"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dragons in Scotland?

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon for the fourth time in total, and I still love it. Not only is it a good story, but there's something true about it; it had that faint whiff of reality that makes it really fascinating. I don't mean in the dragons or whatever, but in the people and their relationships to each other. Anyway. The dragons--well, especially Toothless--are still fantastic, and now that I finally own the movie, I can watch it over and over and over again! :D Hooray!

There's one thing about this movie that really bothers me. It starts out being narrated by Hiccup, the main character, in standard American English, which is fine up until we starting meeting the other characters, like his father and his instructor, who, inexplicably, speak a dialect of Scottish English. More baffling, all of the adolescents in the film speak American, and all of the adults Scottish, for no explicable reason.

On the one hand, this makes no sense at all. Why would an isolated society develop two completely different dialects based solely on age? Answer: it wouldn't. This is bad enough as it is, but the movie goes so far as to draw attention to it: in the opening minutes of the movie, while complaining about his father's attitude towards him, Hiccup mocks his father by briefly adopting a Scottish accent--highlighting the fact that he does not actually speak that way. Later, Stoick (Hiccup's father) tells him that Hiccup will have to learn to "speak like us [the Vikings]"--which presumably means his dialect will change? Maybe when he hits puberty and his voice breaks, he'll start speaking Scottish instead? Linguistically, it's total nonsense.

But--from a sociolinguistic perspective, taking into account the biases of the audience watching the story from the outside, this makes a good deal of sense. First of all, the book and the movie are both geared toward children--specifically, American children. Accentual and dialectal variations immediately identify the speaker as an other, an outsider, with a marked difference in expression; making Hiccup and his cohorts speakers of a neutral/standard-ish dialect of American English makes sense in order to make Hiccup appealing and relatable to the majority of the target audience.

Alright, then. Why do the adults then speak a completely different dialect? Most obvious is that the movie is playing on My Fair Lady's Higgins' Law ("An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him") to its advantage. Accent implies otherness and outsiderness; hearing someone speak with an accent immediately triggers a different reaction than if one was to hear the same words from the same person with no accent. (I make this statement from personal experience; I'd love to see some studies on it, though.) Since one of the movie's main themes is the barrier between the older and younger generations and the difficulty of communicating new and dangerous ideas, the philosophical, ideological barrier that separates old from young and Stoick from Hiccup is given measurable, perceivable form through the use of a dialectal difference. Hiccup and Stoick literally do not speak the same language.

Notably, though, they still don't speak "the same language" at the end of the movie, after all of their problems have been miraculously resolved, perhaps foreboding further troubles and misunderstandings in the future.

Now, I'm not really in a position to debate whether Scottish is really the historically accurate dialectal flavor for Vikings to have--I don't have the necessary geographical and historical knowledge, and for heaven's sake, they're computer-animated dragon-riding Vikings, so that seems to be less of an issue for me. What I'd like to know is: why Scottish? If they were going for Viking-y, why not Norse or Scandinavian? The latter is easier to answer, it seems to me. Scottish English is a dialectal variant of the great mythical ideal called English, whereas a "Norse" or "Scandinavian" accent would actually be an accent, i.e. someone speaking English as an L2 and approximating the phonemes of English using the phonemes of their Scandinavian L1. Which is a long way to say that Scottish is better-established, more consistent, and more easily recognized as "being a thing" than a Scandinavian accent. (Again, speculation!). Even the American youth have a good chance of having heard Scottish before; the chance of them having heard a Scandinavian accent, or even recognizing it as such, seems to me to be much lower.

So, Scottish sounds exotic in a Celtic, northern sort of way, but is not so anonymous or evanescent as a Scandinavian accent. Still, though, why not, say, Irish? Or British? Now, I'm sure there are some historical reasons that come into play here that I shall not be bothered to look into at the moment, but I submit that at least part of the answer goes back to Higgins' Law, i.e. the language one uses immediately modifies the hearer's perception and attitude toward the speaker in accordance with the hearer's previously held beliefs and stereotypes associated with that particular language/dialect. I've argued before that Americans associate British English (particularly southern) with high levels of intellect, tea and crumpets, sophistication, and villainy (see: almost every American movie ever that has a clever, ruthless villain), which are not really the connotations you want to put with your Vikings. All American varieties of English are out, for being 1) too familiar and 2) out of context; Australian and other non-British varieties for reason number 2; which leaves you with Britain. You want your adult Vikings to be fierce, brave, mighty, and noble, and Scottish fits the bill. As the article linked above mentioned, it could go back to Braveheart and the stories of the Scottish struggle for freedom against English tyranny--something that resonates and sticks with American viewers, I would guess. Stereotypes aren't always the best thing in the world, but as far as they go, Scotland could do a lot worse than "fierce, brave, mighty, and noble." Of course, I guess I'd have to add "highly traditional", "tribal", and "slightly savage" to more fully reflect the movie's depiction of its Scottish speakers. I'm not saying that is an accurate portrait of real Scottish people, just that such notions are evoked as stereotypical qualities.

