Some tidbits from recent Language Log posts I can’t resist sharing:
1) In Ben Zimmer’s post on Apocalypto, he points out that Michael Phillips, in his Chicago Tribune review of the new Mel Gibson movie, says “Gibson and company chose to translate the Greek word ‘apocalypto’ as ‘new beginning,’ which has raised linguistic hackles, since the word is a verb meaning ‘uncover’ or reveal,'” and speculates that Phillips took that from my post about the movie, since it’s the second hit on a Google search. My raised hackles are quivering with pride! (Also, he reports that linguist John Lawler saw the movie last week with the University of Michigan Linguistics Club and suggests: “Read the Popol Vuh and skip the movie.”)
2) Geoff Pullum mentions the little-known fact that some of the royalties from the song “Happy Birthday To You” go to the Linguistic Society of America! I will henceforth sing it with even more gusto.
3) John McWhorter discusses the increasingly sophisticated use of foreign languages in American popular culture; whereas these days they’re generally treated with some degree of plausibility, in the Bad Old Days… well, I’ll let John tell it: in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Foreign Correspondent, “well-travelled peace activist Laraine Day meets a Latvian ambassador at a reception. For one, the ambassador speaks neither English, French, nor German — I see. But then, never fear — Day’s character turns out to know ‘enough Latvian to get by’! For the record, the character is not depicted as having had any particular reason to get her feet wet in Latvian. It’s apparently just that, well, you know — she’s travelled a lot over there, and so she just knows a little of all of ‘those languages,’ even Latvian, and one imagines, Occitan, Sorbian and Friulian when they come in handy.” (Later in the movie, a supposedly local girl speaking Dutch to policemen in Amsterdam “is plainly an American girl reciting the sentences phonetically, with an accent that is pure Cleveland.”)


  1. The negative reaction from trained linguists and specialists in Mayan culture towards Gibson’s film is understandable – no-one likes amateurs stomping around in their carefully tended gardens. But nonetheless I still find the sniping at Gibson a little overdone. Despite all the inaccuracies and stereotyping his movie will probably do incomparably more over the long term to promote the Mayan language and foreign appreciation of Mayan culture than any 100 academics churning out dissertations on the Popol Vuh. I’d rather see academics and defenders of native cultures welcome the movie and try to use it constructively rather than simply trying to score points.
    And in an unrelated note, I don’t understand why McWhorter finds it implausible that Lucy didn’t know Spanish. I consider her ignorance of her husband’s native language to be the single most realistic aspect of the “I Love Lucy” show.

  2. Now I feel guilty about pirating that song for all those birthday parties. I just gambled (correctly) that the intellectual-property police would be too busy to catch everyone.

  3. My reading of the Pullum post is that royalty money from the song _went_ to the LSA because of a single behest, not that it continues to do so. So guilt about song-pirating at birthday parties is perhaps unnecessary, or at any rate no more necessary than it was before the LSA connection was revealed…

  4. “New beginning” – yes, makes sense; that’s what Gibson wants for himself!

  5. David: You’re quite right; I guess I’ll revert to my previous level of gusto.

  6. Cavalier treatment of foreign languages:
    Americans don’t just do it to foreign languages. Has anyone seen the Hollywood version of “Thorn Birds”? My Chinese friends loved it, and yet most of the actors were speaking in American accents that (for me, at least) completely destroyed its credibility. I nearly choked on my bread-and-vegemite when one of the young female characters said in a thick American accent: “As a young Australian….”
    (Actually, the entire production doesn’t seem to have put much emphasis on ‘authenticity’. Even the painting of a ‘cattle station homestead’ used as a backdrop also looked more Wyoming than New South Wales!)

