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Hollywood Uses Language to Mirror Social Rifts in the Future
Posted by Donald A. DePalma on August 16, 2013  in the following blogs: Global Marketing, Interpreting, Market Data
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In a world depicted on film, some languages thrive. The newly released film Elysium uses language to highlight the divide between the most and least fortunate people on a future Earth. Set in the year 2154, factory worker Max (Matt Damon) is among the unfortunate billions living on a worn-out and over-populated planet – a dystopia. He resides in sprawling third-world Los Angeles where everyone, Damon included, speaks Spanish and English. 

High above the planet, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is responsible for protecting a luxurious space station with all the amenities one would desire – but it’s just for the wealthy. Delacourt speaks English but at a cocktail party she sprinkles her conversation with flawless French. Bilingual Foster didn’t need a dialect coach – she acted in French-language films when she was a teenager. Foster’s cocktail party bon mots, couture, and coiffure paint her as a member of the privileged elite to Damon’s sweaty factory worker.

This isn’t the first film about the future that plays out the linguistic trends that we have identified in our research (see “ROI Lifts the Long Tail of Languages in 2012," Jun12). Spanish is already one of the most widely used languages and well ensconced in southern California. French falls further down the list. The big difference between reel and real life is that English and French will not necessarily continue to be the power or elite languages – or that Spanish, or for that matter Chinese, will continue to be lower down the linguistic hierarchy. Our research shows that the buying power of the speakers of these other languages has been rising year over year. But let’s pause reality for a bit and take a look at some films that have painted often bleak or dystopic multilingual futurescapes:

  • Firefly (2002) is a Western set in space, 500 years in the future. The crew of the small transport ship Firefly converses in English, except when they make a rude or scurrilous comment in Chinese. This show, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, is not quite a dystopia, but rather a story about the aftermath of a civil war among many planets colonized by refugees from the “Earth that was.” 

  • Like Elysium, Code 46 (2003) postulates a utopia for the privileged few and a tough life for everybody else. The translational elite who live in the cities speak a dialect of English with borrowings from Spanish, French, and Arabic. In this dystopian romance, an insurance investigator named William Geld (Tim Robbins) travels to Shanghai to find a factory producing false travel documents called “papelles.” Most of the foreign borrowings tend to be greetings and frequently used short expressions, resulting in mixed or macaronic combinations such as “it’s temporarily discontinuado.” Geld so frequently tells his lover in Spanish that he’s sorry that she replies, "I'm tired of your lo sientos.”

  • Cloud Atlas (2012) narrates the interconnectedness of people across history, as a soul is reincarnated from 1849 through the centuries and various continents until a final appearance in a post-apocalyptic, twenty-fourth-century Hawaii. It’s in that future where we encounter the Valleymen, one of whom is Zachry (Tom Hanks). By that time, English has morphed into a pidgin language. As in the novel (2004) that spawned it, you might “cogg” (recognize) some words as you hear Zachry “yibber” (speak) the “true true” (truth). 

  • Blade Runner (1982) is by far the most ambitious of these dystopias in creating a future macaronic language at a global crossroad. It is set in 2019 (which was still a long time away in 1982). Los Angeles looks like a very twentieth-century Hong Kong with signs and large video billboards. Rich Deckard (Harrison Ford) is hunting bioengineered replicants of humans. At a noodle bar, the mysterious cop Gaff (Edward James Olmos) speaks to Deckard in Cityspeak, a mix of Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Hungarian, and Japanese. Olmos created this language for his character, educating himself at the Berlitz School of Language near Hollywood. When he tells Deckard, "Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem, bitte!," the sushi master must interpret, "He say you under arrest, Mister Deckard."

What do these cinematic linguistics mean to you? Some languages will come to play a major role in the future while others will play bit parts, just as they do today, but there could be some reordering of economic value. In any case, being bilingual, at least with some basic expressions, will become more common. And there will always be someone like Harrison Ford’s character who is linguistically challenged, so there will always be a role for interpreters and translators.


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