Tag Archives: language

A Thing I Made For My Science Fiction Class

I took a class this semester called “Science, Technology, and Society: Examining the Future through a Science-Fiction Lens.” For our final project we were to answer, in the form of an essay or creative work, the question “How do scientific discoveries, technological advances, and society pressures drive human change?”  I wrote a song about language change on the internet.

It’s not great production value, the video is just an exported PowerPoint, and yes I know that ASL is not the same thing as English so I shouldn’t have included those visuals in the second chorus without making more of a distinction but I was trying to illustrate the “and/or sight” concept and also I was originally just writing about language in general but then switched the subtitle to be English-specific since all my other examples were and now it is too late to change it because I’ve already submitted the link.

Anyway. There are links in the video’s description.

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Filed under language, music, nerd

Glader Slang in “The Maze Runner”

**This post contains spoilers for The Maze Runner**

maze runner cover

The Maze Runner is being adapted to film. It will be interesting to see how the slang is handled on-screen.

When I read James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, there was pretty much only one element that I actually liked; the Glader slang.  (Things I didn’t like included the tediously slow (and ultimately unsatisfactory) reveal of answers, the near-complete lack of character development, the inconsistency of the main character’s attitudes towards other characters (like “go away Chuck you’re so annoying!”-“Chuck you’re my new and only friend!”-“gah Chuck stop talking you’re so annoying!”), the way Thomas pats himself on the back for feeling the most basic empathy for his fellow human beings (“…he realized he was worried about the girl. Concerned for her welfare. As if he knew her.”  Like you couldn’t be “concerned” for somebody who’s been in a coma for days? And then this part: “Thomas, concerned for Alby despite his recent ill-tempered ways…”, oh how big of you to be “concerned” when you find a person lying unconscious with a bloody gash on their head, “despite” the fact they’ve been moody or rude in the last 24 hours), the insistence to tell instead of show, things being brought up only to be dropped completely and forgotten later on (like the flag Thomas sees when he first enters the Glade but can’t make out it’s pattern because there’s no wind, and it’s never mentioned again, or the dog named Bark that follows him around for his tour of Slop duty but then is never mentioned again, not even when they’re holing up to fight against invading Grievers, which, wouldn’t a dog bark it’s head off and/or charge beasts attacking its masters?), the fact that when the situation is explained it still makes little to no sense, and the lack of female characters–especially when it’s revealed that the kids sent to the Glade were chosen because they “have above-average intelligence,” and I’m supposed to be okay with this representation of the smartest kids, humanity’s last hope, being all male?!  What a bunch of klunk!)

But back to the topic at hand–when Thomas arrives in the Glade, his memories freshly wiped, he quickly learns that the residents of his new ‘home’ sprinkle their speech with their own unique slang, which he must learn in order to fit in.  This is, of course one of the purposes of slang or jargon or “shibboleths”; to identify members of a social group, or to confer insider status to those “cool enough” to know the terminology and be able to use it correctly.  If you don’t know the terminology at all, you’re a total outsider.  If you know the terms but stumble finding acceptable contexts to use them in, you’re pretty clearly linguistically marked to those in the know as someone trying to fit in.  Someone new.  Someone who maybe hasn’t really earned their place in the group or carved out an identity yet.  Someone like Thomas.  The linguistic markers of social status might be even more important in a setting like the Glade, where there is very little to go on otherwise.  For survival purposes, everyone is forced to share labor, food, and sleeping areas, nobody has access to ‘cool’ clothes or accessories, nobody can remember if they had famous parents or tournament trophies or straight As or a girlfriend before the Glade.  Everyone has to start over finding a new social footing by navigating the new slang terms.

The real reason for the Glader slang, of course, is so that the characters can curse in a manner that won’t be objectionable for a young audience to read.  So it’s kind of disappointing, because the Glade-specific language conventions could have been more complex and interesting, and designed by the author in a way to give more insight to the community, but we’ll just have to be content with what we’ve got.

