or metro area in the US where the Hispanophone percentage (including those fully bilingual in English) is below 1%. Languages more common that you would anticipate in most-to-all American cities include Afrikaans, Macedonian, and Sinhalese.

    And for the bneefit of CuConnacht, 14K speaking Bengali, 23K speaking Gujarati, and 33K speaking Tamil, with Telugu buried somewhere in the 238K speaking “Other.”

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I am separately curious about what constitutes a “Pacific Rim city.” Does it have to be on the shore of the Pacific? If not, how far away can it be? Does the fact that Australia has a Pacific coast suffice to make Perth a “Pacific Rim” city? Adelaide? If those two aren’t, Melbourne seems sort of borderline, since the larger body of water that’s east of the Bass Strait is conventionally part of the Pacific but the larger body of water (“Great Australian Bight”) that’s west of the strait isn’t.

  10. wikipedia:

    Some authorities consider the strait to be part of the Pacific Ocean as in the never-approved 2002 IHO Limits of Oceans and Seas draft. In the currently in-force IHO 1953 draft, it is instead associated with the Great Australian Bight; the Bight is numbered 62, while the Bass Strait is designated 62-A.

    The Australian Hydrographic Service does not consider it to be part of its expanded definition of the Southern Ocean, but rather states that it lies with the Tasman Sea

    I would compromise by detaching the East Gippsland coastal waters from the Bass Strait and attaching them to the Tasman Sea, leaving the diminished Bass Strait with the Bight. If the burghers of Melbourne value their Pacificity, I am open to bribes.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps we should look to cultural factors as well as hydrographic taxonomy and rule that the only “Pacific Rim” Australian cities are those east (or ENE if you want to be more precise) of the

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I think it’s the countries which belong to the Pacific Rim, and so any cities in them will do. But I do not say that with any great confidence.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Here, I assume the writer wanted a dubious rhetorical flourish that would make Melbourne and Los Angeles sound like different instances of the same thing (above and beyond just being populous cities) and this is what he came up with. I do not think “every city in A is a Pacific Rim city” flows naturally from “A is a Pacific Rim country.” Vancouver is a Pacific Rim city; Halifax not so much. Obviously the direct Australian parallel to Halifax in this respect is Perth, and Melbourne is much closer to the Pacific … But it’s still on the non-Pacific side of the Barassi Line!

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