  7. I just Googled “Thorn Birds” and found this: “One of the most-watched TV mini-series of all time, Colleen McCullough’s epic tale, set against a 40-year backdrop of the sprawling Australian frontier, follows the forbidden love between priest Richard Chamberlain and rancher’s daughter Rachel Ward.”
    ‘Australian frontier’? ‘Rancher’s daughter’? Aaaaagh! Why didn’t they just set the story in America and have done with it?

  8. To be honest, self-flagellation by English speakers about ignorance of foreign languages and cultures doesn’t cut that much ice with me. Americans don’t have a monopoly on the cavalier treatment of foreign languages. Oriental productions are equally cavalier bad.
    My first encounter with this was the 1974 NHK series “Katsu Kaishu”, in which one 19th century imperialist British sailor said to the other: “That’s where we’re going: Japan!”. The post-vocalic /r/ might have been forgivable, but the last syllable and its tell-tale narrow and nasalised /æ/ kind of spoiled the effect. They could have at least told their American ring-in to try and pretend that he was English!
    Similarly, in China I’ve noticed that those vicious Japanese troops in patriotic productions where the Communist Party always wins the war are delivered in atrocious Chinese accents.

  9. Americans don’t have a monopoly on the cavalier treatment of foreign languages
    Absolutely, but I think it’s a fair division of labor for us to flagellate ourselves and let other peoples tend to their own flagellation needs.

  10. “I consider her ignorance of her husband’s native language to be the single most realistic aspect of the “I Love Lucy” show”
    And his of hers was the other running gag.
    You are so right – whatever flaws there are in the Yucatec dialogue, if this film has the same effect as Braveheart had in Scotland, that will be all to the good for Yucatec – though it may be a little hard on the Mexican government’s control of that area – again. And you would think the experts might take a little satisfaction in the fact that someone outside their field is benefitting from their work.
    If you want to choke on accents, watch Cold Mountain. Or Brokeback Mountain, in which a Australian does a butch parody of an American accent.

  11. Well, I was being (partly) facetious. Also forgive the grammar mistakes; I was in a hurry.
    I hope that Languagehat’s comment doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to flagellate here 🙂
    As for Brokeback Mountain, I haven’t seen it. But doing a parody and presenting something as the real McCoy don’t seem to be the same thing.

  12. I actually thought Heath Ledger’s accent was pretty good.

  13. OK, I’m coming up to speed. The ‘parody’ wasn’t supposed to be a parody at all. I’ll try and see this movie as soon as possible and get back with my comments!

  14. Bathrobe,
    See the movie for the landscape at least. You boy Heath was alright, but that’s not a hard accent – even Jake Gyllenhaal managed it. Besides, Heath was so hot no one was paying attention to his accent. JK

  15. I’m not really interested in the opinions of American or European “experts” in Mayan cultures about that civilization’s portrayal in Apocalypto compared to what a real Mexican or Guatemalan indigenous would have to say. Though for some of us it’s easier to find the intellectuals rather than the Quiché speaking construction workers, the Guatemalan housepainters who converse with their mothers in a language not Spanish. These individuals are now more and more mixed in with the Central American undocumented and I’m finding them around the Washington DC area. In LA there must be a hundred times more of them. I’d love to hear what THEY have to say about Mel Gibson’s latest, as I’m not patronizing his works.

  16. OK, will look around for it.
    At least Heath appears to have made an effort, even if it wasn’t a good one. In ‘Thorn Birds’, no effort was made. Richard Chamberlain wasn’t bad — he’s actually starred in an Australian film, “The Last Wave”, so he had some idea — but with the rest of the (American) cast, they were just being their American selves.
    On a slightly different topic, has anyone noticed the ridiculous Orientalising that Hollywood is sometimes prone to. I remember a Hollywood production about the yakuza (the title escapes me), in which Takakura Ken delivers a rather innocuous line in Japanese (I think it was something like ‘Things are OK’), but the English subtitle read like a Chinese fortune cookie, along the lines of “The river flows on but the water is never the same”.
    Do they really think yakuza speak like that?

Speak Your Mind