I suppose  that Grievers, Creators, Greenie, Sloppers, Runners, Keepers, Builders, Bricknicks, Baggers, Track-hoes, Slicers, and  Med-jacks all count as Glader slang, but they’re pretty self-explanatory (if largely unnecessary), so I’m just going to focus on defining by examples “shank”, “klunk”, “shuck”, and “good that.”  Thomas hesitantly uses the latter phrase during an exchange with his assigned buddy, where he also explicitly references the fact that he’s unfamiliar with the terminology.  (I’m labeling this excerpt and all others to be included in this post,as well as including page numbers which are from the version with ISBN 978-0-375-89377-3).

(1) “You’ll learn a lot in the next couple of days, start getting used to things. Good that?”

“Um, yeah, good that, I guess.  Where’d all these weird words and phrases come from, anyway?” It seemed like they’d taken some other language and melded it with his own.

Chuck flopped back down with a heavy flump.  “I don’t know–I’ve only been here a month, remember?” -p. 34

Thomas’ observation isn’t very linguistically astute–come on, dude, it’s a handful of terms, not a melding of two phonetic, syntactic, morphological etc. systems, or “languages”.  Acquiring Glader slang is a simple matter of observing the examples provided throughout the book.


This term appears to be just a general term for “person”.  It’s derogatory, (the neutral term for “person” is Glader and just refers to the fact that’s where they all live), but can be endearing, such as in (3).  Perhaps most interestingly, Newt uses it in (9) to refer to the Creators, so it can apparently be used to refer to entities outside the Maze as well. (Go ahead and call each other shanks, Maze Runner fans!)  Also interesting to note is the exchange in (7), which highlights the fact that Thomas is still acquiring Glade-speak, both in his pause before and over-emphasis of the term “shank” and in Newt’s response of laughing and referring to him as a “Greenie”.  There’s also an example of “shank” in (15), under the section for “shuck”.

(2) “It’s a long story, shank,” -p. 8


(3) “Chuck’ll be a good fit for ya,” Newt said. “Wee little fat shank, but nice sap when all’s said and done. Stay here, I’ll be back.”

-p. 11


(4) “Beetle blade,” the boy said, pointing to the top of the tree. “Won’t hurt ya unless you’re stupid enough to touch one of them.”  He paused. “Shank.”  He didn’t sound comfortable saying the last word, as if he hadn’t quite grasped the slang of the Glade. -p. 13


(5) “This shank probably klunked his pants when he heard old Benny baby scream like a girl.  Need a new diaper, shuck-face?” -p. 17


(6) Thomas shook his head.  “Don’t be sorry.  The…shank deserved it, and I don’t even know what a shank is.  That was awesome.” He felt much better. -p. 33


(7) “Well, it’s kind of stupid to send me to a place where nothing makes sense and not answer my questions.” Thomas paused, surprised at himself. “Shank,” he added, throwing all the sarcasm he could into the syllable.

Newt broke out into a laugh, but quickly cut it off. “I like you, Greenie.  Now shut it and let me show ya something.” -p. 37


(8) Thomas looked at Newt sharply, hurt by the rebuke. “You think I do things to impress you shanks?  Please.  All I care about is getting out of here.” -p. 260


(9) Newt shook his head back and forth, staring at the ground.  Then he looked up, took in the other Keepers.  “The Creators–those shanks did this to us, not Tommy and Teresa.  The Creators.  And they’ll be sorry.” -p.309


Chuck provides a clear definition and an etymology for this term in (12).  The usage in (10) is weird, (he’s a poo? Not “piece of klunk/poo”? Maybe klunk is a count noun, even though poo is a mass noun?), and I think the construction is kind of forced because the author wanted to overwhelm Thomas (and readers) with as much slang as possible when the Box door opens.  Also, note in (13) another explicit reference to Thomas’ acquisition of Glader slang.

