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

How Many Linguists Are Connected Through the LINGUIST List?

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

Did you know we recently passed 70,000 followers on social media? Our social media accounts are part of how we circulate your ads and announcements for jobs, calls for papers, conference calls, and other resources for linguists. We circulate your announcements to our 30,000 email subscribers, and also post every announcement to facebook, twitter, and other social media platforms to increase the audience you can reach.

We love the linguistics community, and our followers benefit from our daily announcements by being able to stay connected with the community, find conferences and journals, and even post discussions and research queries! At our founding in 1990, we had only 60 subscribers–but that’s nothing to scoff at, considering how few websites and listservs were functioning in 1990. Did you know the LINGUIST List is one of the oldest sites on the web?

Please consider donating to the LINGUIST List fund drive (check it out here: to support the linguistics community across the world, and help keep us all connected.

Thanks again for being there with us all these years–from 1990 to 2018, from 60 readers to 70,000.
–The LL Team

We’ve Passed the Three-Quarter Mark!

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

The LL fund drive is currently ongoing. The past few months we’ve had a blast working with our fund drive theme, linguistics and pop culture, and exploring all the ways that our culture, society, and media engages with language and linguistics as communicative, sociological, emotional, and artistic parts of the human life and human world, and finding new ways to engage with language as a part of society, art, and media.

Although the fund drive theme is good fun, it has also been academically enriching to join together and think about all the ways in which linguistics is inextricably bound up with our identities and conceptions of the world and the ways in which we construct ourselves as societies and individuals. This experience has only reinforced, to us, the crucial importance of the study of linguistics and the important role that you, our readers and subscribers, play in expanding the circumference of human knowledge. The LINGUIST List exists to support and serve the global linguistics community–in other words, to support and serve you! Supporting the LINGUIST List is supporting the mission of global linguistics.

We’re excited to announce that we are now over 76% of our total fund drive goal for 2018, meaning we’re over three quarters of the way to our goal. Please consider donating (here: to support the LINGUIST List so we can continue supporting you. We’re so grateful for all of our supporters over the last 28 years!

All the best,
–The LL Team

LINGUIST List 독자님들께

안녕하세요? 한국말로는 처음 인사드립니다!

독자님들께서 아시는 것처럼 현재 LINGUIST List (LL)에서 Fund Drive를 진행하고 있습니다. LL은 1990년 겨울, 아직 “인터넷 웹사이트”라는 개념이 많이 알려지지 않았을 때에 시작되어, 지난 28년 동안 언어학 관련 뉴스와 제보들을 모두 무료로 공유해 왔습니다. 하지만 이 서비스들이 무료로 운영되지는 않습니다.

LL Editor들은 모두 LL의 호스트 학교인 인디애나 대학 (Indiana University) 언어학과 대학원생들입니다. 강의를 듣고 과제 및 개인 연구 등의 바쁜 일정에도 언어학 커뮤니티를 위해 주 20시간씩 투자하여 독자님들께서 읽게 되시는 모든 제보들을 점검하고 포스팅하고 있습니다. 학생 Editor들의 학비와 생활비 지원 뿐만 아니라 사이트를 호스트 하는 서버, 데이터 베이스, 그리고 각종 장비들과 소프트웨어 등, 모두 독자님들의 후원을 의지하여 지속되고 있습니다. 지난 28년 동안 그랬듯이 앞으로도 LL의 서비스는 무료로 제공될 예정입니다. 그러기 위해 독자분들의 후원과 따뜻한 관심이 필요합니다. 후원하실 분들은 funddrive.linguistlist.org를 통해 후원해 주시길 부탁드립니다.


The LINGUIST List Team

Sociolinguistics in Space: Firefly

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s time for more Linguistics in pop culture! Today I’ll be talking a bit about the show Firefly and the language used in it. Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, when humanity has colonized another star system with hundreds of planets and moons, many terraformed for human habitation. The show follows a mixed crew from several walks of life in a small smuggling ship as they take whatever jobs they can get to keep flying. It’s a fantastic, unique blend of western and sci-fi which does a great job of focusing on the characters and world instead of just being another flashy fight scene riddled action show. If you like flashy fight scenes, don’t worry, it does have them. Firefly is a beloved cult classic for sci-fi enthusiasts and it is well worth your time (and your linguistic interest!)