Or it could be that DreamWorks just thought it would be really awesome to have Gerard Butler play an enormous red-bearded dragon-punching Viking.

Either way, I'm going to quit typing before I say something that gets me in trouble/doesn't make any sense; I suspect I'm past that point already. I just thought it was interesting that language is used in the same way that light and shadow and facial expressions are used to convey ideas, and although the inclusion of the language barrier in How to Train Your Dragon is clumsy, it also illustrates a point. How and why this kind of linguistic illustration works should be/hopefully is the topic of further study.


Monday, November 15, 2010

How are you?: A Rant

Oh dear. Last post was in August. Oops.

At some point in the near future (promises, promises, right?) I shall actually post something of substance and--if we are all very lucky--interest on this here blog o' mine. For now, all you get is a rant. Sorry.

I have recently (re)discovered my pathological hatred of the phrase "How are you?" Now, I understand that this is not actually a request for information, any more than the British "Cold today, isn't it?" is a remark about the weather. It is a social lubricant, a ritualized and therefore safe and nonthreatening way to begin a conversation. This is fine so far; I don't have any trouble with this phrase when people who don't know me use it. They don't know me, so what else are they going to say?

What bothers me is when people ask me this who know me, know what's going on in my life, live in the same building with me, whatever, and still insist on asking the same damn question every time they see me. I can't help it; I'm a literal person. Language is not something you toss away at random. When someone speaks to me, I want to analyze, question, poke and test, see the way the facets of meaning and emotion reflect and refract truth. So, in an interpersonal context, I have to interpret "How are you?" as a genuine request for information, also because the I-don't-know-you-well-but-I-have-to-say-something stage is pretty long over.

The difficulty with "How are you?" is twofold. First, if you really know me, you should be able to ask about particulars: "How was your lesson today?" "Traveled anywhere recently?" "How's your German coming?" "What did you do at Bienenkunde?" Asking "How are you?" is a cop-out; it means you don't really want to know what my life is like; you just feel like you have to ask.

The other problem is that "How are you?" is, despite its highly ritualized common use, a very personal question. The ones listed in the above paragraph are safer; one can safely talk about one's travels, or language development, without delving into emotional details, if one so wishes. These questions say, "I'm interested in and paying attention to what's important in your life, but I'll let you decide how much emotional information you want to share." On the other hand, when "How are you?" is employed interpersonally and therefore interpreted as a request for information, it is, at least in my view, a somewhat intrusive inquiry about one's current mental and emotional state. The joke answer "F.I.N.E." (freaked out, insecure, neurotic, emotional) tells you that this question expects a personal answer. The problem is that I and, I assume, other people, don't always want to express their precise emotional state for various reasons: they may be feeling an emotion that would be awkward or difficult to share, they may be upset and trying to deal with it, they may not be feeling anything at all at the moment, they may simply wish to be left alone. "How are you?" expects an emotion-based answer, which the other person may not want to give. The way I see it, there are only two possible responses to this question: you can lie, or you can tell the truth.

"I'm fine, thanks," is always always always a lie. It's a preprogrammed response to a ritualized question. It doesn't mean anything. As I said, in anonymous situations, where the two interlocutors don't know each other personally and are, most likely, never going to, ritualized is fine; it makes it easier for everyone. In an interpersonal context, a pat answer like this does not mean I'm actually fine. It's code for "I have absolutely no desire to talk about it right now." It's even more irritating because I am then socially obligated to respond with a reciprocal question, and if I'm in a "Fine, thanks" kind of state of mind, I have no interest at all in how you are at the moment. But I have to ask anyway, which in my mind means I am requesting information, which means that I am communicating to you that I have an interest in knowing how you are, which is a trite, easy, and totally infuriating lie as well. When the conversation ends a short while later, I have not only not learned anything new about the other person, I have the added thorn in my conscience of having lied to someone to get rid of them.

The other option is to tell the truth, assuming that telling the truth is actually desirable at the moment (which, as mentioned above, it often isn't). In my case, telling the truth in a "how are you?" situation would look something like this. Did you read the whole thing? Did you read the first bit? Did you even click on it? If not, congratulations, you're like most of the planet; no one except my mother and possibly my close friends wants to hear this stuff, and most of them still go all glaze-eyed halfway through.

So, to recap: in response to a "How are you?" question, I can either lie or tell the truth. If I lie, then I get to feel guilty about lying and blowing someone off. If I tell the truth, I get to bore someone else with the petty concerns of my mind and feel awkward about the idea that the things that are so important to me don't matter at all to someone else. This is assuming, of course, that I'm actually in the mood to talk about the constant stream of thoughts and emotions flowing through my head, as they flow through everyone's, throughout the day, which I often am not.

In conclusion: "How are you?" is a minefield for me. I hate being asked this question and I hate having to decide how to answer. If you don't know me, feel free to use it; you will get the standard, completely untrue answer that is totally unrelated to me or my life.

If you do know me, use it at your own peril.