(10) “I told ya, shuck-face,” a shrill voice responded. “He’s a klunk, so he’ll be a Slopper–no doubt about it.”  The kid giggled like he’d just said the funniest thing in history. -p. 6


(11) “Whacker, if we told you everything, you’d die on the spot, right after you klunked your pants.  Baggers’d drag you off, and you ain’t no good to us then, are ya?” -p. 10


(12) “We live here, this is it. Better than living in a pile of klunk.”  He squinted, maybe anticipating Thomas’s question. “Klunk‘s another word for poo.  Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots.” -p. 15


(13) The second hour was spent actually working with the farm animals–feeding, cleaning, fixing a fence, scraping up klunk.  Klunk.  Thomas found himself using the Glader terms more and more. -p.78


I think this was the most inconsistent of the Glader slang terms introduced in the book; it most often appears as the insult “shuck-face” (in examples (5) and (10) above as well as several below,) or the expletive “shuck it,” but in examples (23) and (24) it used as an adverb and verb participle, respectively.  It seems obvious what real-world English expletive it’s substituting for, which is why it’s so weird that on page 334 Minho uses “freaking”, another PG derivative of the same real-world expletive, where presumably “shucking” would have been acceptable, especially judging by the example in (23).  Minho’s utterance that Alby “freaking sacrificed himself for us–” is the only instance of “freaking” in the entire book, and seems out of place.

The construction in (14) is another unusual example like the one in (10), and it also appears in the same scene of Thomas’ entry to the Glade.  I don’t know why it doesn’t just say “shucking neck” instead of bare “shuck”, but there aren’t any examples (that I noticed) of “shucking” as an adverb.

(14) “Look at the Greenbean,” a scratchy voice said; Thomas couldn’t see who it came from. “Gonna break his shuck neck checkin’ out the new digs.” -p. 5


(15) “Shuck it,” Alby said, rubbing his eyes. “Ain’t no way to start these conversations, you get me?  We don’t kill shanks like you here, I promise.  Just try and avoid being killed, survive, whatever.” -p. 9


(16) “Pipe it, shuck-face,” Alby grunted, pulling Newt down to sit next to him. -p. 9


(17) “Shuck it,” he said. “Can’t the bloody Med-jacks handle that boy for ten minutes without needin’ my help?” -p. 12


(18) “The Changing!” Gally shouted from below. “Look forward to it, shuck-face!” -p. 19


(19) “I’m gonna kill you, shuck-face!” Gally yelled, but Chuck was already off the box and running toward the open Glade. -p. 31


(20) Newt let out a long sigh. “Shuck it. But that’s not really what has me buggin’.” p. 107


(21) “You don’t understand, shuck-face!  You don’t know anything, and you’re just making it worse by trying to have hope!  We’re dead, you hear me? Dead!” -p.117


(22) Thomas rolled his eyes.  “She’s not my girlfriend, shuck-face.”

“Wow,” Chuck said. “You’re already using Alby’s dirty words.” -p.281


(23) “She’s right, Chuck–you saved us, man! I told you we needed you!” Thomas scrambled to his feet and joined the other two in a group hug, almost delirious.  “Chuck’s a shucking hero!” -p. 347


(24) The sense of normalcy was almost overwhelming.  Too good to be true.  Minho said it best on entering their new world: “I’ve been shucked and gone to heaven.” -p. 368

Good that

See also example (1) from above.  This was my favorite, because it’s clearly a new construction whose correct use is crucial in ingratiating oneself with the Glade hierarchy, but it’s not actually new words.  It signals agreement or consent.  I never saw it used as a blanket positive, like somebody eating one of Frypan’s meals and declaring it “good that!”, which would have been fun, but then we’re not really given much non-plot-centric dialogue.

(25) Thomas fumed, wanted to punch somebody.  But he simply said, “Yeah.”

“Good that,” Alby said. -p. 10


(26) “If I can convince those shanks–and that’s a big if–the best time to go would be at night.  We can hope that a lot of the Grievers might be out and about in the Maze–not in that Hole of theirs.”

