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Why John Carter Is Probably Still Stuck on Earth

Ok, so I am still struggling through trying to figure out most of the Barsoomian in the movie John Carter.  And I will be the first to admit that phonetics is not my strong suit.  But I’m absolutely confident about the pronunciation of the teleportation phrase that triggers the Thern device.  It’s repeated several times, and it’s spoken slowly and distinctly both by the dying Thern in the Arizonan cave and by Dejah Thoris teaching John Carter to repeat it phonetically.   John Carter also pronounces the phrase slowly and deliberately when he finds himself back in the cave on earth, desperate to return to Mars, as well as at the very end when he lays his body to rest in his tomb with his newly acquired device.  We’re meant to believe that he is waking up on Mars while we watch the credits roll, but I’m telling you, that poor dude is still in his tomb, probably crying.  Because his pronunciation was wrong.

I mean, we’re not told exactly how  the devices work.  Judging by the way he gets to Mars, when the injured Thern weazes out the phrase, and Carter picks up the device and only repeats the last word, a person has to be holding the device for it to work, but they don’t have to say the entire phrase as long as someone in the vicinity of the device says it.  (So then, I’m not entirely certain why it doesn’t work when Dejah is teaching the phrase to Carter, unless the person holding it has to say the final destination word in order for it to work, and she hands it to him before she says Jasoom?)  It doesn’t seem to care about inflection, since Carter’s “Barsoom?” at the beginning deviates from the morm, and Matai Shang rushes the first two segments together when he spits out the phrase very quickly to send poor Carter back to Jasoom towards the end.  So, whatever, it’s entirely possible the device doesn’t care about vowel distinctions either.

But that’s stupid.  Isn’t this phrase supposed to be a soundwave command?  Why would it not be sensitive to distinct sound deviations?  Plus, the likely explanation for Carter’s distinctive (wrong) pronunciation is lazy and/or inattentive film-making.  Which is so annoying!  You ask me to suspend my disbelief, but then force me to think about the fact that Taylor Kitsch is reading a script.  As I’ve said before, I know it’s not real, but it should still make sense!

So the Thern that Carter shoots very clearly wheezes:

(Here’s a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar or ambiguous symbols, in case you’re not familiar with IPA):

Dejah Thoris pronounces the phrase in exactly the same way as the Thern, except that she substitutes Jasoom for Barsoom as the destination:

Carter mimicks Dejah properly in the scene where she is teaching him what to say.  But when he finds himself suddenly back in the cave on Earth, the first thing he does is try to return to Mars/Barsoom by repeating the phrase even though he doesn’t have a device, and he says:

He totally changes the first vowel from a low back unrounded “ah” to a mid back rounded “oh”.  And he says it that way again at the end!  Very deliberately!  But the problem is that we’ve already herd a Thern and Dejah pronounce the first vowel as “ah,” equally deliberately, and I’m inclined to think they know what they’re talking about over Carter.

Maybe that first word is spelled ok or och or something.  And that could be confusing, because the letter “o” in standard orthography can sometimes stand for an “oh” sound, (like in open, no, and rope), but it can also represent an “ah” sound, (like in octopus, ox, odd, and dog).

I have no idea how the phrase is spelled in this script, (it doesn’t appear in the book,) but John Carter shouldn’t know how it’s spelled either!  He learned this phrase phonetically from the princess.  He can’t read the writing she deciphered.  Every single time he heard the phrase pronounced by others, it was with an “ah” for the first syllable.  There is no reasonable explanation for why he should have changed it to an “oh” unless it is that the actor Taylor Kitsch read the lines that were perhaps spelled with an o in the script, and perhaps did not go to Thark camp like everybody else, and perhaps filmed those scenes before he filmed the ones with the princess where she explicitly taught him to repeat it as “ah,” or else filmed them so far apart that he forgot, and nobody on set corrected him, and nobody in the editing and screening processes noticed or decided it was worth it to do a simple voice-over rerecording to fix it?

