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For our 52nd episode we decided to take a break from our usual format and just have a good time talking about movies and TV shows — with a conlang twist.  So, here we are listening to a bunch of conlang (and pseudo-conlang) dialogue from various properties and talking a little about what we like and don’t like.  Enjoy!

Top of Show Greeting: Doon

Properties Featured:

Bonus — a quiz we found on fictional languages.

30 Responses to “Conlangery #52: Conlangery at the Movies”

  1. Anthony Docimo

    This was a great episode. Full kudos to everyone.

    I almost wonder…what is happening to Firefly’s Mandarin as it loses tones.

    If memory serves, there was a fair amount of the Narn language spoken by the Narn samuri. (and you can’t forget the Vorlons tweeting and warbling before and while they talk)

    And Stargate’s languages are mostly planet names (Hanka), and the Jaffa language.

    Farscape had the Sabacean language – as spoken by Claudia Black…on the show – (1:50 onwards)
    and offshow –

    I had heard that Ku was a close relative of Shona.

    • admin

      I had some clips of Sebacean and Hymerian, since I’d been watching the entire run of Farscape on Netflix around the time we recorded this. But all sources tell me that Sebacean was made up on the spot, so clearly no where near a real conlang. Of course we do have an example in the show of something that’s probably not a proper language (Tenctonese), so we could have included it.

      I suppose the only reason I did want to play it is that bizarre ingressive sound that makes “Sebacean” sound sort of like English played backwards.

    • Zwap

      Stargate also has the language of the Unas, the first hosts of the Goa’uld. I don’t know how well developed it was, but you did get to hear it a few times. I even remember a word, ka, meaning “no”.
      Here’s the best clip I found on YouTube, not just because of the subtitles…

      • admin

        I forgot about Unas entirely. From what I remember hearing in the movies, it seems rather simple. Of course, Daniel never really managed to learn all that much of it.

  2. Anthony Docimo

    ps: on SG1, Ancients spoke (or downloaded into people) Medieval Latin. (so spake Daniel, so it must be) 🙂

  3. AlucardNoir

    Congratulations on a year’s worth of podcasts, looking forward to another one.

  4. CMunk

    Another movie with a conlang is “Caveman” from 1981. The language is very simple, basically just a bunch of words said without much grammar. But it is supposed to be a primitive caveman language, so it sort of works well. Also, this “language” is the main language of the movie, and nothing is translated, so it sort of teaches you the language as you watch the movie. For example every time they see a dinosaur they say “macha!”, so you sort of deduce what it means.

  5. john Erickson

    I wonder if Mel Gibson’s movies-in-dead-languages phase is related to the increased interest in conlangs in movie and TV. i.e. Maybe audiences are becoming more interested in hearing foreign language dialogue in general and less averse to subtitles.

    • admin

      Hmm, I don’t know. I have to say. I am tempted to go find Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto now, even though the first I refused to see when it came out for philosophical reasons and more generally I don’t like Mel Gibson.

      • John Erickson

        I haven’t seen Passion. Apocalypto was pretty good, albeit extremely violent. I was mostly interested in it for the language aspect, as it came out just as I was starting to get into conlanging.

        • Andrew J Smith

          According to my Kaqchikel Mayan teacher, the film was shot in modern day Yucatec Mayan. So, he was disappointed that they hadn’t tried to recreate or use the actual Mayan which would have been spoken during the time period in which the film took place. He was also disappointed in the other historical and cultural mistakes, especially about the eclipse. The Mayans were notoriously capable of accurately predicting astronomical events years, decades, centuries in advance. But that’s show business.

          • john Erickson

            That’s disappointing. I knew there were a lot of inaccuracies, but it was marketed as being in ancient Mayan.

          • admin

            That reminds me of a very jarring movie experience. I once saw what I’m going to call a Chinese “hisorical fantasy”* called Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Fantom Flame. In the opening scene, a Roman general is being escorted through a giant Buddha being constructed in honor of Wu Zetian. The Chinese are speaking in Modern Standard Mandarin, which doesn’t bother me at all — the audience has to understand them, and it’s the same convention we use when we film Arthurian fantasies in modern English. However, the Roman general was clearly speaking modern Castillian Spanish, complete with [θ]. My Chinese teacher didn’t really see the problem. I suppose there is a bit of a bias on my part as to the historical status of both languages: China can be seen as pretty much continually existing from the Qin dyanasty onward, whereas Spain didn’t really exist until the expulsion of the Moors.

            *I say this because it is set in a real historical time — the coronation of Wu Zetian — but strays incredibly far from the true history of Wu Zetian and Di Renjie (who was real, apparently, but a much more boring person in the real history) with some fantastic elements involved.

  6. Roman Rausch

    In the series ‘Crusade’ which is an obscure and quickly-cancelled spinoff of Babylon 5, there was a situation where the computer logs of an alien captain were deciphered in a similar fashion to the Rosetta stone: The scientist assumed that the most common word appearing in these logs should be ‘ship’ and matched it to the symbols. The rest apparently followed. While not exactly conlanging, it was nice to see that some consideration actually went into languages and it seems like a neat idea.

    I think that the best Elvish performance in the Lord of the Rings was given by Christopher Lee (Saruman). It’s a pity that he had so few lines, though. Still, for some reason, all the actors got the stresses wrong all over the place…

    • admin

      Interesting. Although, assuming that “ship” would be the most common word seems like a terrible idea. The most common words tend to be function words: articles, adpositions, etc. Hardly the kind of thing you could guess without any familiarity with the language.

    • MBR

      Not only that, but he spoke Quenya when he was trying to prevent the Fellowship from passing over Caradhras (or so I read many years ago).

