SLA Column for May 2011

Mark Allen Peterson and James Stanlaw

Linguistic Moments in the Movies, Part VII

By Mark Allen Peterson (Miami U)

It’s time for our annual roundup of films and film clips suitable for initiating discussions about language—or just a good laugh at the way the media industry represents language.

The Gods Must be Crazy (1981)
I went to this film when it first opened in Los Angeles almost thirty years ago, and I loved it. I felt rather guilty a few years later (in 1985), when I read the brilliant review in American Anthropologist by Toby Alice Volkman (87[2]: 482–84) describing the ways the film served myriad propaganda purposes for the South African apartheid regime. Apart from using the film to show how a comedy can serve a repressive political regime, clips from this film remain one of the most accessible ways to illustrate click languages.

Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (2007)
Like Mulan (1998) or She’s the Man (2006), Hana Kimi (as it’s known by its fans) is a recent gender-switching comedy—in this case, a 12-part television series. Japanese high jump athlete Sano (Shun Oguri) is injured saving the life of American Mizuki (Maki Horikita), one of his biggest fans. Mizuki travels to Japan where she poses as a boy in order to enter the all-boy high school Sano attends and persuade him to rejoin the track team. Much of the humor stems from Mizuki’s efforts to speak Japanese like a boy, and her efforts to repair her errors when she slips.

License To Wed (2007)
Manic Robin Williams plays an Anglican reverend with a legendary premarital counseling program, while Mandy Moore and John Kasinski are the couple who suffer through it. Much of Williams’ humor in the film stems from word play, especially sexual innuendo. There is also a scene that plays on the formality of religious registers. Williams is teaching a group of kids about the ten commandments and while they articulate these in the familiar high code (ie. “Thou shall not commit adultery”), Williams immediately translates these into low code versions (“It’s not neat to cheat”) and then absurdly low code word play (“going out looking for milk when you’ve got perfectly good jugs at home”).

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
In his travels across a barren post-apocalyptic world, Mad Max (Mel Gibson) encounters a community of children who speak a Creole language. The children perform a ritual telling of their origin myth which can only be described as “post-television” because the speaker carries a “tel” (a combination of speaking stick and framing device shaped like a TV or movie screen), visual props are framed by the tel at various points, and the children punctuate the speaker’s tale with special effects. There is a scene at the beginning of the ritual in which one speaker hands off the tel to another that parallels aboriginal rules about who can tell what stories based on their relationship to the story and to those who were in or were observers of the story.

Singing in the Rain (1952)
When sound comes to Hollywood, it’s a disaster for actors whose dialect and diction don’t match the personas they’ve built up in the public mind through their films. There are several funny scenes of dialect coaches working with movie stars, one of which culminates in a tongue-twisting song. This file is useful for discussions of how ways of speech index microsocial distinctions, and works well with articles about dialect coaches training salespeople at overseas call centers.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Shakespeare’s play is set in a late 20th century urban metropolis that looks a lot like Miami, with direction that draws from the style of music videos. But there’s another kind of indexicality at play as well. In several scenes references to anachronisms are re-envisioned. Thus when the Duke says, “Put up your swords,” there is a quick cut to the handguns the rival families carry, which are embossed with the brand “Sword 9mm.”

Thanks to Carmen Esparza, Davis McIntosh, David Samuels and Kathryn Nemeth.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Jim Stanlaw (stanlaw@ilstu.edu) or Mark Peterson (petersm2@ muohio.edu).