5 Films every Linguistics student needs to watch
Even though you wouldn’t think there are many films where language plays a central role, there are actually quite a few which are not only interesting on a linguistic level but are also very entertaining and critically acclaimed. Here are five must-sees.
1. Arrival, 2016 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
This 2016 science-fiction blockbuster is worth a watch, and not only for language-lovers. Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, the film is about linguist Dr Louise Banks who is called upon by the U.S. army to help them decipher the language of an alien species which has landed on earth.
The alien language, which was created for the film by several linguists from McGill University, Canada, looks like complicated circles of ink and is marked by an interesting notion of time passing in a circle (past, present and future at the same time).
2. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 2001 (Walt Disney Feature Animation)
Despite mixed reviews (only rating 49% on Rotten Tomatoes), Atlantis makes a strong case for the power of knowledge that language holds. Mythology is mixed with science fiction and action-adventure in this story about linguist Milo, who leads a research expedition to discover the sunken city of Atlantis. When he arrives there, he manages to decode old Atlantean inscriptions and discover that it is a kind of proto-language for many current languages.
The Atlantean alphabet was developed by linguist Marc Okrand, who also came up with the whole Klingon language for Star Trek. How cool is that?!
3. My Fair Lady, 1964 (dir. George Cukor)
Starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison as the protagonists, this 1964 musical film is amusing to watch, and in my first year at Uni, there was even an essay question about it!
Arrogant linguistics professor Henry Higgins bets that he could pass off poor flower seller Eliza Doolittle as a lady in Edwardian high society, by teaching her to use Standard English pronunciation instead of her strong Cockney accent.
The film is a timeless classic because it comments on how the dialect or accent that we’re speaking influences the way we are perceived socially – today as in Edwardian times.
4. Avatar, 2009 (dir. James Cameron)
This 2009 science fiction epic is set in the future on the moon Pandora in the Alpha Centauri star system. Here, humans destroy the territory and culture of the indigenous humanoid alien species of the Na’vi to mine a precious mineral, tracing the fate of many indigenous peoples on Earth.
The language of the Na’vi, which comprises about 1000 words, was created by a linguist called Dr Paul Frommer, of the University of Southern California.
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 2001 - 2003 (dir. Peter Jackson)
The epic fantasy trilogy about the quest to destroy The One Ring and win the War in Middle-Earth won 17 Academy Awards.
It is based on the novel of the same name by philologist and linguistics professor J.R.R. Tolkien. All the languages spoken in the films were constructed by him, taking inspiration from Old Norse for the language and runic writing system of the Dwarves, Old Welsh for the names of Hobbits, and Finnish as well as Latin for the (at least) 15 Elvish languages.
Of course, there are many more films and TV shows commenting upon the importance of effective communication, or featuring invented languages; such as Gallifreyan in Doctor Who, Dothraki in Game of Thrones and the countless alien languages in the Star Wars series, to only name a few. So go ahead, now you’ve got yet another excuse to watch these!
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