Tuesday January 31, 2006

Virginia Algonquian

[I meant to post about this last week and forgot, but I haven't seen any mention of it in the linguistiblogosphere except for this post on Linguaphiles.]

Terrence Malick's new film The New World is a retelling of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith.  As this entry in MSNBC's Cosmic Log describes, Malick ran into a small problem when trying to figure out what languages his characters would speak:

Malick thought he could just find some contemporary speakers of the language that was used by Pocahontas and her tribe in pre-colonial Virginia — and he was somewhat surprised to find out that the language had been extinct for more than 200 years.

A less rigorous director might have given up, but Malick instead turned to Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in past and present American Indian languages. Rudes' work to reconstruct and revitalize the Virginia Algonquian language might itself make for a good movie — or at least a History Channel documentary.

Rudes is the real deal (and One of Us), a specialist in Native American Linguistics in the Applied Linguistics program at UNC Charlotte.  He's been getting quite a bit of press recently due to his work on The New World—good for him.

There's been a mini-trend recently of movie-makers spending a surprising amount of effort in order to use dead languages in their movies.  The most famous example was probably Mel Gibson's use of Aramaic and Latin in The Passion of the [sic] Christ, which was apparently only somewhat authentic—see this post on Language Log.  Gibson later announced that he was going to do his upcoming movie Apocalypto entirely in some variety of Mayan (more here).

A related but distinct phenomenon is the use of constructed languages in movies, of which the best example is probably Peter Jackson's use of sizable chunks of Tolkien's Elvish in the Lord of the Rings films (for which credit is due to language consultant, blogger, and actual linguist David Salo).  Other examples include Klingon from the Star Trek movies and TV shows, which seems to have taken on a life of its own, and Atlantean from Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire.  Both of those languages were invented by Marc Okrand, another (former) academic linguist who has made something of a career out of cinematic conlangs.

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Here's another constructed-language-in-film story. In "Big Bear" (1998), the Cree speak Cree, and the English-speaking white characters speak an invented gibberish that is supposed to sound to the audience as English would have sounded to a Cree speaker who didn't know English. I recall that at the time the film came out, co-writer (and author of the book the film was based on) Rudy Wiebe talked in an interview about the linguistic considerations in inventing the gibberish. I can't find a reference to the interview any more; all I can remember is him mentioning that the inspirations for the sounds and "words" used in the gibberish included Low German, Wiebe's mother tongue. Here's something about the film: http://www.ammsa.com/sage/JULY98.html which includes a mention of the invented "language."

Posted by: at Jan 31, 2006 7:53:03 PM

Sorry, not entirely clear. The role of language "Cree" in the film "Big Bear" is played by English, and "English" is played by the invented language, so that the (English-speaking) audience will perceive these languages as the Cree did.

Posted by: Margaret at Jan 31, 2006 8:36:08 PM

Seems to me that basing the English substitute on Low German would result in a language that was more similar to the English-standing-in-for-Cree being spoken by the Cree in the film than the real English was to the real Cree. Maybe they should have just used Cree as the English substitute, which would work if perceived strangeness is symmetric.

Posted by: KCinDC at Feb 1, 2006 2:37:51 PM

I've long thought English played backwords sounded sort of like Russian, but I doubt that Russians perceive Russian played backwards as sounding like English.

On a side note, I am an enthusiastic supporter of making movies in dead languages! In fact, I've been in one. In fact, come to think of it, I've played Jesus in one! If you count Middle English as a dead language and a (very) short subject as a movie.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Feb 1, 2006 5:53:37 PM

Not enough people are familiar with the original Stargate movie as it is, and even fewer people are familiar with the fact that reconstructed Ancient Egyptian was used in the film. It was reconstructed by correlating Egyptian words transcribed into other more familiary languages to get pronunciation clues. Everything that you hear the Nagadans speak is in almost authentic Ancient Egyptian, and it adds a realistic feel to the movie. It should be mentioned more frequently when talking about this sort of thing.

Posted by: Darryl at Feb 1, 2006 10:28:25 PM