“Good that.”  Thomas agreed with him–he just hoped Newt could convince the Keepers. -p.317


I wasn’t paying much attention to instances of “slinthead” while I read, so I don’t know if I am missing some, but it appears to be an insult.  As for “slim”, I don’t remember seeing it anywhere except as an order to Thomas from Alby when he first arrives in the Glade (27).

(27) “Just slim yourself nice and calm.” -p. 6


(28) “And stay away from me, you little slinthead.” -p. 19


(29) “Ain’t you got a job, slinthead?” Alby asked. “Lots of sloppin’ to do?” -p.41

I am curious to know whether the slang persists in the sequel, The Kill Order, since by the end of The Maze Runner the main characters have escaped the maze and are in a different setting surrounded by strangers.  It would be my guess that Glader slang would become even more important in this situation, as a way for the boys to self-identify as a cohesive group when their circumstances no longer reflect it so obviously.  On the other hand, some of the boys might drop the slang or pick up/invent new slang as a way to reject having the identity of test-subject Glader forced upon them, or as a way to try to gain access to a new social group, if they decide they identify with their “rescuers”, or with WICKED.  Either way, though, I don’t think I’m actually curious enough to read the second book.

*update* For those interested, Grammar Girl has posted an interview with author James Dashner on the subject of Maze Runner slang.


Filed under Books, language

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.)


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.


Filed under language, movies, nerd

The Hogwarts Cheer

The Hogwarts Cheer is something that appears in several of the Harry Potter movies.  I don’t mean a “go-fight-win” cheer, I mean an actual, clapping, cheering, whoo-hooing phenomenon that I have dubbed “Hogwarts Cheer,” which I now use to label similar cheesy celebrations in other movies.  A Hogwarts Cheer isn’t just a crowd cheering–lots of movies have cheering crowds and they aren’t cheesy at all.  But if it is cheesy, and especially if there are children, (and at least one of them is saying “yaaaaaaay!”), and the whole thing is symbolic of the protagonist’s victory and/or the antagonist’s downfall, then you’ve got yourself a Hogwarts Cheer.

The original Hogwarts Cheer ^

The original Hogwarts Cheer of course is at the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Gryffindor wins the house cup.  Click here to see the clip.  See what I mean?  It’s a little overly enthusiastic, right?  But it’s the feel-good end of a children’s movie, so, it fits.  We see the Hogwarts Cheer again at the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, (click here to see), when Hagrid is released from Azkaban and re-instated as Hogwarts groundskeeper.  Then in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, the students give a Hogwarts Cheer to Professor McGonagall for vanquishing Snape from the castle, (click here and skip to 3:05 to see), and right after that when she sends the Slytherins to the dungeons, (an action which I have already pointed out as a flaw in the film), there is an abbreviated Hogwarts Cheer. (Click here and skip to 49 second mark to see).

Snape would never participate in a Hogwarts Cheer. He claps too slow, plus he would never say "yaaaay!"

Basically, a Hogwarts Cheer is anything that sounds like this:

I know there was a great big Hogwarts Cheer at the end of Dolphin Tale, but I can’t find a clip of it online.  There have got to be tons of other examples, too, but since I am the only person I know so far who uses this term I can’t exactly google “Hogwarts Cheer examples other movies” or something.  I think the fact that I continue to use the label “Hogwarts Cheer” even when the context isn’t related to Harry Potter is just another example of the far-reaching cultural influence of the beloved series.

Do you know what I’m talking about?  Can you think of any other examples of the Hogwarts Cheer?


Filed under language, nerd

Problems with “Project Nim”

I went to a screening of the documentary “Project Nim” recently.  The film is in very limited release, but it is very interesting and worth checking out if you get a chance.  I went out of an interest in the project itself, since it is one I have heard referenced numerous times in my linguistics classes, but I didn’t know all of the specifics.   Well, this documentary wasn’t interested in the science and data.  It was much more focused on the people involved, and seemed to be questioning whether this whole project was even very “scientific” at all.  It’s also seems directed towards making the point that Nim’s treatment over the span of his life was unjust.

isn't baby Nim just adorable?

