Language, Revitalization, and Documentation… in the Movies!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Hello again! Last year we wrote about language in pop culture, the movies, and other media, and this year we are writing about language documentation and revitalization in honor of our theme of renewal for the 2019 Fund Drive. I… I don’t have a lot of experience in this area of field linguistics, if I’m going to be honest. (My fieldwork courses start next semester, okay?)

Anyway so I’m going to talk about… language in the movies again! This time, language revitalization and documentation in the movies!

 

Are all Lang Doc efforts in film somehow involve aliens instead of human languages? (This is still a great movie, btw, Whorfianism aside.)

And the minute I started thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that language documentation and revitalization are not really well-represented topics in most pop culture, film, and other media. The example that came to mind first was 2017’s Arrival, in which linguist Louise Banks performs a variation of Ken Pike’s monolingual demonstration in her efforts to bridge the language gap between humans and aliens. But surely we as a culture have more to say about our own human language gaps, right? As linguists, you are all aware of how fast the world’s languages are becoming endangered, in part as a consequence of increased globalization and the influence of a small handful of dominant cross-cultural linguae francae. So why isn’t this global phenomenon–crisis even–getting more attention?

 

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21656942

In the movies, most instances of “language documentation” occur when explorers or even colonizers encounter indigenous peoples, and it’s more an instance of the explorers learning the language than an instance of someone trying to write it down to ensure its survival. A quick trip down Google lane yields, of course, The Linguists, a documentary about two linguists traveling to various homes of endangered languages and trying to find native speakers, sometimes when there are as few as nine or ten living speakers.

 

 

However, things are looking up for endangered languages in film–by now you may have heard of a Canadian movie that was made entirely in an endangered language, a film that aims to be a preservation effort for its language-subject. It’s language documentation/revitalization as art. Which is pretty cool.

The movie is called SGaawaay K’uuna, (‘Edge of the Knife’) and it is performed in Haida, a language spoken fluently by just twenty speakers, the Haida people of British Columbia. According to the article linked above, Haida is a language isolate.

Actor Tyler York in SGaawaay K’uuna. Photograph: Niijang Xyaalas Productions.

Director Gwaai Edenshaw says he is unwilling to accept Haida as somehow unavoidably moribund–and in my experience, many linguists agree. It’s not over for any endangered or sleeping language. Personally, it seems to me like creating Haida art, Haida film, is one of the best ways to vitalize interest in the preservation of Haida against the overwhelming odds of globalization. Read about the film in the link above–we think it’s something linguists the world over would love to see! It premiers in the UK in April.

But don’t let the use of Haida come off like a gimmick–check out the trailer to see how gorgeous the cinematography is (those sweeping landscape shots!) and what a strong sense of mood and place the film seems to have… and to hear some spoken Haida.

The film premiers in the UK in April, but I wasn’t able to determine a premier date for viewers from other parts of the world during my brief Google tour. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep my eye out for showings in my area, and I think all linguists should find a way to support the production of more Haida-language media by finding out where they can see SGaawaay K’uuna!

Thanks again for reading our blog, and for all your support of the LINGUIST List throughout the years! As you know, the 2019 Fund Drive is under way and we have reached just 20% of our goal! We rely on you, our readers and supporters, to keep this service available to the global linguistics community, so if you can, please consider donating here!

Thanks so much for all the support over the last 29(!) years–

The LL Team

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