Movies Featuring Linguists, Linguistics and Languages.

At Language Crawler (“Crawling the Internet for news, books, videos & resources about languages & linguistics for linguaphiles, polyglots, and language lovers”): 25 Must-See Movies Featuring Linguists, Linguistics and Languages. “Must-See” is, of course, clickbaitese (as I dimly recall, Stargate is barely worth seeing at all), but it’s certainly an interesting list, and I highly recommend Ball of Fire, featuring Gary Cooper in an uncharacteristically lively role and the unbeatable Barbara Stanwyck as the tough dame who provides the slang he needs for his encyclopedia and teaches him to conga (I wrote briefly about it here, and we discussed language in movies back in 2013). If anybody would like to recommend any of the others, most of which I haven’t seen, I’m all ears (and of course eloquent putdowns are equally welcome).


  1. Ken Miner says

    Among my journal entries for last year I found the following:

    Just saw Caroline Link’s Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001). What a film! Linguistically almost miraculous; everybody speaks fluent Swahili, including the Europeans and the two little girls. How? Who are the actors? How did they learn the language? The US could never produce a film like this, but I don’t see how anyone did. I can’t seem to find any real information about how it was made. There certainly are limits to the internet.

    Anybody know about this film’s production? Wikipedia no help on this.

  2. I see many of the recommendations are for movies in heritage or reconstructed languages. Desmundo (2003), set in colonial Brazil, uses 16th-century Portuguese, with the help of a historical linguist as a consultant. Un Cuento Chino (2011) is about an Argentinean shopowner who enjoys collecting absurd news items, like the one about a Chinese man who lost his wife to a cow which fell from a plane; and about said Chinese man, who’s found and helped by the shopowner in a moment of need, lost in a foreign country. The Spanish/Mandarin language barrier is a major plot point. 7 Cajas (2012), a pop thriller, is set in Paraguay, and feature the jopará continuun (Spanish-Guarani) prominently; it was a great pleasure for me to watch the ebb-and-flow of guaraní depending on conversational context. You can find samples (*cough* or entire movies *cough*) for all that on theirtube.

    And the work of David J Peterson in Game of Thrones is stellar, though few are paying it any attention – check out Dothraki, High Valyrian and its historical descendants, and the TV dialogue (e.g. 1, 2). Another underrated piece of work is David Salo’s expansion upon Tolkien’s Dark Speech – cf. the full Ring Poem.

    Not a movie, but for science fiction + linguist fans, I’d recommend China Miéville’s novel Embassytown. It’s about a frontier planet where humans try to deepen their relationship with a cryptic alien species whose language is exotic in a number of counts, including the fact that it’s fully referential (like in a naïve philosophical model of language, their utterances refer to things; so that when they want to, say, make a simile, they must first enact an entire scenario in the real world, so that they can point to it: “it’s like the man who swims weekly with fishes” (and they actually get a guy to do it every week)). When we humans decipher the strange trick to speaking their language (no spoilers), our non-referential utterances are experienced by them as something like hallucinations. A space linguist feature prominently, but I can’t tell you why. The author, Miéville, is often tagged with the “New Weird” label, as a sci-fi author whose prose leans avant-gardy.

    Also Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar – very disappointingly, it features almost no actual Finnish grammar (this ain’t no Last Samurai), but I think it must still interest those of you into bleak, depressing, slow-paced psychological novels whose plot feature a language prominently. (lh thread about Marani.)

    Ágota Krístof’s trilogy (Le grand cahier / La preuve / Le troisième mensonge ) was originally written in French, which isn’t her native language; perhaps because of that, the protagonist first-person-plural narrators, the twins Lucas and Klaus, are young boys with a peculiar way of writing:

    Each of us corrects the other’s spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: “Good” or “Not good.” If it’s “Not good,” we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s “Good,” we can copy the composition into the notebook.

    To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

    For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

    Against the background of war and the complexities of real life, the idea of “truth” in language grows increasingly problematic, especially in the latter books. I just realized I’m not suggesting movies at all anymore, so I’ll stop.

  3. as I dimly recall, Stargate is barely worth seeing at all

    Oh, and I suppose you have a better explanation for why Egyptian gods had animal heads.

    I would add Ten Canoes to the special mentions at the end of the list — it’s not about linguistics as such but all dialogue is in Yolngu (with subtitles).

  4. marie-lucie says

    I don’t see many movies but I remember one with Sylvester Stallone some years ago. The title escapes me but it is an unpretentious, forgettable comedy with a mafia-type theme. Stallone, a mafia boss, wants to pass for a sophisticated man of the world, so he hires people to help him behave as such. Of course that means “speaking properly” too! so he hires “a linguist” (rather a phonetician, I think), a nerdy fellow who tries to make him repeat rather formal, boring sentences, and Stallone is disgusted as he can’t even put the words together correctly. So for the next lesson the linguist comes prepared with slangy, colloquial sentences, and Stallone is now delighted as the words he knows are rolling off his tongue! A short episode but fun.