The film is actually based on a book written by Elizabeth Hess, called “Nim Chimpskey: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.”  I have yet to read it myself, so I can’t comment on how the movie may differ from it’s print source of inspiration.  Like most documentaries, the narrative is largely told by various interviews with those involved recalling anecdotes and opinions about their experiences, and there is also some archival footage of Nim playing around or signing.  Although there wasn’t as much information on the actual data and results as I was expecting, it was still an incredibly fascinating look at the interpersonal dynamics behind such a famous research project.

I definitely came away from the film with some unflattering impressions of many of the individuals involved with Nim, (crazy hippie, naive assistant, smarmy, lecherous, callous professor), but it’s difficult to tell how much of those impressions are due to the way the movie was edited.  We of course don’t see anyone’s complete interview, only the most relevant (or outrageous) soundbites.  And there are shots included of Herbert Terrace, lead researcher on the project, smoothing down his mustache in-between questions, which is perhaps unfair footage to include since it’s not really part of the interview and makes him look like a creepy old man.  But then, he admits that he slept with two of Nim’s teachers, and “[doesn’t] think it affected the science at all.”  (I remain unconvinced on that point.)  Also, it’s hard to think of  a context that would make many of the quotes by the woman who was Nim’s original primary caretaker, Stephanie LaFarge, sound sane.

One question that kept occurring to me as I watched was how such a seemingly unorganized, unplanned project  was ever funded or approved in the first place.  Every experimental research project that I have first-hand knowledge of from my own University is ten times more methodically planned, organized, approved and executed than Project Nim appears to have been.  Were the seventies such a different time period?  In a similar vein, I couldn’t help but wonder how a project with such obvious flaws brought such acclaim and academic career advancements for many of those involved.

Nim with one of his teachers, Laura-Ann Petitto

As much as I disliked Terrace by the end of the film, I had to agree with his conclusion, (based on my limited observation of the sessions and data included in the film), that Nim did not display syntax and was merely performing signs as a behavioral, not linguistic, response to elicitation.   However, this experiment was not conducted in a way that conclusively shows chimpanzees are incapable of acquiring language naturalistically!  It was a sensational case because of the way that Nim was raised with a human family, but neither Stephanie nor any of her children knew any sign language before Nim came to live with them.  They learned individual signs and taught them to him explicitly.  Later, an undergraduate Research Assistant, Laura-Ann Petitto, takes over Nim’s instruction, (because Stephanie refused to take notes, charts, or schedules, insisting Nim “wouldn’t have thrived” in such an orderly environment), and constructed daily lesson plans for the chimp.

Does any of that sound remotely like the way human babies acquire language?  Do their mothers learn one or two words a day and then teach it to the baby?  Do their nannies make lesson plans, and quiz them on the words they were taught the day before?  Of course not.  Children learn language by being exposed to natural language use going on all around them, and yes, sometimes directed towards them.  If Terrace really wanted to investigate whether a chimp could learn language “like a human”, he should have placed him with a family that regularly used sign language to communicate not only with him, but with each other.  It struck me as very strange that Nim’s handlers, in the clips shown, used only signs with him, but wouldn’t speak verbally while signing, yet they spoke out loud to one another in his presence.  What a confusing linguistic environment!  No wonder his signing never resemble human language!

In many ways, watching this documentary reminded me of what it was like to read the book Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, a similarly behind-the-scenes look at another very famous, often-cited linguistic case that was also surrounded by ethical controversies and interpersonal drama among the researchers.  I think there’s probably always some degree of drama when people work together on anything, but it seems that these high-profile cases attract more of it.  The movie “Project Nim” does a great job of presenting the juiciest bits of that drama up for our entertainment, but hopefully it also provides an opportunity for some critical analysis on the way this and any scientific experiment ought to be conducted.

