Sunday, May 18, 2008

Triglossia, and cinematic linguistics

Enough of this "diglossia" business, I want something a little more challenging.  Let's try "tri-" !
Actually, while I was thinking about the whole diglossia issue a month ago with my friend in Switzerland, we shot a short film called "Anatomy of a decision" in which three characters act out the internal "monologue" of an individual whose will, reason, and emotions are debating... in three different languages of course.  You can see it here.  The quality is not great so it is tough to see what is going on visually, but the figures (all of them played by me) are supposed to appear as hollow mesh mannequins hovering over a brook.  They are conversing (trilingually) about whether they should answer the phone call that was just made.  My favorite line was that of the emotions, saying (in Spanish):  "Or maybe it's the police asking me to identify a body at the morgue!" 
     But enough tooting of my own horn... I have been meaning to do a little movie review of "The Linguists" which I saw the UK premiere of at SOAS just last week in London, with commentary and Q&A by Swarthmore prof David Harrison.  David said the inspiration for the film was the feeling of a couple Jewish filmmakers that Yiddish was dying.  When they realized actually it wasn't, they decided to try to do a movie on some languages that actually were.
Here is a further convo with David about dying languages:


I thought the Bolivian language Kallawaya was the most interesting (and in true praeteritian fashion I will gloss over the appalling fact that though David and Greg claim to speak 33 languages between them, they don't know spanish!). The Kallawaya language, which even Bolivian linguists believed to be dead, or absorbed into Quechua, is actually passed down only through transmission from Adult-male medicine men to adolescent male trainees. I am not sure what one would call this sort of unnatural language transmission, but it reminds me of Lameen's observation about Kwarandzie, that it is only learned in adolescence, and only used in certain social situations (and I guess football matches and occult healing ceremonies are both frenzied religious experiences in a manner of speaking).  So the question is what does one call that kind of language acquisition, where no "native speakers" learn the language from birth? Any suggestions?  Could they be "latent languages," or "teenanguages," to take the portmanteau a bit further?  

5 comments:

John Cowan said...

For almost two millennia, Hebrew was like that: passed down from teacher to student, though well before the teen years. Only in the 20th century did normal transmission resume.

David Marjanović said...

Are you sure they don't know Spanish? Or did they just find a corner of Bolivia where nobody speaks Spanish? The video mentions that they deliberately went to a place in southern Siberia where nobody speaks Russian.

David Marjanović said...

Is it even physically possible for a polyglot linguist who is a native speaker of SAE and works at a US university to not know Spanish? I'm not a linguist, I know French, I've had 6 years of Latin at school, and lo & behold, I can read scientific articles in Spanish (and Italian). Granted, with this kind of background, scientific articles are much easier than a normal conversation, but... still... I mean...

khawaji said...

I can't say for sure they couldn't speak Spanish, but I can't see any other reason their undergrad stoolie would be doing all the talking for them... somewhat embarrassing actually. To be fair though, I bet they could read spanish academic texts.

Peter K. Austin said...

Thanks for mentioning the film showing at SOAS - it was part of Endangered Languages Week which we hold annually in April. Keep a lookout for some exciting films and other activities in April 2009!