  5. Marie-Lucie, the linguist was played by Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame).

  6. One of the weirdest projects I’ve ever heard (Australian photographer goes into remote Mongolian countryside without a translator – “for authentic experience” as he put it)

    I wish the guy was filming a documentary. No doubt would be hilarious to watch

  7. No Footnote (2011) ?
    As recommended by our own LH:

  8. Trond Engen says

    Let me add Alexander Rogozhkin’s trilingual (Russian/Finnish/North Sami) comedy Kukushka (The Cuckoo). I was sure I had discussed it here before.

  9. January First-of-May says

    I’m surprised that the article managed to venture into that much obscurity and language-unrelatedness without mentioning The Gods Must Be Crazy.

  10. David Marjanović says

    I’ve watched this and recommend it highly.

  11. What? no mention of Avatar with its whole invented language? Na’vi?
    from the Russian side I can recommend Осенний марафон (The Autumn Marathon) about a Leningrad translator of Western poetry who also helps a Danish professor with his translation of Dostoevsky, and Kin-dza-dza! a dystopian comedy with an invented language. Both films by the great director Georgi Danelia.

  12. Good lord, how could I forget Kin-dza-dza!?

  13. @Sashura: I suggested Game of Thrones and LotR but not Avatar because I found Avatar to be a waste of a perfectly good conlang. Though I’m still happy for the trend; if even boring formulaic movies like Avatar are getting their own conlangs, here’s hoping that Marvel will add some Old Norse to Valhalla, or that the next Doctor Who season feature full languages for their alien antagonists (hey, a boy can hope).

  14. In The Thirteenth Warrior, we see Antonio Banderas playing an Arab picking up Viking lingo over the course of many long nights. It’s a nice digest of learning by listening. (The relevant scene starts at the 12:15 mark.)

    Dances With Wolves, perhaps?

    Gary Cooper in an uncharacteristically lively role

    Role being the operative word. The laconic on screen Cooper was, by all accounts, something of a chatterbox in real life.

    Or so I’m told

  15. I was going to suggest Doctor Who, but it always uses some sort of automatic translate

  16. You didn’t.

    Oh, I know I posted about it, which is why I’m shocked I didn’t mention it here.

  17. Ken Miner says

    Dances With Wolves, perhaps?

    I can attest that the Lakhóta in that movie was authentic. Compare for example Braveheart, in which not a single Latin expression was grammatical (unless I missed one), which is much more typical of our movie makers. (Also uilleann pipes on the sound track throughout, which didn’t exist until seven centuries after the time of the movie. Hope I’m thinking of the right movie.)

  18. Well, you can hire Lakhota-speaking actors without paying extra for them. Latin-speaking actors require dialect coaches, who are not free. Of course, the risk is that (as was often the case in older movies) the spoken dialogue is authentic enough but has nothing to do with the subtitles.

    I don’t see any reason why non-diegetic sound (that is, sound which the characters would not hear if they were real) needs to be in period. If you saw one of the characters playing the pipes, that would be different. (The term “uilleann pipes” is 20C, but the pipes themselves are 18C.)

  19. David Marjanović says

    Braveheart, in which not a single Latin expression was grammatical (unless I missed one)

    I can’t remember any Latin from the German version, which I saw on TV long ago.

  20. @John Cowan: The cost for coaches is surely negligible when compared to CGI costs, or famous movie stars, or location costs, or any other of the things that get the lion’s share of a multi-million-dollar industry. After all, Star Trek could afford Klingon, and Game of Thrones had full scenes using entire families of fictional languages (which had to be coached word by word into 100% nonspeakers, with results like this) (spoilers in comments) (text). The lack of languages in films surely has to do with them being perceived as nerdy and uncool, or as something otherwise unnecessary. If moviegoers expected more linguistic diversity, we’d be seeing more linguistic diversity. And, as for why movies should have more linguistic diversity, there’s no better reason than the fact that languages are cool.

  21. Ken Miner says

    @JC Yeah, but the movie is set in the 13th, so that’s six or seven centuries. But you’re right, a sound track is just a sound track. For me the uilleann pipes just gave the wrong atmosphere. They are of course very expressive and nuanced compared to other pipes and show up in Titanic too, which I found a bit unrealistic.

    As for Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell, who play main characters, speak good Sioux, especially her, so they must have had really good coaches.

  22. Charles Perry says

    I can’t disagree, “Stargate” is a very silly movie, but for dialogue purposes an actual linguist made an interesting attempt to imagine a later state of Egyptian:

  23. The New Zealand film Ngati (1987) was the first movie to have significant portions of dialogue in Maori. It contains a memorable line spoken by a Maori elder addressing a town meeting, who after an opening oration in Maori begins a speech in English with the words, “I now switch from the language of light to the language of darkness.”

  24. marie-lucie says

    Keith Ivey, thank you for the link, I had forgotten a lot of the details in the intervening years.