Image result for firefly show

The crew of the firefly class ship Serenity

Spoiler Alert: While I won’t be talking about main plot points, there will be some spoilers


There are a couple linguistic things I want to talk about in Firefly. First up is the use of Mandarin Chinese in the show. Over the course of the series we often see the characters using Chinese to swear or insult others. While these are the most common uses, others do come up, such as pet names or terms of endearment. In the context of this airing on TV, it’s pretty obvious that Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, used this as a way to get around censorship. Other nonsense words, such as gorram, were also added for the same purpose. Within the universe, however, there is a bit more to dig into. Firefly establishes that the two superpowers which sent colony ships to the new star system from “Earth that was” were the US and China. In addition, most people are bilingual in English and Chinese as a consequence, though everyone still use English the vast majority of the time on the planets visited in the show.

Related image

Jayne with his favorite hat

What I find really interesting about this setting is how Whedon actually pays some attention to the impacts culture and history have on language. It is, of course, too much to expect that a show emulates 500 years of language change in its speech, especially considering that it would be almost unintelligible by that point anyway. But I appreciate that Firefly does more than just have a bunch of sci-fi sounding tool names and phrases. The inclusion of small Chinese phrases, whether insults, swears, or pet names, indicates thought given to the linguistic aspect of the universe beyond giving another species their own language.


The other major aspect of the language in Firefly I want to talk about is the dialectical difference between Core world speakers and border planet and Rim speakers. People from the Core world tend to speak very grammatically and formally. Dr. Simon Tam, Inara, and Shepherd Book are good examples of this, all being raised on Core worlds. Inara, being born on a primarily Chinese planet, would be a second language speaker of English, but taught by other Core world speakers. Speakers from the Rim and the border planets, however, use a stigmatized dialect similar to that of stereotypical American Frontier speech. The entire culture of the frontier worlds is based on the wild west, and this less formal dialect is where Chinese and slang terms for spaceflight invented for the show tend to be used. Some notable features of this dialect are -ly dropping, g dropping, double negatives, and ain’t. Several examples taken from the show can be found here

Image result for firefly kaylee

Kaylee, the mechanic: “Machines just got workings, and they talk to me.”

While the costuming and set design make a very clear distinction between the richer Core worlds and the poorer border planets, the differences in language add a lot of authenticity to the universe. Dialectical differences are used all the time to make judgments about people, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the addition of the elaborate dialects, phrases, and jargon to Firefly enabled us to relate to and understand the characters much better. It was, in my opinion, an absolutely crucial element of world building. Were everyone speaking the same dialect, the characters would have felt much more flat and uninteresting. Anecdotally, Firefly serves as a great example of how important linguistics is to the development of a show which cannot be left out, especially in sci-fi or fantasy worlds.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings on one of my favorite shows. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, despite it having been cut far too short by Fox.

The LINGUIST List staff is passionate about investigating the ways that linguistics interacts with human culture and media. We rely on funding from readers like you to continue hosting a wide range of academic tools and resources useful to linguists like you. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive to support not only the continuation of these resources, but also the students who maintain them, and the mission of the global linguistics community.

Thanks once again!

Nils Hjortnaes

We’re Almost There!


Dear LINGUIST List subscribers and readers,

LL is nearing the Fund Drive Goal! This year we set our goal at $40,000. The fund drive is important for keeping LL afloat, staffed, and ready to support the global linguistics community. As of today, we are at just under 74% of our goal, leaving a little over $10,000 remaining. Th LINGUIST List serves a total subscriber base of over 30,000 readers from all over the world. If everyone donated just $5, we’d hit our goal by the end of the day!

When you support the LINGUIST List, you support the global linguistics community. LL provides access to important academic resources to researchers and linguistics the world over–support LINGUIST List so LINGUIST List can continue supporting you!

Thanks for being with us over the last 29 years.

Best wishes,
–The LL Team

A Brief History of the LINGUIST List

Hello LINGUIST Listers,

Thanks again for visiting our blog!

Today, we would like to give you a little insight about the beginnings of the website. Did you know that the LINGUIST List was one of the first sites on the web? (You may have guessed as much from our “classic” layout). It was originally started in the year 1990 before web browsers (or the internet for that matter) had become popular among the general public. The website began its journey at the University of Western Australia with our founders, Professor Anthony Aristar and his wife, Professor Helen Aristar-Dry. Roughly one year later, the LINGUIST List made a quick move to Texas A&M University. The main editing site, however, was established at Eastern Michigan University where most of the life of the website has been centered. In 1994, the website already had over 5,000 subscribers. This may not sound like much nowadays but considering the relative number of internet users at the time, this was quite a lot! It was around this time that the LINGUIST List even held its own online conference. In the following years the LINGUIST List made a few more moves. In 1997 it moved away from Texas A&M to its own site, in 1998 a second editing site was established at Wayne State University, and in 2006 all of the LINGUIST List’s operations moved to Eastern Michigan University. Five years later in 2013, our original founders retired and handed off the reigns to our current moderators, Professors Damir and Malgorzata Cavar. Finally, in 2014, the LINGUIST List moved to Indiana University where it currently resides today.

