Language and Authenticity

Handout for LING 057
H. Schiffman, Instructor

  1. The problem of what is authentic when it comes to language, cultural productions, subcultures, etc. is a difficult one. Various disciplines wrestle with trying to define, e.g. authentic jazz, or authentic culinary productions. (See this article on the subject of one person's search for the 'authentic Jew.') Here's another article on disputes over who is an 'authentic' Cherokee.

  2. What is language used for in the Media?

    Language (by which I mean mainly foreign language, or non-standard language ) use in the media is, as we have seen in print media, not authentic . Authentic language would be undoctored, exactly as people in `real life' use it, in situations where people are not paying attention (`monitoring') their language use, and are not thinking about what people might be doing to judge their language use (or make judgements about them). When we do find authentic language in the media, it is either in documentaries of some sort, or perhaps in television interviews in emergency situations, where people are not monitoring, as, e.g. in the recent hurricane coverage. In other kinds of interviews (talk shows etc.) people are more conscious of their speech. Even less authentic, because it is more formal, and more controlled, is the speech of television announcers when reading news to us. So there seems to be a scale of authenticity, from real, spontaneous, unguarded use, to formal, controlled, artificial(?) use.

    In the media, as we have seen in print media, language is used for effect of some sort:

  3. Language and Communication

    Language (i.e. foreign language) use in the media is rarely used to communicate information about the product (such as the breathy Eldorado ad ); it is rather used to communicate something else: flavor, sophistication, sex, hedonic value, etc.

  4. Language and Physiology

    Language use among aliens and/or other foreigners tends to fall into some patterns:

    1. If there is to be any communication between the alien/foreigner and non-alien/non-foreigner in a movie, it will be in English, usually with an accent of some sort. This may not be authentic; the alien/foreigner may not actually speak English, or would not in "real life".

    2. Benign or friendly creatures (such as Yoda in Star Wars) speak English with not so much an accent, as a different way of speaking (scrambled syntax). But we also have voices that are thought to be:

    3. The physiology of human speech is replicated more or less with the alien, i.e. they have a vocal tract, one mouth, one tongue, etc. If they are not expected to speak (vocalize) they will communicate by some other method, i.e. send messages via mental telepathy, or via computers, or whatever. To make them appear more alien, they are given elaborate spiky, bony structures projecting from their foreheads etc. but since real human actors have to play these parts, their vocal tracts are not tampered with. Or, their vocal production is electronically altered , represented as nothing but electronic beeps, or they speak a weird geeky register (`negative!' `compliance!' `affirmative!' `request maneuvers').

    4. Demonization

      The more evil and despicable the creature, the less humanoid will their speech be. Truly revolting aliens don't speak English; they speak their own revolting, hard, guttural-sounding "language' and it may not even be translated. If they are human, such as in terrorist movies ("airplane disaster movies") their "real" language (usu. Arabic, German, Russian, Japanese, Klingon, i.e. enemy language) is not translated, and they scream and shout wildly like animals. Their language is not depicted as "communicating" anything, or being like human language use, at least not to us. The depiction of their language is used to demonize them.

    5. The above (use of Arabic, German, enemy lgs. etc.) is contradicted when, for the sake of the plot, we are expected to understand something. The terrorists decide to negotiate; or they negotiate with each other and we need to know what they are saying. Suddenly they speak English! This is not what would happen authentically, but we need to know what they're saying, and subtitles (though authentic) might slow down the action, or confuse our understanding .

    6. Summary : 'foreign' language is typically not used to communicate information or meaning, but for some other effect. It is a depiction or representation of language, not an authentic sample of it. It is the director's version of what the s/he imagines language use to be like in the 'real world', a Hollywood view of the linguistic world. Since directors and producers and writers are immersed in the 'soup' of popular culture, their ideas about language may come straight from there. Or, they represent a version of language use that they themselves have imbibed from other Hollywood representations of it. Or, they may know what we are expecting, and just give it to us the way it's "always done.", last modified 8/31/2004