  25. Jean-Michel says

    On Old Norse/”Viking lingo” in films: A few years ago there was a very low-budget Viking flick called Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America that was billed as using authentic Old Norse dialogue. It didn’t take long for folks to figure out that the filmmakers had actually just lifted Swedish dialogue from The Seventh Seal and dubbed it over the actors’ performances. Which is kind of hilarious IMO, though I assume it renders the movie unwatchable for people who actually know the language.

    Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin has dialogue in semi-classical Chinese, but there was no attempt to reconstruct the actual language of its Tang setting (all readings are in modern Mandarin), and even outside of pronunciation it’s apparently not too faithful to the period (this Chinese-language article notes some anachronisms in the dialogue and makes some more general points about the use of “pseudo-classical” dialogue). But it might’ve been a bit tricky to do the dialogue authentically, since Hou apparently came up with it right on the set. His earlier Flowers of Shanghai is almost entirely in Shanghainese, which isn’t dead language but is pretty rare in movies. Wong Kar-wai (who comes from a Shanghainese background) wants to make his next film in Shanghainese if the mainland censors will let him.

  26. filmmakers had actually just lifted Swedish dialogue from The Seventh Seal and dubbed it over the actors’ performances.

    That is truly hilarious, and now I kind of want to see the movie. Well, not the whole movie, but a short clip. Followed by De Düva.

  27. De Düva, a classic Bergman parody with language humour. Only 14 minutes long. With Madeline Kahn. Highly recommended.

    Although I don’t know Swedish, I would be curious to see Severed Ways.

    Another movie sort of along the same lines is What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. Back in the 1960s Woody Allen bought the US rights to a Japanese low-budget James Bond ripoff movie, and proceeded to dub in his own English dialog. No language humour, but it was rather amusing.

  28. Likewise, the show Most Extreme Elimination Challenge was a re-edit of a Japanese game show dubbed with ridiculous dialog. There’s also an anime called Ghost Stories which earned fame from its absurd, heavily impovised English dub.

    (There’s a whole YouTube genre along these lines too – for example, the Bad Lip Reading channel.)

  29. Bad Lip Reading is brilliant; I recommend it to everyone.

  30. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is entirely in Inuktitut, and is an amazingly beautiful movie.

    I’ve never seen Sebastiane, a 1976 artsy movie about gay Romans and Christians, but it’s supposedly all in Latin.

    Incubus, an Esperanto-speaking movie, starred Wiliam Shatner, so there.

  31. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is entirely in Inuktitut, and is an amazingly beautiful movie.

    It is indeed; my wife and I loved it.

  32. David Marjanović says

    but it’s supposedly all in Latin.

    …Then of course there’s The Passion of the Christ, all in Aramaic and Latin and no Greek whatsoever…

  33. Jim Parish says

    Would Johnny Belinda count, since a key element of the plot is Belinda MacDonald’s being taught sign language?

  34. Sure!

  35. I really like Oksana Bychkova’s romantic comedy Плюс один, which is about a straight-laced Russian-English interpreter who falls in love with her client, a bohemian British puppeteer:

    This clip alone is the best one from the film:

  36. Upcoming (via languagelog): Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, will be a sci-fi flick starring a xenolinguist; and there’s an adaptation in the works for The Professor and the Madman, about the literally murderous insane man, William Chester Minor, who contributed quite a lot to the OED.

  37. Excellent news… except that the movies have a poor track record with science fiction. I hear they did a good job with The Martian, though; I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  38. as I dimly recall, Stargate is barely worth seeing at all
    Hey, whoa, hey, whoa. Hey. Whoa. Hey.
    I mean, yes, it’s silly, but no sillier than other Hollywood scifi (would be) blockbusters and, more importantly, it was the first time that I, as a young impressionable bulaybil, saw someone do something like philology on the big screen and be cool and be a hero while still being a dork (unlike, say, Indiana Jones). Say what you want, that sort of thing means a lot at that age. Plus the mention of Budge makes me chuckle even now.
    Also, a little later they turned the premise into a pretty good* TV show which actually paid some attention to the whole language thing and so when they dealt with an Akkadian god, they actually showed Akkadian cuneiform (s01e13), when they had to do something with Phoenician, they actually showed Phoenician script (s04e14) and they even had a proper ancient Egyptian funeral rite in proper ancient Egyptian (s03e10). And there were these two years when I was the only one with a humanities major among 30 or so computer science nerds at my dorm and whenever I was asked what it is I study, I was able to reply “Sort of like what Daniel Jackson does” and they went “Cool” which was pretty awesome.

    *First five seasons, then the usual thing happened. But it still had Amanda Tapping, so it remained halfway decent.

  39. All that is excellent, and I’m glad the movie existed for your sake and the sake of many like you; my reaction is that of a surly movie/sf snob.

    but no sillier than other Hollywood scifi (would be) blockbusters

    Well, that’s the thing, I don’t respect those either; as far as I’m concerned, Star Wars, as enjoyable and awe-inspiring as it was, ruined both sf and American cinema. I’m sick unto death of massive spaceships shooting colorful lasers at each other and blowing up planets. What made me fall in love with sf was ideas, not shoot-em-up. I loved Foundation not for the (unbelievably crappy) writing or the characters (pure cardboard) but for the idea of trying to safeguard a predicted course of historical development. The ideas in sf movies tend not to rise above the level of “kill the baddies” or, in the most advanced cases, “green is good!” (Avatar) or “gotta be careful out in space!” (Gravity). That said, I go see them anyway; I just grumble about them afterwards.