  7. Panglott

    Interestingly, Stuart Tyson Smith, the UCSB Egyptologist who developed the Egyptian-derived language for “Stargate”, developed the reconstructed Egyptian used in “The Mummy”. He has some copies of media coverage of the language work on his Web site, but it’s mostly in PDF format =/ See “Egypt Revealed” here.

    Of the two, I’d think “Stargate” was the more fun work. It seems like it’d be a blast for an Egyptologist to try to figure out how to say “I see you’ve harnessed the power of the atom” in a language derived from Ancient Egyptian. But I’d reckon there’d be a path by analogy to ancient Greek.

  8. Andrew J Smith

    Well, for Mike or anyone who is actually interested, I found a site for the Divine Language of The Fifth Element: It seems that Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson made up pretty much all of it.

  9. Ossicone

    I finally got some time to catch up with these.

    1. Congrats on a year of podcasts!
    2. We never had any scheduling problems with me there. 😉
    3. If you ever do a “conlangs på tv” episode, I know Red Dwarf has an Esperanto clip.

  10. Owen

    No Star Wars? I’m kind of disappointed you didn’t include any mention of the languages in Star Wars. Ben Burtt was one of the first people to be a “language-creator” on a movie I would think; I know he used Quechua, and Bantu and Javanese etc for Huttese, Ewok

    • Anthony

      Those were conlangs? I had heard Star Wars’ alien languages were simply exotic human languages (Quechua, etc).

    • MBR

      If I remember correctly, even Geonosian is a modified natlang. The one site I found on it was considerably lacking in background info, which it had for the other Star Wars langs, but I was most disappointed with its explanation of Geonosian’s exotic sounds. It used “[horn]” for the high-tone, coarticulated syllabic, labiodental fricative, alveolar trill (at least, that’s how I make the sound), and the site seemed to suggest that the click were sans function, which of course is hogwash. I wouldn’t call the Star Wars langs conlangs per se; they’re more of “futzlangs”, languages that have been futzed with.

      For a true crime against conlanging, though, I hear Christopher Paolini’s “Ancient Language” is nothing but a plug-n-play relex of modern English using Old Norse. Pity that it wasn’t used much in the movie version Eragon (which they screwed up in every other way, too).

  11. Fredrik Ekman

    Coming a bit late into this discussion (I just recently started listening to Conlangery, though I have been aware of it for several years), I would nevertheless like to make a few comments on things said on the episode.

    First, regarding Esperanto in the movies. Inkubo was not the first. The year before (1964), the film Angoroj was made. Like Inkubo, it was long thought lost, but has been found and restored. I know I have downloaded it (legally, I think) from someplace online in the past, but it has no subtitles and my Esperanto is too poor to make any sense of it.

    Esperanto also saw limited use in several older movies, most famously in Chaplin’s The Dictator, though the earliest use I have been able to find was in The Last Laugh (1924). The director saw film as an inherently international pictorial “language” and wanted all shop signs etc in the film to reflect that, so everything except the only title card in the film was written in Esperanto. Anyway, it is a great film, so you should try to find it.

    The claim that the Paku language from The Land of the Lost was the first created specifically for a movie or TV series may or may not be correct. (You call it Pakuni on the podcast, but Victoria Fromkin herself used the singular form Paku for the language’s name.) There were at least two invented languages for movies before that, but whether any of them actually qualifies as an actual conlang has, to the best of my knowledge, never been analysed.

    The first was as early as 1939, in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Various sources disagree on whether the fictional language used in the film is a “proper” language or just a random hodgepodge of phrases derived from various natlangs. I have written a blog post about that film and the language therein.

    The second instance was Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), which contained a language made up by the director himself, though it is not clear if there is actually any working grammar behind it. This is another great film, incidentally.

    Interestingly, both these last films included their “conlangs” for the same reason that The Interpreter did – in order to create geographical and political ambiguity and avoid pointing out the bad guys directly (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union respectively).

    By the way, Victoria Fromkin also created the Vampire language for Blade (1998), though Blade II had a different language, and Blade III used Esperanto.

    You mentioned The Fifth Element, which has a conlang of sorts, though it is basically just an English relex. Boring.

    And the language for Alien Nation should probably be considered a real, though bad, conlang. I know I have seen a grammar for it online somewhere, and there is also a terrible writing system.

    Lots of other movies have interesting conlangs in them, for example the Japanese Macross series, Gattaca (Esperanto), The Time Machine, 30 Days of Night and La guerre du feu.

    • admin

      Looks like you’ve done a lot of research into this. I may try to take a look at a couple of those movies. By the way, I don’t recall hearing Esperanto in Gattaca, where is that?

      • Fredrik Ekman

        Yeah, I wrote an article for a conlanging fanzine once, but the zine folded before my article was published. Then I was to have it published someplace else (I forget where), but for some reason that never happened either. Now that article just lays around gathering digital dust on one of my old computers. An abbreviated version was published in the ERB-APA, in connection with the John Carter movie.

        I also have a list of some 50 or 60 movies with conlangs in them. Man of Steel is the latest one known to me, but I may have missed some, since I have not really stayed very up-to-date lately.

        Esperanto in Gattaca is more or less all over the place, but very subtle and elegant. Apparently, the future is bilingual English-Esperanto, so many signs, spoken messages, etc, are in Esperanto.

        • wm.annis

          Speaking as one of the editors of Fiat Lingua, we might be interested in that article about conlangs in film.

          • Fredrik Ekman

            I have considered submitting it, but then I would have to rewrite it, since it is pretty outdated nowadays. That would also involve making research into recently released films, etc. I will think about it, but it will not happen within the next couple of months, anyway.

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