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.

7 Responses to “The Linguists: First impressions”


  1. Hi Lev.

    I hope you at least enjoyed your screening at Stanford.

    First of all, it would be great to see the native perspective of your fieldwork on your website.

    Second, there is no need to feel sorry for David and Greg. They love the film and the effect it’s been having on audiences.

    I am not sure how a movie featuring a discussion of “alignment system” or “phonemic inventory” would capture an audience, even though “impenetrable” and “abstruse scientific babble” is the stuff of sc-fi movies. It also seems as far as you can get from a native perspective.

    Please understand that we filmmakers are tasked with making linguistics interesting to general audiences, not just other academics. Clearly we have failed you and I am sad that you reacted so negatively.

    I remember how interested you and Chris were in having us come out to film your Iquito project in 2005. Logistics made it too difficult at the time. It would have been nice to show the kind of work that you’re doing.

    Yours truly,
    Daniel

    • Lev Michael Says:

      Hi Daniel,

      I imagine that given your line of work you must have a pretty thick skin, but I’m still sorry that I didn’t have nicer things to say about the film. Please see my responses to your comments below…

      >First of all, it would be great to see the native perspective of your fieldwork on your website.

      I’ll be presenting a paper at the upcoming AAA meeting that will address this issue in part, and it should eventually take a form that will be more widely disseminated.

      >I am not sure how a movie featuring a discussion of “alignment system” or “phonemic inventory” would capture an audience, even though “impenetrable” and “abstruse scientific babble” is the stuff of sc-fi movies.

      Given your experience in the area, you’re probably right. I was just trying to think of some way to convey to the audience that linguistic analysis is technical and intellectually challenging, and not simply an issue of recording and transcribing.

      >It also seems as far as you can get from a native perspective.

      To be sure… but it is certainly very close to a *linguists* perspective, which might be relevant to a movie entitled “The Linguists” ;).

      >Please understand that we filmmakers are tasked with making linguistics interesting to general audiences, not just other academics.

      I very much understand that, but my dissatisfaction stems not from the fact that the movie was pitched to a general audience — that’s wonderful — but that it seriously misrepresented linguistics.

      >I remember how interested you and Chris were in having us come out to film your Iquito project in 2005. Logistics made it too difficult at the time. It would have been nice to show the kind of work that you’re doing.

      Well, all in all, things probably worked out for the best ;).

      Regards,
      Lev


      • My response:

        > I’ll be presenting a paper at the upcoming AAA meeting that will address this issue in part, and it should eventually take a form that will be more widely disseminated.

        Your upcoming paper at the AAA meeting sounds like you are on top of representing what native people think of your work.

        > Given your experience in the area, you’re probably right. I was just trying to think of some way to convey to the audience that linguistic analysis is technical and intellectually challenging, and not simply an issue of recording and transcribing.

        This feels like why so many archeologists hated the “Indiana Jones” films–an archeologists’ work should include rigorous analysis, regardless of the spotlight the film placed on archeology.

        > To be sure… but it is certainly very close to a *linguists* perspective, which might be relevant to a movie entitled “The Linguists” ;).

        I thought your number one imagined focus of this movie would be that it should give “an idea of language endangerment from the perspective of the communities in which the use of these languages is dwindling.”

        >I very much understand that, but my dissatisfaction stems not from the fact that the movie was pitched to a general audience — that’s wonderful — but that it seriously misrepresented linguistics.

        You are right. We are now producing a sequel. It’s called “The Linguists II: Angry Blogging.”

        >Well, all in all, things probably worked out for the best ;).

        Really? Feels like we just chose the wrong white linguists. ;).


  2. […] the movie followed, which I will omit here, since much of it was along the lines of my comments in this post. Moving on from there, we had interesting discussion about the generational locus of language […]

  3. Simeon Says:

    I would like to chime in here because I feel that Lev is raising important issues and that Daniel Miller’s response was fairly flippant. Lev’s reaction to this film is not simply the opinion of a single “angry blogger” who is jealous that “the wrong white linguists” got to be in a movie. In fact, very many linguists who do the kind of work depicted in the film are critical of its representational approach (people may be very polite because they agree with the general sentiment about the importance of minority languages, but be assured that other more candid conversations are also taking place). The filmmakers might be interested in asking why this is the case.