  40. I agree with you: SF that plays with hypothetical scenarios and ideas is the only truly interesting brand. But cowboys in spaceships have been a staple of SF from way back when. These films, pulp as they are, are just carrying on that grand tradition.

  41. Oh, sure, and if there were plenty of thoughtful, adult sf movies to go with them I wouldn’t begrudge them the space operas.

  42. I’m of the camp which postulates that the essence of SF is its narrative mode or style, not necessarily the space setting. In my book, Star Wars is fantasy, not sci-fi. It’s okay, as fantasy, but certainly not in my top 10 fantasy series.

    If we are to contrast fantasy and sci-fi, I find it clear that sci-fi, even cheap blonde-hero cowboy sci-fi, is rooted on Enlightenment values; they tell of the triumph of science, reason, progress, civilization. (“Dark” sci-fi, like cyberpunk, is a dialectic disavowal of those values, but that’s just the flip side of the same coin). As a narrative style, good sci-fi has something inherently detective-like to it; as you read, you come in contact with the unknown, the disconcerting, the uncany; but keep reading and all the pieces fit together in a coherent whole, the mysteries are solved, the mechanisms explained.

    Fantasy readers actively resent this sort of mechanistic explanation, which to them feel like base debunking. Fantasy is all about the wonder. Stylistically, the effect is created by skillful manipulation of the mechanisms of wonder; crescendos and emotional climaxes, strategic omissions and mellifluous prose… (This is one of the many reasons why Arthur C. Clarke is so utterly wrong when he claims that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” ($5 says he never took the time to brush himself up on the anthropology of magic). Even the most fantastic techie sci-fi mumbo-jumbo is categorically distinct from magic. Technology is objective, for one thing. It doesn’t care how you feel, it’s there, regardless. Magic is a thing of drunken stupors and savage dances, of poetry and campfires.)

    By this measure, the Force is not technology, sufficiently advanced or otherwise; it has both feet firmly planted in the realm of magic. And Star Wars is a mystical-knight’s coming-of-age tale of wonder, not a space-age tale of reason; as such, it’s space-themed fantasy. Star Trek, by contrast, is pure sci-fi, though it’s more about social science than physics or astronomy (it’s fundamentally a series of episodic thought exercises in sociology).

  43. Not entire movies, but notable accents of characters: Brad Pitt as Mickey O’Neil, an Irish Traveler, in Snatch; and Boomhauer (voiced by Mike Judge) in King of the Hill: both caricatures of incomprehensibility. Boomhauer, in particular, was modeled after a real person’s speech.

  44. My scarce 2¢ about SF is that with rare exceptions, I hate it all. SF writing and movies remind me of the know-it-all physics and engineering majors I knew in college, who used the word obvious in every other sentence, didn’t have patience for anyone who wasn’t a 100% atheist, and couldn’t wait for the day we’ll all be replaced by robots and live as disembodied jars on distant planets. SF was the only kind of literature these characters deemed worth reading.

    That said, I like silliness, and I enjoyed Łem’s The Futurological Congress and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. Frank Robinson’s The Power is 10% SF, 90% thriller, and it’s truly chilling, although like all SF I’ve read, the language itself has no power.

  45. I don’t see much difference between fantasy and soft SF as a reader. I agree that Star Wars is mostly a fantasy story set in space, but that is a big part of the point. The original trilogy was intentionally created as a epic for the technological age. Star Trek similarly phrases (most) things in technological terms, but it lacks the internal logic of real technological world and often uses the future as a setting for allegory.

    On the other hand, there is a huge difference between fantasy and SF for me when I write. I can write fantasy or hard SF, but soft SF is impossible.

  46. I’ll recommend Interstellar (again?). Billed as a mystery/science fiction item, the science is harder than most, it has real people, and the solution to the mystery is just as sciency as a certain classic that I won’t mention because spoiler.

  47. Hat, did Solaris push the “adult SF” button?

  48. Yes, I loved Solaris (the Tarkovsky original; I have no interest in the remake).

  49. What are the great (or even good) pre-1977 American sci-fi movies? All I can think of is 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Legitimately would like some recommendations, not just trying to pick a fight, although I do think the idea American cinema is dead is absurd (if you don’t watch the good movies, it’s your fault, not Star Wars’s).

  50. What are the great (or even good) pre-1977 American sci-fi movies? All I can think of is 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    That’s pretty much it, if you don’t count the glorious Dark Star. But I didn’t say Star Wars ruined American sf movies, I said it ruined both sf and American cinema. Which of course is an overstatement — there’s still plenty of good sf and American movies — but the string of classic movies that made the early-to-mid ’70s such a great era (M*A*S*H, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Conversation, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network, Marathon Man, Annie Hall…) came to an end, with only occasional outcroppings, because Hollywood became fixated on blockbusters, and sf became identified with space opera and novelizations took over paperback racks at the expense of traditional books (and lots of classics went out of print). I’m not saying we’re living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, just that things have changed and not for the better (except of course for the greater prominence of women and minorities in today’s sf, which is a Good Thing), and I blame Star Wars, however unfairly.

