Language and Pop Culture

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

The last few years have been an unusually good time for representation of language and linguistics in pop culture. From movies to books to TV shows,  linguistic science and the wealth of the world’s languages have taken center screen and center stage in ways we have seldom witnessed before.

Language and linguistics have a fascinating history within the pop culture narrative, including real-world languages, constructed languages, and misunderstandings about what sort of work a linguist does.

Elves in Lord of the Rings, speakers of one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s conlangs

To start off with one of the giants, philologer and imaginer of worlds J.R.R. Tolkien is often remembered as the leading edge of pop-culture linguistics, having invented a world’s worth of languages often based on or influenced by real languages like Welsh or Finnish, and the standard he set was picked up by admirers and imitators the world over, leading to an abundance of fictional languages to populate fictional worlds. As ConLangs find more prominence in fiction, linguists find themselves asked to do the unusual work of creating alien tongues like Klingon or the more recent Dothraki.


Louise Banks, linguist protagonist and extraterrestrial expert in Arrival

Recently the film Arrival and the short story it was based on took this idea to a new level, asking the world what would an alien language actually sound like? Would it be parsable to a human? Would it have anything like a human structure? Could a language like that affect the cognition of a human learner? To get to these questions, the story had to start in a place of trying to understand how a linguist approaches language documentation in ways never before represented in pop culture.


Natalie Rogers, the Stanford linguist who assists the FBI with their investigation in Manhunt: Unabomber

But it isn’t only fictional languages that have arrived on scene–Netflix’s  Manhunt: Unabomber tells the story of the early development of the field of forensic linguistics through application of sociolinguistics to track down the infamous serial terrorist Ted Kaczynski. Marvel’s Black Panther followed up Captain America: Civil War by featuring isiXhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa, but a language most English-speakers are unlikely to have heard ever before. Contrast Manhunt’s sociolinguist Natalie Rogers with delightfully off-base representations of linguists in My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins, a phonetician (as he is usually called) whose primary objective is the promotion of English-language prescriptivism, or Stargate’s lovable hyperpolyglot Daniel Jackson who is fluent in 27 languages and uses that power to defeat parasitic aliens that take the very dubious forms of ancient mythical figures. (We just love movies and TV.)

My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor and rampant prescriptivist

The recent uptick in effort by filmmakers and content-creators to imagine and portray language and linguistics has inspired us to reflect on our roles in society and culture as scholars and language-specialists. Over the last 28 years, you, our subscribers and readers, have supported us in our mission to create an online space for linguists, to benefit the scientific community, and to promote linguistic science to the world. Together we’ve worked tirelessly to do our part in creating a scientifically rich world.

With this in mind, the LINGUIST List invites you to join us in celebrating the history of our science, our subject, and its unusual, often amusing place in the history of pop culture, alongside our 2018 fund drive. The LINGUIST List has been devoted to providing important academic resources for linguists for nearly three decades, and with your help, we can continue to do just that. Like last year this year’s fund drive will also feature the remarkable stories of different linguists every week, and this year we will also be featuring the exceptional contributions of your nominated undergraduates to the field of linguistics.

To follow these updates, you can check back on our blog and social media pages–and most importantly, visit our Fund Drive page, where you can learn more about us and make a donation today. Thank you for your ongoing support!

Yours truly,

Sarah Robinson, on behalf of the LINGUIST List Team

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