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Filed under language, movies

Analyzing “The Help” Dialogue

As I mentioned previously, the book and movie “The Help”, by Kathryn Stockett, have been surrounded by controversy even as they have both performed very successfully in sales.  One such criticism came from the Association of Black Women Historians.  They said:

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.

You can read the Association’s entire statement here.  I am not an expert on dialects of the Southern United States, much less those of the particular time period represented in the movie.  But I think I would agree that the maids’ dialogue in the film is probably not a completely accurate portrayal.

There is a variety of English known as AAVE (African-American Vernacular English, sometimes referred to as “ebonics”), that has some more noticeable differences from SAE (Standard American English) than some other dialects.  Some of these differences are phonological and affect the pronunciation of words, but some are syntactic and affect the construction of sentences.  Very briefly, to provide some background for analyzing dialogue in “The Help,” I am including some information on this variety.  The image below is a scan of the most relevant page on syntactic features of AAVE from An Introduction to Language, by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams.

With this context of Be-deletion, Habitual Be, let’s revisit some of the maids’ dialogue from “The Help,” which I posted the other day.

Let’s start with Aibileen’s mantra that she repeats often to the child she cares for:

You is kind, you is smart, you is important.

That doesn’t fit with either the be-deletion rule or the Habitual “Be” usage.  Since this is a construction where SAE could contract the copula, (“you’re kind,” etc.), it is likewise a construction where be-deletion is possible in AAVE, (“you kind.”)  However, when it comes to Habitual “Be”, the absence of a copula communicates a temporary state of being.  It’s very similar to the ser/estar forms in Spanish.  To convey what Aibileen clearly intends in this case, though, that no matter if the little girl has accidentley peed when it’s socially unacceptable or whatever the case, she as a person should believe she is enduring kind, smart, and important, the construction really should be “you be kind, you be smart, you be important.”

The be-deletion in some of Aibileen’s other lines are in line with these rules:

Aibileen: She [Jolene] havin’ bridge club right now, may I take a message?

Miss Jolene isn’t perpetually having bridge club, so this form is correct for AAVE to communicate that at the moment she is busy.  But then, she says:

It hard.  You go try and see.  [on recruiting more maids to tell Skeeter their stories.]


[one of her white charges was] always axin’ me how come I’s black.  I told him one time it was ‘cuz I drunk too much coffee.

To me the construction “It be hard” is more fitting; in the conversation where this line appears, it isn’t the case that tonight they’ve been trying to recruit and having difficulty.  It is the case that they’ve been trying, over a long period of time, without success.  So the Habitual “Be” form makes much more sense.  I’m not a speaker of the AAVE dialect, so I can’t provide a judgment, but to me “it hard” doesn’t even sound okay the way that “it be hard” does.  (Please leave me a comment if you do have a native speaker judgment on this or any other construction).  Of course “it hard” is a construction that would allow contraction in SAE, (“it’s hard,”), so, maybe this is just plain copula deletion.  But in the second construction, Aibileen uses a conjugated form of “to be” not used with first person in SAE, and contracts it;  “how come I’s [I is] black”.   So how do we analyze that?  Is this the same pattern being used in the “you is kind, you is smart, you is important” phrasing?  Why does a single speaker, Aibileen, exhibit such inconsistent copula usages?  Why is one of her most iconic, oft-repeated lines (“you is smart” etc) in a construction that she really doesn’t use throughout the rest of the film?

AAVE is one variety of English, and there are several variations within this variety, just like any other dialect.  Every speaker may have their own way of speaking that does not necessarily follow the general trend.  Here’s a source that says generalizing the use of “is” can be a feature (“an exception to the rule”) of AAVE.  So, maybe that could explain those constructions.  But…to me, it lacks consistency.  When real people speak a dialect, (and everybody that speaks a language speaks a dialect, or variety, of that language), they follow consistent grammar rules.  Maybe those rules don’t match the ones you learn in school, but that is the way the human brain produces and interprets language data, through a system of rules.  That’s what Linguists mean when we say grammar, the rules in a native speaker’s head.  What’s frustrating to me in this movie is that the dialogue of the maids does not appear to be consistent with itself, does not necessarily represent the way any one individual actually speaks, but does appear (to me) to mash together features from several varieties of AAVE and in the process perhaps unintentionally prolong sociolinguistic stereotyping.