Over this period of time the LINGUIST List has accumulated a number of useful resources, many of which we have detailed in some of our other blog posts. We are only able to offer these services, however, with the help of our generous community members like yourself. Our fund drive is currently ongoing and we need your help to continue making the linguistics community awesome. Your donations in particular strengthen the linguistics community by providing resources and valuable information to your fellow linguists. Join us in this endeavor by donating what you can today!

One of the oldest websites on the internet

With gratitude,

The LINGUIST List Team

Have you heard of LINGUIST List’s Geoling Service?

GeoLing is a map service that displays on a global map all linguistics information posted to LINGUIST List  — from jobs, to conferences, to internships. The LINGUIST List posts to the mailing list only events of global relevance, but if you want to inform the community about any local events in your area, GeoLing is the tool you want to use. When you submit events to GeoLing, they are not only displayed on the GeoLing map, but also forwarded to all LINGUIST List pages on social media. They will be also made accessible via Amazon Alexa.


Find events in your area using Geoling’s global map!

Any information that contains geo-coordinates or addresses – when  posted on LINGUIST List (using the structured submission interface on its website: is instantly mapped on GeoLing and does not need to be separately posted on GeoLing


If you want to make public information about:

  • Talks and meetings at your local departments
  • Colloquium presentations
  • Workgroup meetings
  • The office address of your institution, department, program
  • Book presentations
  • Language resources, data sets, tools
  • And other information of local and regional interest

submit the announcements to GeoLing!


GeoLing runs on all major browsers and on mobile devices.


To learn how to submit a local event, please visit:


To add a local event, please visit:


The LINGUIST List team will release the entire code of the GeoLing app on GitHub in the next days! Stay tuned and watch for updates at:


We will continue to put our full efforts into GeoLing and expand its capabilities and features. You are welcome to join us and help us by forking the GitHub repo.

Lastly, we ask that you all please consider making a donation to Fund Drive 2018. To keep our services, such as the cool, exciting and most of all FREE GeoLing, and all of our other features up and running  we need your help. Please consider supporting The LINGUIST List in our 2018 Fund Drive by making a donation at




Support like yours is vital to our ongoing efforts to upgrade and develop services like GeoLing. We hope you will continue to support us so we can better support you!



The LINGUIST List Team

Featured Staff: Meet Everett Green

Dear LINGUIST List Subscribers,

My name is Everett Green and I am a new editor here at the LINGUIST List. I work on calls and conferences along with Ken and I will also be editing a number of other miscellaneous sections on the website as time goes on. I am a PhD student in Computational Linguistics here at Indiana University and thoroughly enjoy the work we do in the department.

As a relatively new linguist (my undergraduate degree was in Psychology) working at the LINGUIST List has shown me just how vibrant the international linguistics community is. The sheer number of conferences posted to our website each day is far beyond what I would have estimated it to be prior to beginning work here. Being privy to such information has only helped me to further appreciate the opportunity to perform such critical work for the linguistics community. It is quite the honor to help scientists and researchers around the world to collaborate on a vast number of projects that may have major impacts on the ways in which we navigate even the most minute moments of our lives. Resources like those hosted on the LINGUIST List help to speed the rate of progress in the field of linguistics and spread the word about the great conferences that you are all hosting and attending. The fact that we can make these resources available to so many people is a testament to just how effective the internet has been in connecting us with others around the world.

As some of our other staff members have mentioned in their posts, the work we do here at the LINGUIST List would not be possible without donations from scientists, researchers, and interested individuals like yourself and I express my deepest gratitude for your patronage. If you find any of our services useful, please consider making a donation so that we can continue making the website an awesome, ever more useful resource for people like you.

Thanks for reading and have a great day,

– Everett Green

Support the LINGUIST List Year Round with Amazon Smile

Dear Readers,

We are approaching 70% of our Fund Drive goal! Thank you so much to all of our donors who have generously supported us so far. If you haven’t yet, we ask that you consider joining their ranks by visiting our Fund Drive homepage and helping us reach our goal!

Did you know you can support us anytime through Amazon Smile? When you use Amazon Smile to shop online, Amazon donates a portion of your purchase to the eLinguistics Foundation, the non-profit behind the LINGUIST List. The best part: this donation is made at no extra cost to you! Visit Amazon Smile today to support us year-round!

Yours Gratefully,

The LINGUIST List Team