  51. I’ve seen Dark Star twice, once at a 1975 (i.e pre-Star Wars) sf film festival, where it aired at the end of some 25 hours of sf films (I confess to falling asleep during Metropolis, which aired at 2 AM), and I thought it was hysterically funny then. The second time in more normal circumstances, not so much.

    For really good sf movies, I’d mention the 1980 PBS version of The Lathe of Heaven (not the 2002 A&E version, which was a soulless abomination from the pit of Heck, like all other Le Guin adaptations). I heard good things about Gattaca, but never saw it. Enemy Mine is certainly the real thing. The Postman, well, post-apocalyptic stories are more alternate history than sf these days.

  52. Zardoz! (Sorry).

  53. For really good sf movies, I’d mention the 1980 PBS version of The Lathe of Heaven

    Yes indeed!

  54. But I didn’t say Star Wars ruined American sf movies, I said it ruined both sf and American cinema.

    I did notice that you said that, and I’m sorry that I responded to what I assumed you were saying rather than what you actually were saying. But the reason I did that is because notion that Star Wars killed sci-fi prose seems incomprehensible to me (whereas saying that Star Wars killed American cinema is more like hyperbole). Whatever problems there are with contemporary sci-fi, I don’t think them come from Star Wars. Spaceship fights work better in movies than in books and, at least in my reading experience, they’ve barely infected books. The obvious exception are the Star Wars extended universe novels; yes, I did read these as a kid, but this seems to me like a different niche, not something displacing regular sci-fi. I wasn’t around in the “golden age”, so what do I know, but sci-fi seems fine to me.

  55. Of course, we’re a long way away from Star Wars now, maybe we’re now in the post-post-Star Wars era of sci-fi.

    Is “sf” vs. “sci-fi” another generational thing? I remember hearing that Philip K Dick hated the term “sci-fi”. To me “sf” sounds weird. Do people say it out loud?

  56. hat,

    my reaction is that of a surly movie/sf snob.
    And more power to you.

    Star Wars, as enjoyable and awe-inspiring as it was, ruined both sf and American cinema
    I wouldn’t go as far as “American cinema” (I’m not much of a movie buff), but you are quite right about sf. In fact, it was exactly the thought I had when I recently started rewatching the original Star Trek and how different it was – the slow deliberate pacing, the music, the writing…

    I loved Foundation not for the (unbelievably crappy) writing or the characters (pure cardboard) but for the idea of trying to safeguard a predicted course of historical development.
    It may be because I read the Foundation novels in my late 20s having had a modicum of exposure to actual science, but Jesus H. Christ flying out of Meknes with a bag of hash and two preserved lemons, I absolutely hate the whole idea of psychohistory as a science and I hate the whole motivation behind it.

    That said, I go see them anyway; I just grumble about them afterwards.
    *looks at his ticket for the Friday 7.30 pm showing of “Star Trek: Beyond”*
    I prefer ranting. And come 10pm Friday, there will be ranting.

    While we’re on the subject, I suspect many of you might enjoy the takedown of the Star Wars prequels, the Star Trek TNG movies and various others by RedLetterMedia.

  57. “The Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen.”

    If you want to study the influence of Star Wars on sf prose, go look at the Honor Harrington books by David Weber et al, where the most important characters are the missiles. (Many are freely available at Baen Books.) But of course it’s just one small part of one small domain (military sf, which also includes wonders like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan stories) of the vast universe of sf.

    There’s a story whose name I can’t remember that involves a time-traveling would-be sf writer who drops herself into the 1950s and becomes famous among the writers and fans for her amazing work, all of it plagiarized from future Hugo and Nebula award winners. At one point, she and Poul Anderson (the only person who figures out what has happened) are watching an unnamed movie on DVD on her laptop which is unquestionably Star Wars. He’s amazed by the special effects, of course, but says the whole thing feels like a Flash Gordon serial made into a feature film.

  58. Whatever problems there are with contemporary sci-fi, I don’t think them come from Star Wars.

    I’m sure you’re right, and I’m just clinging to decades-old prejudices. I have read very little new sf for… well, decades. (Though I gobbled up the Leckie trilogy, and enjoyed The Martian.)

    Is “sf” vs. “sci-fi” another generational thing?

    Very much so. I belong to the generation that grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and we absorbed that prejudice from our elders: only non-fans/fen said “sci-fi”! I’ve long since discarded the prejudice in the sense that I don’t look down at people who use it (which would be exhausting, because these days everybody does), but I will never use it myself. (Similarly, I will always call this landmark the Pan Am Building, and I refuse to use branded ballpark names.)

    To me “sf” sounds weird. Do people say it out loud?

