The Linguists: First impressions
October 14, 2009
This evening I’ll be going to Stanford for a showing and subsequent panel discussion of ‘The Linguists’, a movie about the documentation of endangered languages, that follows the narrative thread of the travels of two linguists, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, as they look for speakers of several endangered languages. Although the movie has been out for some time, I just watched it for the first time yesterday. It is now available free online (here), so if you are interested, take a gander.
This movie is probably one of the most public faces that language documentation has at present, so I really wanted it to be good — unfortunately, I found it pretty disappointing. I think that there was an opportunity here for a deep, fascinating, and moving presentation of the social, political and intellectual issues involved in language shift and the work of communities and linguists in response to this global phenomenon, and although there were some aspects of the movie that strayed in these directions, the subject matter tended to be played for cheap National Geographic-style exoticization, pseudo-dramatic physical adventure, and laughs. And I felt sorry for the two linguists who were caught up in this movie, as the editing and structure of the movie had the effect, I felt, of trivializing the nature of their work and personal commitment.
I could have imagined ‘The Linguists’ having three positive foci: 1) giving an idea of language endangerment from the perspective of the communities in which the use of these languages is dwindling, examining the forces leading to language shift, what this language shift means to people in these communities, and how communities are responding to these circumstances; 2) explaining the significance of the global reduction in linguistic diversity to scientific efforts to understand our species; 3) providing an idea of what language documentation and description is like as a practical activity, and what the intellectual challenges and excitement involved are.
The movie touched all three of these, but in a distressingly superficial manner, and instead presented a story of derring-do that focused more on the banal drama of traveling to fieldsites and locating speakers, and on photogenic shots of local folklore and scenery, as on these profound and interesting issues. Interestingly, if you followed the link above, there were a number of clips following the main movie that appear to be portions of the movie that ended up on the cutting room floor, which focused on the speakers of several highly endangered languages and some language revitalization efforts. Watch them if you have the chance. I think these vignettes, in which these speakers reflect on their languages, the process of language shift they’ve witnessed, and their relationships with younger generations and the diminishing generations of speakers, are much more eloquent and interesting than the movie that was eventually made. I’m not sure why the creators of the movie decided to omit these moving testimonies, and instead opted for ‘Indiana Jones and the Lost Phoneme’. Maybe this is just part of pattern one sees where film makers have a hard time making movies about indigenous or minority peoples without inserting a major white protagonist or two.
Given that the movie focused on the two linguists so strongly, we could have hoped for a rich presentation of what documentary and descriptive linguistics is like in a fieldwork context, but even here the movie was quite poor. The movie seemed to give the impression that one picks a place on map, swoops in, spends a couple of days collecting some wordlists, and maybe a text, and then zooms off to the next endangered language, apparently chosen at random. Absent from this presentation of linguistic fieldwork was a discussion of the reasons that lead linguists to work on particular languages, anything beyond a few comments that language documentation normally involves a serious time commitment and the building of relationships with speakers and the communities in which they live (which were completely undercut by the rest of the movie!), or the fact that linguistic fieldwork involves a lot of analysis and intellectual work, and is not simply lexical butterfly-collecting. Since there were two linguists, I could imagine having been able to shoot some interesting discussions between the two about the analysis of some point of the grammar, like — who knows — the alignment system of one of the languages, or maybe even just figuring out a phonemic inventory. Sure, it would have been impenetrable to most of the audience, but that would be fine — as sci-fi movies show, abstruse scientific babble can serve as way to index a kind of deep intellectual engagement with a technically complex field.
Endangered languages, linguistic fieldwork, and language documentation could all use a public face to enable the broader public to understand what is at stake in these domains, and what work in each of them entails. ‘The Linguists’, however, seems to me to fall far short of the mark. I’ll be interested to see what the audience and my fellow commenters think.