There is no such thing as an ignorant or simple dialect.  But there are social stereotypes associated with various ways of speaking, (and the attitudes around AAVE in particular have long been a hot-button issue.  See discussions on the topic at The Linguist List.)  You can tell me that I’m over-analyzing, over-thinking it, it’s just a movie, it can’t be expected to be held up as a reliable reference.  And that’s true.  But did you know that the alien Na’vi language from Avatar is an actual language system, complete with phonological, morphological, and syntactic rules, that the filmmakers paid a linguist to create?  Yeah.  Paul Frommer, and he spent four years developing it before the movie came out.  And I know “The Help” didn’t have the budget that Avatar did.  But was an effort even made to be historically accurate with the maids’ dialect?  The only reference I could find (via google) to a dialect coach for the film, (Nadia Venesse according to the credits), was in an article that said

“…the dialect coach has been really specific and has recorded people whose dialects were pure according to that time period.”

But that was from an interview with Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays one of the white Southern ladies.  Was the same effort made with all the dialects represented in the film?  I have to assume so, but why didn’t any interviewer think to ask Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer about that?  Their lines are much more interesting, from a dialect perspective.  Did people think it would be insensitive to ask?  Were people afraid to approach the subject at all, given the touchy nature of the subject and the history of debates over attitudes towards AAVE in this country? Did people think about it at all or did they just assume that’s how black maids in the sixties talked?
Am I the only one thinking about this?
Does anybody with more expertise want to weigh in?


Filed under language, movies

Nitpicking “Apes”

I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” (RotPotA), last night.  It was so good!  Truly amazing how much storytelling and conveyance of emotion and thought was accomplished with little to no dialogue and a main character who was completely motion-capture CGI.  Andy Serkis is brilliant.  The people at WETA are brilliant.  It was a fantastic movie.


But, you know, I’m a nerd and my brain has a tendency to look for logic, even in fantasy.  It doesn’t have to be “real” but I like for my stories to be realistic, assuming the imagined events really happened.  I’m totally willing to suspend disbelief and accept that aliens could show up, but then I want their ships to be designed for actual space travel, and I don’t want them speaking English unless there is a very good explanation for how and why they learned it.  That type of thing.  So with RotPotA, while I enjoyed the film very much overall and was moved by Ceasar’s journey, there were a few things that didn’t add up.  And I’m willing to overlook them and say it was still a great story, very well-told, but come on, isn’t this the type of thing having a blog is for?  Being able to complain about tiny details in movies that didn’t make sense?

Okay, so first of all, although it was a very handy storytelling device that made power dynamics very clear, and although it provided some very emotional moments, Caesar should not have known the palm-up “supplicating gesture”.  Unless Will taught it to him, but he obviously didn’t, because he didn’t recognize what it was and had to have Caroline, (his eventual girlfriend), explain it to him.  When they go to the redwoods reserve for the first time, Will takes the leash off of Caesar and says something like, “if I take this off, you’ve gotta promise to stay in my sight.  I’ll never find you again otherwise.”  Caesar is eager to explore and climb the giant trees, but he stays put, looking up at Will pleadingly and extending his hand palm-up.  Will doesn’t know what he wants, but Caroline says, “He’s asking your permission.  It’s a supplicating gesture,” and takes Will’s hand to brush his fingers across Caesar’s palm, giving him the permission he feels he needs to run off and explore.  The same gesture comes back several times later on, and as I said, it is very useful.