    There are several different reasons that people might critique ‘The Linguists’, one of them being an objection to the oversimplification of complex topics for the purposes of popularization. But I think that actually the strongest critique of the film concerns the way that it uses standard Hollywood-style narrative structures (including “buddy movie” and “Indiana Jones” as well as “National Geographic”) to show the linguists in a primary role and the minority speech communities in a secondary role. This is problematic because – as anyone who takes a critical look at media can attest – white, male, English-speaking protagonists dominate Western media.

    Reproducing these kinds of narrative structures actually doesn’t have anything to do with making complicated technical linguistic issues accessible to the general public, but rather has to do with how people of different races, genders and nationalities are marginalized in our media (often with excuses about “marketability”). In fact, some might argue that the influence of Western media in minority language communities actually contributes to the devaluing of local cultural practices, including negative effects on the use of minority languages! So some critics of the film may be reacting to what they see as an inconsistency between the film’s stated goals and its representational practices.

    It is true that many, perhaps most, field linguists are white English-speaking men, however many of us who fit this description try to maintain an ongoing dialogue about why this demographic skewing is problematic and about the possibilities for making our profession more diverse. At a few institutions special emphasis is being put on training native speakers of indigenous languages so that they will have the tools to do their own linguistics research in ways that is meaningful for their communities. Maybe someone should make a documentary about their efforts.


  4. Hi Simeon and Lev.

    I was trying to be funny rather than flippant. Sorry about that.

    Naturally with some exceptions, I have seen and heard all kinds of wonderful reactions to the film from the general public–from Sundance through the worldwide festival circuit through hundreds of ancillary screenings to PBS. I have in my possession countless letters from high school students and college kids telling me how it’s opened their eyes. Amazingly, many want to be linguists or enter a similar field.

    The native groups with whom I’ve screened have also enjoyed it (again with some exceptions). Many are overwhelmed by the stories of language loss (sometimes because they have felt isolated in their struggle), the meaning of languages to communities, its ties to culture, etc. The number of stories that have been recounted to me of personal language loss, the tears that have been shed, and the hugs that have been given as a result of this film are innumerable.

    Then there are linguists. I have been in both extremely positive screenings and also ones like Lev attended that spark criticism and debate. I love both. A few common threads I’ve found in the critical screenings.

    1. Some linguists don’t like being portrayed as outsiders. Even though we portray two expeditions into countries where David and Greg have worked for many, many years and one that is a pilot expedition, these linguists want the film to explicitly state that they mainly work with communities for long periods of time. They feel that the movie at times portrays them as culturally insensitive. David and Greg, as human beings, sometimes are. General audiences identify with this, but for linguists, it speaks to age-old criticisms of their work.

    2. Some linguists want to be shown helping native people revitalize their languages. We do feature some of that in our film, but they generally want more.

    3. Some linguists want more of a native perspective. That perspective is usually one that puts a strong value on native languages and revitalization efforts.

    4. Some linguists don’t want to be portrayed as esoteric collectors of words; others want more linguistic analysis of documentation. Sometimes the same linguists feel both ways.

    Simeon, your criticism of our film as a Hollywood-style contributor to language loss is a first. But if anything, it goes to show that linguists are a damn tough audience.

    There’s one thing I do know: if we made a movie that suited the needs of all linguists, I’m not sure we’d have a hit. I love all your feedback and it inspires me to keep trying though. So truly thanks, and no hard feelings whatsoever.

    • Simeon Says:

      Daniel, thank you for replying to my post – I think it is great that you and your associates on the film are engaging in dialogue online and at screenings. The sentiment of the film, to spread awareness about endangered languages, is really to be appreciated. I am sure that it often gets a positive reaction. I did not mean to imply that the film contributes to language endangerment, only that it uses some of the same devices as the kinds of mass media that do sometimes negatively impact the vitality of minority languages. You are probably right that linguists are a hard audience for a documentary about linguistics, but thank you for responding to some of the critiques you have been hearing.


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