Linguistics and Pop Culture: Coco, A Quiet Place, and Language Representation in the Movies

Hey LINGUIST List readers and subscribers–

As part of our fund drive theme this year, the editors at LL have been thinking and writing a lot about how language and linguistics interact with culture and art on a metacognizant level–how to we as a culture think about and represent our own relationship with language? How do we express our relationship with language and linguistics through media, storytelling, and pop culture?

Over the last few months we’ve really enjoyed mulling over questions of linguistics in media and pop culture, and the last couple of years have given us a rich and abundant source, as movies and media become more conscious and even, one might say, introspective on questions surrounding the subject. We discussed media dealing directly with linguistics–like Arrival, the 2017 movie about a linguist hero saving the world through the power of science and compassion, and Manhunt: Unabomber, a Netflix series chronicling the search for the Unabomber and the surprising involvement of applied sociolinguistics, a field which blossomed into Forensic Linguistics. We talked about the history of fictional ConLangs and how the construction of fantasy or alien language captures our cultural and personal ideas about individual and societal relationships between language, humanity, and culture. And finally, we talked about media like the cult classic sci-fi tv show Firefly that includes language as part of the fictional world-building effort, trying to integrate realistic socio- and historical linguistics into the development of imagined worlds and futures.


Miguel, played by Anthony Gonzalez, is the adorable main character of Pixar’s most recent tear-jerker.

It’s in that thread that I want to mull over a couple of recent movies that involve representation of real language and linguistics, not as part of imagined worlds, but as expressions of the real world. I was inspired to write this piece because I recently watched Coco, a stunningly beautiful Pixar movie (but I repeat myself) about a little boy named Miguel, an aspiring musician in Mexico who’s strife with his family over the role of music in the family history leads him to be trapped in the Land of the Dead. The movie deals with traditions and practices surrounding Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s a fantastic movie and if you haven’t seen it, you should, but what really intrigued me about it was its handling of Spanish… which I’ll come back to shortly.

Thinking about Coco‘s handling of language representation got me thinking about other recent movies that involve representation of minority (in the US) languages, specifically, two movies dealing with American Sign Language: A Quiet Place and The Shape of Water. Because all these movies came out relatively close to each other, I thought it would be of interest to compare how each of them approaches the language that is either the direct or tangential subject of their gaze.

The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro, himself bilingual and no stranger to directing multilingual media. Del Toro is a native speaker of Spanish, most famous in the US for his dark themes and horror-like material. (My favorite del Toro film is Pan’s Labyrinth, a Spanish-language movie about a little girl involved in a fairy-tale-like adventure in the middle of the Spanish Civil War.) The Shape of Water’s main character Elisa Esposito is unable to speak as a result of a childhood injury to her throat. (Incidentally this is a similar set-up to the main character of Mute, another 2017 movie dealing with a character who has lost their ability to speak as a result of damage to the vocal tract, but that’s pretty much where similarity ends.) Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins, is neither hard of hearing nor deaf, but due to her speech disorder, she requires the use of ASL for communication. Over the course of the film, she connects with, and falls in love with, a strange fish-like man reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but brooding and sexy. They bond over their mutual status as outsiders to the social order who are isolated by their unequal access to information and communication.

Guillermo del Toro definitely has an eye for striking visuals.

I’m going to come right out and say I haven’t actually seen Shape of Water yet (even though I love Guillermo del Toro), but another former LINGUIST List editor has, and had some interesting comments to make about the representation of ASL. According to former LL editor Clare, (who says ‘hi,’ by the way,) the ASL shown in the film was constructed specifically for the purposes of the narrative. It’s designed to emulate period-appropriate ASL, as the film takes place in the 60s, and additionally designed to be a somewhat unique idiolect. Elisa does not have a deaf or ASL-using community with which she is connected, and only her friend and interpreter Zelda shares her language, so her idiolect is non-standard. Of interest is the fact that Sally Hawkins is not a native user of ASL, which, according to Clare, has stirred up some controversy, despite the film’s otherwise generally positive critical reception. Some viewers felt that the character should have been portrayed by a deaf actress who used ASL as a native language, in order to fairly represent the language on-screen. Additionally, although Elisa is not technically deaf herself, the role could have been a great opportunity for a deaf or hard-of-hearing actor for whom there are very few roles in big budget Hollywood movies.

Which brings me to the subject of our other ASL-dependent film, A Quiet Place. Directed by John Krasinski, the film deals with a world taken over by evil demagorgon-like aliens with terrifying mouth-heads full of teeth. The conceit is that these aliens hunt exclusively by sound and do not have eyes at all, meaning that survival in this world depends on one’s ability to remain as silent as possible. The characters devise elaborate measures to keep quiet, pouring sand down so their feet won’t make sound as they walk, creating a visual “alarm” system that they use to warn each other about the presence of monsters using only lights and no sound, and, of course, communicating exclusively via ASL. One thing John Krasinski considered “non-negotiable” was casting a deaf actress in the role of the one deaf character. What I really found interesting about Krasinksi’s comments is that, although he always intended to cast a deaf actress in the role, he was still surprised by the extensive effect that actress Millicent Simmonds had on the production. Her presence transformed the on-set atmosphere and deeply informed the film’s understanding of and interaction with ASL as a language. Krasinski, who seems to have a lot of respect for his child actors, has said in interviews (like this one) that Simmonds was able to speak to her own experiences as the only deaf member of a hearing family; it was important to have someone who could provide an authentic perspective. This perspective is also important to the film’s story, as her character faces enormous pressure as a deaf child in a hearing world–even in a silent hearing world. I’ll let Millicent Simmonds speak for herself on the subject of language representation and deaf representation in the movies–check out this interview.