    Probably just geezers like me.

  59. I absolutely hate the whole idea of psychohistory as a science and I hate the whole motivation behind it.

    Yeah, me too, but I was talking about when I was twelve or so. Nothing could get me to reread Asimov these days.

    I prefer ranting. And come 10pm Friday, there will be ranting.

    And I greatly enjoy your rants!

  60. Lars,

    I’ll recommend Interstellar (again?). Billed as a mystery/science fiction item, the science is harder than most, it has real people
    Lars, here is where I will start ranting. No, wait, I don’t have to, because other people have done it for me.

  61. Incidentally, I was trying to think of a Czechoslovak scifi movie or tv show that featured linguists, but couldn’t think of one. The one that comes the closest is The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (the movie is, for some reason, on Youtube, subtitled in Spanish). While technically an adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, it takes many liberties with the original, mostly for comedic effect, such as consistently referring to the main character as Count Teléke of Tölőkö. Its fictionalized and satirical portrayal of Transylvania includes a fictionalized Transylvanian language which is basically a combination of Czech/Slovak (in weird spelling) with Hungarian and Romanian, even though some characters speak a Moravian dialect of Czech.

  62. Lars, here is where I will start ranting. No, wait, I don’t have to, because other people have done it for me.

    Thanks for that, it was cathartic. Here’s what I wrote my brother after I saw it:

    It’s a three-hour festival of glurge, nothing but “Daddy!” and “My children!” — with a side dish of “She just wants to go to that planet because she’s in LOOVE with the scientist there.” The women are all emotional wrecks who have to be saved by the men (the hero’s daughter is celebrated for saving the earth, but she and daddy know it was really daddy). Every scene is three or four times longer than it needs to be. They keep spouting “Do not go gentle into that good night” over and over and OVER. Nice visuals, of course, but Prometheus has nicer ones if you want to watch a dumb sf movie. I’m just glad I didn’t pay full price! (Tuesday night discount: only six bucks.)

  63. Let’s not forget Washington National Airport among the shibboleths of the old timers.

    The whole point of Foundation’s Edge, the fourth Foundation book, is to deconstruct psychohistory. Indeed, the books are structured as a series of reveals whereby the good guys are found to be flawed, the very reverse of the four mainline Lens books, where the bad guys are found to be patsies for worse bad guys. But I think it’s cool how the spaceport on Kalgan in Foundation and Empire in no way resembles an airport: it is a high-tech version of Grand Central Station.

  64. three-hour festival of glurge: Oh well, I was on vacation when I saw it and probably left my critical sense at home. I suppose I’d better not watch it again.

  65. @John Cowan: I think it’s a testament to Asimov’s skill and creativity as a writer that he recognized that his original idea for the Foundation series was failing. By the end of the first fix-up, he was running out of ideas for good stories that followed the original mold. The first half of Foundation and Empire was his last attempt to stick to the formula, and it may be the worst part of the whole series. The next book and a half were devoted to reworking the setting to make it amenable to telling different kinds of stories.

  66. Oddly, it’s the part I read first: I found a copy of F&E in a bookstore without the other two parts. But even the first story (part II of Foundation) already has this structure: nobody could be more worthy than the Encylopedants, and yet.

  67. Zardoz
    I must admit I have a weak spot for that film. Probably because the main role is played by Sean Connery, for whom I have a soft spot as well. I watch it as a comedy, although it probably wasn’t meant as one.

  68. I saw Zardoz at the annual MIT Science Fiction Marathon. It was the “turkey,” shown in the middle of the night, purely for comic value. When Connery shoots the camera near the beginning, there were cheers, and the scene with, “The gun is good. The penis is bad,” had the whole audience hooting with laughter.

  69. the Honor Harrington books by David Weber et al, where the most important characters are the missiles

    Got a free e-book of the first one and made it about a third of the way thru. All the characters so far are either human or feline. No missile. I want my money back. I guess I’ll have to write my own missile fanfic.

  70. Treecats aren’t actually cats. No space battles yet?

  71. What is it about cats in space though? They show up more than you might really expect.

  72. Same as coffee in space, I expect: writers tend to like both, and put them into their fictions much more often than mere facts would suggest. There is an essay about the overuse of coffee in sf and fantasy, called (if memory is right, but Dr. Google cannot confirm it) “The Black Wine of Carthoris”, a blend of the actual dark-colored red wine of Cahors in France with Carthoris, the son of John Carter of Mars and Dejah Thoris.

  73. David Marjanović says

    Star Wars isn’t science-fiction. It’s a fairytale. Being set in space doesn’t make it science-fiction; anything can be Recycled IN SPACE!.

    Star Trek at least tries, though I do hate energy beings. The only good part of the Abrams flicks is the Red Matter, which takes treknobabble and uses it to thumb its nose at everyone.

  74. The red matter is a reference to Alias.

  75. Wowie, the main character in Ancillary Justice is literally a spaceship.

  76. Yup!

  77. David Marjanović says

    The red matter is a reference to Alias.

