"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.


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