Monday, February 11, 2013

No, He Really is a Cunning Linguist

Okay, I'm like... six weeks late to the game, but I finally saw Django Unchained last week.

I won't write a whole review here, because the movie's too big and I'm too dumb (I need to see it at least two more times to get even half a grip on it).  Still, I'll get in line behind my hip compadre Matt Borgard in saying, "Loved that it was a movie about slavery that said more than 'Slavery sucks, aren't white people awesome for ending it?'"

But let's scoot over out of the massive shadows of racism and history for a sec.  Let me tell you what was really exceptional and interesting and surprising as hell.  (Spoiler level: mild.)

It's rare enough to get a story with a protagonist who's explicitly multilingual, and rarer still for that ability to be central to the plot.   But I can't remember EVER seeing a bad guy "baddened" by his ignorance of other languages.  

Well, so why is that?  Why is this so unheard-of?

Possibly it's a byproduct of our famed American anti-intellectualism.  After all, science gets you Frankenstein, Godzilla, zombies, super-viruses, the Matrix, Reavers, SkyNet, GladOS, HAL 9000, and Krieger Kleanse.  And whatever learning the heroes need in order to handle up on all that is usually about controlling your powers, using the Force, Eye of the Tiger, the power:responsibility ratio, or some other montage-friendly combination of physical know-how and moral fortitude.  Basically, unless you're tracking down a serial killer or doing night shifts at a magical museum, fancy-pants learnings are a gateway drug to supervillainy.  (So put down the book and go for a jog, Faustus, before you get us all killed.)

Every time somebody does science, somebody else gets a workout.

And possibly it's simpler than that.  Americans skew monolingual (only 20.3% speak a language other than English at home, though of course that doesn't catch multilingual people who default to English), so why would we want heroes who make us feel stupid and inferior? 

Here's what I don't get, though. Even setting aside all explicit fantasy, our heroic canon is full of exotic people with fantastic skills. We thrill to watch secret agents and fighter pilots and unstoppable kung-fu badasses, cops, soldiers, athletes, cowboys, explorers, gangsters, smoldering playboy billionaires, and yes, even the occasional noble attorney or oddball inventor.

So it's not like we're threatened by heroes who are cooler, smarter, or more talented than ourselves.  That's practically a prerequisite.  If we thought it was sexy to speak other languages, the silver screen would be full of people doing exactly that.

Inflect your prepositions for me, baby.  I want your relational noun.

Quick, name three movie characters who speak French.

I got Inspector Clouseau, Pepe le Pew, and Gomez Addams.  For the record, that's an idiot, a skunk, and an Addams.  If you want someone more respectable, you can hit up Le Chiffre or the Merovingian, but then you're over to villainy in pretty short order. 

And if that's what we think of what's widely regarded as a lovely and sophisticated language (which is to say, the mother tongue of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys), what hope can there be for German (Nazis), or Spanish (illegals), or Russian (wacky potato-drunk commies), or Mandarin (sinister industrial commies), or Swahili (wait, where's Swahiland again?)

Is part of the reason our heroes don't speak these languages because we don't respect the people who do?

I don't know.  I do know that it is really, dangerously easy to fall into the "Americans are stupid xenophobic bigots" mindset, where we gnash our teeth and pillory the tabloid-reading, reality-televising, Bieber-beliebing lowest common denominator.  That way lies madness, and yelling at the kids to get off our lawns.

But I would like to find out more about when we lost our reverence for the so-called "classical education", and whether there's any hope for reviving the intellectual sexiness of languages.  (By the way, this is one reason why I'm so jazzed for Russell Connor's Sargasso - danger, mystery, and monsters in the Bermuda Triangle, and one of the leading ladies is a linguist!)

In the meantime, please feel free to add to my list: which of your favorite books and movies have language is a central feature?

--I am simply trying to ascertain -
--Speak English, goddammit!


  1. Can I quote you on "fancy-pants learnings are a gateway drug to supervillainy"

  2. By all means, spread the word - it's the only way to prevent further plans for world domination...!