    Oh. What does it do there? Is it not related to Dark Matter at all? 🙁

    ST after all has this tradition of dilithium, tritanium, duranium, latinum… not to mention the boring radiations from delta through… omikron at least.

  78. The movie Tanna has just been released. It was filmed on location on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, with dialogue entirely in Nauvhal (aka Nvhal or Nɨvhaal, [nɨˈɨ̯̥aːl]), a dialect of the Southwest Tanna language.

  79. The Romanian film Police, Adjective gets drama out of grammar and dictionary definitions, from what I read. Sounds like good grim fun.

  80. I recall another move similar to Kukushka – American Daughter by Karen Shahnazarov featuring two main characters – Russian musician who doesn’t speak English and his ten year old American daughter who doesn’t speak Russian.

    The comedy shows some amazingly effective communication between the two characters despite their lack of common language as they flee from the police across rural America.

    The most memorable scene

    Quite realistic, by the way – millions of people all over the world can sing English songs very well and almost without a trace of accent and yet are unable to produce a single sentence in English.

  81. The 2012 film Eréndira Ikikunari (Erendira the Indomitable) is mostly in Purépecha, and is entirely online, with Spanish subtitles. The acting is, well, dramatic.

  82. There’s also a recent BoingBoing posting about movies in the indigenous languages of Mexico.

    Back in 2013, filmmaker Gabriela Badillo launched a new collaborative project called 68 Voices, 68 Hearts, an “animated series of Mexican indigenous stories narrated in their original language, raised on the premise ‘No one can love what they don’t know.'” The series has so far produced 36 films in different indigenous tongues, with the ultimately goal of making one for each of Mexico’s 68 linguistic groups.

    More from their website:

    My grandfather, Maya originally from Maxcanú, Yucatán, passed away some years ago and until that moment I became aware of everything that had gone with him. Aside from losing a loved one, I realized that an enormous wisdom had also been lost: a language, stories, traditions and customs, a whole world had dissolved with him.

    During my social service in my university years, also in Yucatán, it was very shocking to see how the children’s own mothers, out of fear of being discriminated, wouldn’t teach their language to their children.

    The film above, “La Ultima Danza,” is inspired by the work of Isaac Essau Carrillo Can, and is presented in Mayan and Yucatán.

    You can check out the other short films, in languages such as Otomi, Tohono O’odham, Huichol, and Nahuatl, at 68 Voices, 68 Hearts.


  83. The W. C. Fields vehicle It’s the Old Army Game, featuring Louise Brooks in the months just before she reached maximal beauty, also features a Yiddish-speaking mule.

    And yes, it’s a silent.

  84. Boingboing tags the post with both “language” and “languages”; clicking on those gets a different sequence of language-related posts (that is, sometimes “language” was used as the tag, sometimes “languages” was used, and only rarely was both used, so completely different posts come up for each tag)

  85. presented in Mayan and Yucatán


  86. [sic], as they say.

    I was just recently looking up the states of Mexico because Silvia Moreno-Garcia tweeted that her novel Mexican Gothic had an English-speaking mining town in Mexico which was based on reality, and the actual place was located in Hidalgo.

  87. My wife and I recently saw the Peruvian movie Madeinusa (it was part of TCM’s excellent Women Make Film series, which had some real rarities); it was mostly in Spanish, but had some dialogue in Quechua.

  88. David Marjanović says

    Eréndira Ikikunari

    That sounds like it’s almost straight out of Tolkien…

    features a Yiddish-speaking mule

    Starting here?

  89. The W. C. Fields vehicle It’s the Old Army Game, featuring Louise Brooks in the months just before she reached maximal beauty, also features a Yiddish-speaking mule.

    I thought it would be some sort of reference to Balaam and the ass and the angel, but no, while the mule similarly refuses to move, it does not speak Yiddish, but is rather spoken to — commanded to move — in Yiddish, by the owner. The owner also has a Yiddish newspaper.

  90. in that vein, here’s one of jimmy cagney’s yiddish scenes:

  91. Delightful, thanks for that!

  92. John Cowan says

    “Why are you talking to your mule in Yiddish?”

    “In what language would you talk to a mule?”

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    I speak in Latin to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.

  94. January First-of-May says

    Of course a mule, closely related to a horse, would be spoken to in Yiddish, closely related to German. I wonder whether that implies that a donkey should be spoken to in Hebrew, or in Dutch.

    (Probably Hebrew, to be honest.)

  95. John Emerson says

    A mule is actually a horse-donkey hybrid.

    Maybe one of them is an onager?

  96. January First-of-May says

    A mule is actually a horse-donkey hybrid.

    I know that, of course; thus my suggestion of Hebrew to represent the donkey.

  97. @David Eddyshaw, January First-of-May: There is considerable variation in that quote from Charles V (as well as the additional natural question of what language it was in originally). However, what frequently gets rendered as “German” was almost certainly Dutch (broadly construed), which was one of the emperor’s cradle tongues (unlike more easterly German, which he did not speak fluently until well into his reign).