Actress Millicent Simmonds portrays Regan Abbott, the film’s prominent deaf character. Now that I think about it, does the movie ever mention the characters’ names? I had to look up the names on Wikipedia and I loved this movie.

And that brings us back to Coco. Comparing these two film’s different and intriguing approaches to minority language representation–The Shape of Water, in which the minority language is used only by one character natively (but not informed by the actor’s own experiences), and A Quiet Place, in which the minority language has become the majority language by strange happenstance, the language of the in-universe world and the primary language of the film’s runtime, but this alteration in the world hasn’t erased the barriers faced by the only native speaker/user in a hearing world (and this informed by the main actor’s personal experience)–leads me naturally to another question: how does a movie like Coco, which takes place in a majority Spanish-speaking area, but is written in English, deal with the representation of majority/minority languages? It’s a time-tested Hollywood screen-writing practice to have actors recite their lines mainly in English, while the audience understands implicitly that the characters are really speaking another language. Take the Hunt for Red October as an example, in which most of the Russian characters are implicitly understood to be speaking Russian in-universe, but the “Russian” is mainly represented as English on-screen for the sake of an English-speaking audience. Otherwise, non-English is usually used somewhat sparingly and always subtitled.

Coco has a somewhat mixed approach. Much of the dialogue in the movie is recited in English, by Mexican characters, who presumably speak Spanish as a native language in-universe. But they also code-switch fluently, in speech and in song (it’s a musical,) and one of the major end-game musical set-pieces is entirely performed in Spanish. It was around the time of this musical piece, actually, that I suddenly noticed the movie’s most interesting choice when it came to the on-screen representation of Spanish–there were no subtitles. Most of the code-switching is relatively easy for a non-speaker like myself to follow along with, and I even passively learned a few Spanish words, but they don’t restrict themselves only to obvious bits of token Spanish that any English speaker will probably be familiar with, like ‘amigo,’ but flip back and forth incorporating Spanish into the dialogue as naturally as possible. The filmmakers rely on context clues and visuals to communicate the content of Spanish dialogue to the audience, and this doesn’t become striking to an non-speaker of Spanish until about halfway through that one big musical Spanish-monolingual piece, when I suddenly realized I did not understand what the singers were actually singing. To me this was especially fascinating. I grew up in Nevada, a de facto bilingual area where between 30 and 50% of the population speaks Spanish natively. For me, Spanish was part of my environment all the time, but as a native speaker of the more sociolinguistically dominant language, English, I never faced pressure to acquire Spanish. My Hispanic and Latino neighbors, however, faced (and still face) pressure to learn English. So it’s easy to imagine why representation of Spanish might be contentious when it comes to media and pop culture, and it’s also entirely possible that the presence of unsubtitled Spanish in the movie blew past me for 80% of the runtime because it was something I was passively accustomed to. (Or maybe I was just distracted by the animated skeleton characters having… skeleton lips. It’s a gorgeous film, and I can see why animating the mouths with lips was important to the humanization of the Land of the Dead characters… but bone-lips are a little odd.) What did you think? If you’ve seen Coco and are not a Spanish speaker, when did you notice the absence of subtitles? If you are a speaker of Spanish, what did you think of the representation of bilingualism? Apparently the film was popular with Mexican audiences, becoming the highest grossing movie in Mexican box office history, but I haven’t really heard a lot about its critical reception among Mexican or Mexican-American Spanish or bilingual speakers. Also, it’s fair to assume the Spanish dub is the version that aired in Mexican theaters! In that case, the odd code-switching into English will be what catches the viewer’s attention, rather than the other way around!

This movie is seriously so beautiful, you guys.

Importantly, Coco approaches the bilingual characters and setting as Krasinski did for A Quiet Place–by casting bilingual Spanish-English actors. Main character Miguel is portrayed magnificently by another great child actor, Anthony Gonzalez, and the actors’ experiences as bilingual Spanish-speakers cannot help but inform the naturalness of the movie’s portrayal of Spanish. I couldn’t find an accessible interview in which Gonzalez discusses his feelings about bilingualism in the movies… but you can check out this clip from the Spanish language version of the movie, including the lyrics of the bilingual song “The World es Mi Familia”–a song with an appropriately bilingual title and the line “this music is my language and the world es mi familia,” which captures both the fluid musical code-switching and the film’s treatment of language and art as closely connected cultural artifacts.

There’s a lot to be said about language representation, bilingualism, and the–at times somewhat contentious–history of language and Hollywood. We at the LINGUIST List are interested in hearing from our subscribers–what did you think of the past year’s movies and how they approach the subject of language, culture, and representation? Do you use ASL or Spanish as your L1 or L2?

We at the LINGUIST List are devoted to promoting and supporting the worldwide linguistics community, including engaging meaningfully and thoughtfully with the way our media, movies, and pop culture portray language and linguistics. Thanks to our donors and users, we have been able to continue supporting the mission of global linguistics and language research for over 28 years, and we hope to continue being able to do just that for years to come. Please consider donating here to help us do our part in maintaining and providing resources for academic linguists and in building a global discourse about language.

All the best,
–The LL Team

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