I seriously don’t understand how that happens.  And I will maintain that either Carter is stuck on Jasoom at the conclusion of the movie, or else the phrase is basically meaningless gibberish and the device just feeds off the will of your heart or something.  I mean it can’t just be a magical phrase, right?  Because Harry Potter taught us that pronunciation does matter: (“It’s leviOsa, not levioSA!”)  Cater’s butchering of the teleportation phrase is not the worst line of dialogue, (not by a long shot), but when a film sets up an element as being important and then can’t even stay consistent with said element, it’s very disappointing for viewers like me.  What about you?

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Barsoomian Language in “John Carter”

I saw the new Disney live-action film “John Carter” this weekend.  I liked it, I mean it’s not without some pretty obvious story and character flaws, but the mythology and world building was so much fun that I was willing to overlook the fact that the main character’s motivation is never truly defined.  and I am 100% planning to see it again, mainly to transcribe more of the Barsoomian dialogue.

Tars Tarkas meets John Carter on Barsoom

Never having read any of the Barsoom novels (by Edgar Rice Burroughs), I didn’t know before seeing the movie that the inhabitants of Mars (Barsoom) would be speaking some lines in a novel language.  Of course those scenes instantly became my favorite, because I am a language nerd.  Preliminary googling on Barsoom turns up this general info  and word list page, as well as this article about expanding Burroughs’ linguistic creation for the movie.  The linguist hired to work on developing the limited inclusions in Burroughs’ novels into a fully-functioning spoken language for the movie was Paul Frommer, who is also responsible for creating the Na’vi language spoken in Avatar.  I’m extremely jealous of Frommer, but I’m also grateful for his work to make these fiction-based languages “real” and rule-based the way languages actually are, because it makes it so much more fun to analyze and try to learn them.  (As opposed to the alien languages in Star Wars, which are basically jibberish and not even consistent with themselves.)  In researching Barsoom I also discovered that Frommer has a blog in which he discusses grammatical aspects of Na’vi, and I can’t wait to find time to start pouring over that information!  (You can get a head start on me by reading his blog here.)

Anyway, here’s as much as I was able to transcribe during my first viewing.  (So glad I had my notebook with me!)  I’ll update this post when I’m able to watch the movie again, because there are some lines I didn’t catch and it’s also possible that I didn’t hear everything clearly.  (I’m pretty sure I confused some k’s and t’s.)  And of course I’m totally guessing at word boundaries.

I’m using IPA.  It seems like voiceless stops are mostly aspirated word-finally, but then some of them sounded unreleased.  (Of course maybe the unreleased ones are not word-final and my word-boundary guesses are wrong…)

[mi dutʃe] “…hell are you?”  (spoken by Tars Tarkas upon seeing Carter, following Carter’s own “What the…” utterance.)

[sɑ tʃɑ tʃik] “don’t shoot him” (-Tars Tarkas)

[ʤɑteth] “don’t run” (-Tars Tarkas)

[tsɑtɑ] “it’s okɑy” (-Tars Tarkas)

[sɑkh | səlɛt˺ sɑk vəˈʤɑkh]  “Jump!  Jump like you did before.” (-Tars Tarkas)

[sɑkh] “jump”

[doθekh ɑdɑs] “step ɑwɑy” (-??? Probably Tars Tarkas. It’s hard to get everything written down!)

[doltɑɹ ˈsoʤath] “my right hand,” the Thark name given to John Carter by Tars Tarkas.  (Sometimes sounded like it might actually be [doltɑɹ ˈsoʤæth]?)

[ɑkh ɑhɪm ɑkte wiz bɑɹsu:m] -the phrase the Princess teaches Carter to say that will teleport him between planets.  (Barsoom is replaced with Jasoom when she originally teaches it to him, becauses they’re on Mars and he wants to return to Earth.  But this is the phrase as he says it at the end of the movie.)

**update**

Blerg, I’ve seen the relevant scenes a couple more times and feel more lost than ever.  I’m just not very good at phonetics, (don’t tell my students!)  Also this would be a lot easier if I could hit pause and rewind.  Anyway here’s a pdf of what I have at this point:

pagelady barsoomian transcriptions

 

***update*** i missed my chance to see it again and it’s no longer showing at my theater, so i’ll have to wait for the dvd.  it’ll be easier to capture with a pause button anyway.

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