Hello LINGUIST List readers and subscribers!
Following this year’s Fund Drive theme we’re going to take a look at the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an animated Disney movie from 2001. This movie was one of my all time favorites as a child, I even had a Barbie of the main character. In this movie Milo James Thatch, voiced by Micheal J. Fox, is a linguist and cartographer at the Smithsonian Institute. He believes that he can find The Shepherd’s Journal, which is an ancient manuscript that contains directions to Atlantis. It is safe to say that this movie is likely the first time I ever heard of linguistics and maybe watching this movie as much as I did primed me to be a linguist. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was briefly mentioned by our editor Sarah Robinson in her awesome ConLangs series here on our blog because this movie contains a ConLang: Atlantean.
This movie starts out with Atlantean dialogue with English subtitles, the scene is the destruction of the city and what the citizens do to preserve what they can of Atlantis resulting in it being hidden from the rest of the world. After the opening scene we see Milo, who while at work dwells in the boiler room (I feel like this is par for the course for a linguist, yeah?), describing a translation error of an Old Norse text. Milo is criticized for his research on Atlantean and is not taken seriously, which leads to him being hired to go on an expedition to find the city of Atlantis. The person who hires Milo exclaims that the crew is complete except that they need an expert in gibberish, aka Atlantean. Does this feel familiar anyone?
Atlantean script is prevalent throughout the movie. Until the expedition crew gets to Atlantis, the script is mainly seen in The Shepherd’s Journal, which was found by the expedition crew on a previous expedition. Upon arriving in Atlantis, Milo discovers that Atlanteans can speak multiple languages and he hypothesizes that Atlantean must be based on a root dialect like The Tower of Babel. Milo explains the grammatical system of Atlantean by saying:
“…if you deconstruct Latin, you overlaid it with some Sumerian, throw in a dash of Thessalonian you’d be getting close to their grammatical structure.”
It turns out that Milo is the only one who can read Atlantean because the knowledge of how to read Atlantean was lost in The Great Flood that ruined city. Milo helps the main Atlantean character Kida, voiced by Cree Summer, translate ancient Atlantean murals throughout the city to help return Atlantis to its former glory. Not only can Milo read and translate Atlantean, on the fly I might add, but he can also speak it. When speaking with Kida in Atlantean he asks how is accent is, which I’m sure every linguist reading this has done with a native speaker. The addition of this small detail was very much appreciated. For those interested, she said Milo’s accent was “boorish, provincial, and you speak it through your nose”.
The Atlantean language developed for this movie was created by Marc Okrand, who is also responsible for the creation of Klingon. Okrand created Atlantean by including a large inventory of Indo-European words and Atlantean can be described as being highly agglutinative. Inspiration for Atlantean was drwn from Sumerian and North American languages. Atlantean is based on historical reconstructions and is inspired by the fantasy of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. There are two main fictional principles surrounding the creation of the Atlantean language: Atlantean is intended to be a “Tower of Babel language”/”root dialect” of all languages, and Atlantean has existed without change since before 100,000 B.C., which is the First or Second age of Atlantis.
The writing system for Atlantean was created by John Emerson with the help of Marc Okrand and draws its inspiration from ancient alphabetical scripts, Semitic being the main inspiration. There is no capitalization or punctuation in Atlantean, and the character for ‘a’ was created with the intention of being a map of the city. Atlantean is also written using the boustrophedon writing system, so lines are written and read left to right for the first line, and then right to left for the following line, and then back to left to right, etc.
Since Milo, mentioned the grammatical system of Atlantean I will also mention it briefly. The word order in Atlantean is strictly SOV. Adjectives and nouns that are of genitive case follow the nouns that they modify. Postpositions are the only type of adpositions present in Atlantean. Modal verbs follow the verbs they modify and also take on all personal and aspectual suffixes. In contrast, adverbs come before the verbs they modify. An interrogative particle is also utilized in Atlantean; however, the formation of questions does not affect the word order.
All-in-all, Milo can be chalked up to being considered one of the movie linguist archetypes. He seemed to be more of a translator than a linguist, but the film is still delightful and there were some additions, like the question of the accent that were appreciated as a linguist. Some of the things about Atlantean mentioned in this movie, like that the language has existed without change since 100,000 B.C. is very unrealistic even if this society has existed in isolation since 100,000 B.C. If you haven’t seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire I highly recommend it.
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– The LL Team