But the problem with the way it was introduced is that Caesar wouldn’t have known it if, as Will says when he surrenders him to the ape reserve, “He’s never spent any time around other apes.”  He was raised entirely around humans, and Will taught him several signs, but not this one.  So how does Caesar know it?  Is it supposed to be an innate knowledge, like spiders weaving webs?  Some animal communication systems are instinctual, like bees and their waggle dances, but many others, even some types of birdsong, baby animals have to learn through socialization with others of their kind.  I’m not an expert on primates, but as far as I know apes are not born with an innate knowledge of any kind of social interaction or communication skills such as this “supplicating gesture.”  So it is possible that all or most of the other apes would be familiar with this gesture, having lived amongst other apes that also used it, but Caesar would have no knowledge of it unless Will (or Caroline, or somebody) had taught it to him.  It would be more likely that he would have signed ASL for “please” or something in this situation, showing the same deference to Will as the alpha male but using a different communication symbol.

Caesar’s transition to spoken language, while emotionally powerful, is equally illogical.  The whole reason that many apes have been taught to sign in research (or circuses, I guess, according to that orangutan), is because it’s impossible for them to speak as humans do.  As George Yule put it in his introductory textbook The Study of Language,

“…it has become clear that non-human primates do not actually have a physically structured vocal tract which is suitable for articulating the sounds used in speech.  Apes and gorillas can, like chimpanzees, communicate with a wide range of vocal calls, but they just can’t make human speech sounds.”

Probably an ape with super-intelligence like Caesar really could say or approximate something very similar to “No!”, but there is no way he could say “Caesar is home,” the way the does at the end.  (Sorry if I just spoiled that bit for you.)  Just the word “Caesar” would be impossible, two alveolar fricatives (s,z) and a retroflex approximant (r)?!  Not happening.

If an ape was exposed to a drug that caused increased brain functioning resulting in super-intelligence, it is entirely possible that he would either vastly expand his signing inventory, (a few hundred signs is the most that apes in research have been able to acquire, compared to thousands of words the average human knows), or even that he would develop his own complex form of spoken language, it just wouldn’t sound anything like English.  Or any other human language.  I mean, I realize that this development had to happen, plot-wise, in order to set up the original Planet of the Apes movies in which they all talk, but I’m just saying, increased brain functioning doesn’t explain how that could have happened.  You’d need an evolution of the vocal tract, too.

And by the way, after watching RotPotA I googled “what is an ape” since I was never sure about the exact definition.  Wikipedia says the word has several different senses, and in the process of reading I saw “Except for gorillas and humans, hominoids are agile climbers of trees.”  So that presents another problem for the movie, because when they break out of the ape habitat they have a gorilla in their group, so how did the gorilla (Buck) keep up when they were swinging through the trees and knocking all the leaves down onto that jogger on their way to the zoo and the bridge?  I’m just saying.  Realistically he wouldn’t have been able to keep up.

Oh well.  It is still a great movie.


Filed under language, movies, nerd

Bad Beginnings…no really, BAD…

Came across this the other day.  It’s a pretty hilarious read.  It’s a contest (the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest) that I’ve head about before where the goal is to write the worst possible first line for an imaginary novel.  Click here to enjoy the full list.  Here’s some of my favorites:

The victim was a short man, with a face full of contradictions: amalgam, composite, dental porcelain, with both precious and non-precious metals all competing for space in a mouth that was open, bloody, terrifying, gaping, exposing a clean set of asymptomatic impacted wisdom teeth, but clearly the object of some very comprehensive dental care, thought Dirk Graply, world-famous womanizer, tough guy, detective, and former dentist.

Within the smoking ruins of Keister Castle, Princess Gwendolyn stared in horror at the limp form of the loyal Centaur who died defending her very honor; “You may force me to wed,” she cried at the leering and victorious Goblin King, “but you’ll never be half the man he was.”

As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.

As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.

Dawn crept up like the panther on the gazelle, except it was light, not dark like a panther, and a panther, though quiet, could never be as silent as the light of dawn, so really the analogy doesn’t hold up well, as cool as it sounds, but it still is a great way to begin a story; just not necessarily this particular one.

And this one was the actual winner:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

(The winning lines were written by Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI).

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