  98. David Eddyshaw says

    All German dialects* (in the broadest sense) are hippophatic, and hence apt for equiloquy (again, in the broadest sense.)

    *Except Züritüütsch, which is suitable only for gnomic utterances.

  99. The language understood by Felaróf (remembered as the only horse who fully understood the speech of men) was rendered as Anglo-Saxon.

  100. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, but that was just Tolkein’s translation convention for Yiddish, the actual language of the Men of Middle-Earth.

  101. John Emerson says

    Teuton-Americans should form a protest group. Germans are called Dutch, Dutch are called Germans. The Norwegian Knut Hamsun was infuriated when he was called a Swede, and the Swede Henry Johnson (a friend of Sinclair Lewis’s father) objected to being called a Norsski. I can’t think of any cases of Swedes or Norwegians being called Germans or Dutch, but for the sake of the protest group we will assume that that happened too.

    My Dutch ancestors in Iowa were religious sectarians who thought my German ancestors in Iowa were drunkards, but my German great-great grandfather, who got rich as a brewer, presumably thought that they drank about the right amount.

  102. It is traditional for fans of The Thing (1982), in places like the fan site Outpost 31 forums, to misidentify the Norwegians in the films as Swedes.

  103. Trond Engen says

    The 1982 version? It’s a long time since I saw it, and I couldn’t even remember it was supposed to have Norwegians. The cast has two Norwegian characters but no Norwegian actors. But the 2011 version (which I’ve never seen) is full of Norwegians— some quite well-known names too for downlist characters without a surname. Only the major character with the Holywood Norwegian name Sander Halvorson is played by a Dane.

  104. @Trond Engen: The 2011 film is not a “version”; it’s an inferior prequel to the 1982 film,* although it was clearly made by people who legitimately admired John Carpenter’s bleak film.** It takes place around the Norwegian camp which is only seen in ruins in the first film, thus having far more Norwegian characters. (There are two Norwegians alive at the beginning of the 1982 The Thing, but they both die in short order.)

    * See here for a pretty good consensus opinion about what media are more worth consuming than the prequel.

    ** The prequel filmmakers really made an effort, including consulting with the super-fans who frequent the Outpost 31 site,*** about things like the layout of the Norwegian camp.

    *** It really is one of the most impressive fan sites in existence. Besides being an incredible base of knowledge, which is highly respected by the makers of both the 1982 and 2011 films, the site does things like organize trips to the filming sites every few years. The next trip is planned for 2022 (pandemic permitting), for the fortieth anniversary of the 1982 release.****

    **** As linguistic note: In a discussion like this, involving two films with the same name, I would normally make use of the modifier “original” to distinguish one or the other. Except that fails here, because in this case there are three films, including the 1951 The Thing from Another World, which is a good film on its own but does not include the really innovate shape-changing and body-splitting features from the story “Who Goes There?”

  105. See here for a pretty good consensus opinion about what media are more worth consuming than the prequel.

    I don’t know what consensus you’re referring to, but I agree with PoloHoleSet:


    1) The Thing From Beyond (1951) – the classic that started it all

    2) The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter’s homage/remake of the classic


  106. David Eddyshaw says

    I much prefer the 1951 movie to the 1982 version.
    But then, the only Carpenter movie I actually like is the truly wonderful Dark Star.

  107. Dark Star is wonderful escapism, but They Live was and is real.

  108. David Eddyshaw says


  109. I have done a comprehensive study of Swedes (including Norwegians), especially dumb Swedes, in American culture. It includes one article partly in Swedish (or maybe Norwegian) that I can’t read all of, but I think that the gist of it is that Swedes do not think of themselves as dumb or in any other way strange. A great discovery there.

  110. David Eddyshaw says

    The best Mad Swede is Erik Olafsen from Scoop.

  111. Many years ago I liked a WP article about Dolph Lundgren. It described him as a nerd, listed his degrees which he simply was collecting and then described the beginning of his romance with karate as reading a book about it. Which made me giggle.
    And indeed it is a good way to become an dumb and evil Russian (who he often played)….

  112. It wouldn’t do to have an actual Russian playing an evil Russian, because Russians are evil and one of them might murder somebody or steal the towels or something.

  113. How can one talk about dumb Swedes in American culture without mentioning El Bredel’s Oley character?

  114. @dravsi all martial arts start as a practical improvisation as a last resort — without weaponry — ways to fight a guy who is with the weapon de rigueur. They then become an established tradition that has little to do with practical reality. Add to that some Orientalization, and people like Dolph Lundgren predictably emerge. I’ve known people like him.

  115. David Eddyshaw says

    Is the Swedish Chef dumb?

    I get an impression of transcendent wisdom, somehow …

  116. John Emerson says

    This is the Norwegian Swede I grew up with, By the time I came along Norwegian swedes were well established if not dominant, but uyp to at least 1920 Swedes, Jews, and blacks lived all together in the poorest neighborhoods.and there was a lot of mixing. F S Fitzgerald commented that the gangs of “micks” that his set had fights with were mostly Swedes.

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