Linguistically Interesting Movies #1: Being John Malkovich

I’m not going to set this clip up because to do so I’d have to describe the premise of the 1999 Spike Jones/Charlie Kaufmann film Being John Malkovich and that premise is so delightful that I’d hate to spoil it for anyone who still hasn’t seen the movie. Suffice to say that in this scene the actor John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich) finds himself in a paradoxical and literally unimaginable situation which ends in a nightmarish dash through a fancy restaurant.

The primary joke here is that everyone has John Malkovich’s face. The secondary joke is that they all speak a language that consists entirely of the word “Malkovich”. Even when “our” Malkovich in the baseball cap lets out an involuntary cry of horror, it emerges as his own surname. So the limitation is not merely in this particular language but somehow part of the nature of language itself. The joke hinges on the way the restriction to a single lexical item both does and does not impair our ability to communicate.

While “our” Malkovich is freaking out, everyone else carries on as if nothing were the matter, and we in the audience can see why. Even though the only thing we hear is a constant background murmur of “Malkovich-Malkovich-Malkovich”, restaurant business proceeds as normal. Malkovich’s date coos at him as the waiter relates the specials. Across the room there is a toast, a shared joke. A lounge singer classes the place up with some jazz standard you can almost recognize whose lyrics go “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich”.  Later, when our man panics and tries to elbow his way out, he is reprimanded with sharp “Malkovich!”s that have the clear meaning of “Watch it, buddy!” There are rich enough information channels here–sight, prosody, gesture, and our background knowledge of the sorts of things that happen in a restaurant–that lexical distinction is rendered superfluous. I also experienced no semantic satiation–the effect where if you repeat a common word to yourself over and over (“Door, door, door…”) it will become alien to you, like something vaguely recalled from a foreign language. No similar alienation accrues to the word “Malkovich” here. In part because it is a proper name and therefore already stands at a bit of a remove, but also I think, because the weirdness of semantic satiation arises from taking a familiar word and forcing it to malfunction. Whereas in this scene, a slightly unfamiliar word is repeated endlessly and inappropriately but nevertheless does the job just fine.

A similar bit crops up in a South Park episode where that gang is forced to communicate with aliens from the planet Marklar, whose language consists primarily of the word Marklar.

This is funny, but a bit of a cheat, because it’s only open class nouns and verbs that are replaced by “Marklar”. Closed class function words–prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and whatnot, along with key some verbs, adjectives and nouns–are still good old-fashioned English deployed in a syntactically familiar manner. We’re so in the habit of tuning function words out we forget how much information they actually carry. Here you’re not encountering a wildly impoverished language so much as solving a Mad Lib on the fly. But give Trey Parker and Matt Stone a break–they’re actually trying to wrap up the episode’s plot in this scene, and have a lot less visual material to work with.

The short film “skwerl” enriches the lexicon beyond just a single word but makes a similar point about information channels.

It’s sweet little film, and if you missed it went it went viral a few months ago, you should watch the clip above before reading any further. Here is another stereotypical scene (a lovers’ quarrel) in which we have access to many rich channels of information: vision, context, and our ability to read subtle shadings of emotion in human faces. On YouTube the clip is titled “How English Sounds to non-English Speakers”, and that describes it perfectly. The prosody and phonotactics are clearly English, but the words themselves are mostly gibberish. As anyone who speaks a foreign language poorly knows, this is exactly what it is like: the frustrating inability to recognize anything more than familiar rhythms, punctuated by the occasional burst of delight (“She totally just said ‘fucking’!”) when you actually manage to understand a word. “skwerl” is also impressive because, where the scene from Being John Malkovich is merely clever and surreal, “skwerl” manages to be touching. By the end you’re feeling for this couple, and hoping this isn’t the end of their relationship. But could it rise above being a joke if it limited itself to a single word, if, for example, the man and woman just said “squirrel” back and forth to each other? Already here we can see lexical distinction, if not an actual lexicon, doing real work.

The combination of these clips can give you the impression that having many different words is a largely superfluous indulgence, that really all you need to communicate is attitude and tone of voice, that linguistics is mostly paralinguistics. This is an illusion that can be quickly dispelled by just a minute or two of eavesdropping on your east African cab driver while he talks on his cell phone, or turning off the subtitles of any random foreign movie. The delight of these clips lies in the way they are carefully constructed to be comprehensible despite severe lexical impoverishment.  But they also serve as a fascinating limit case. Because if one word is, in general, insufficient, how many words is enough?

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One Response to Linguistically Interesting Movies #1: Being John Malkovich

  1. Orv (@N8SRE) says:

    This reminded me of how, when my wife is awakened from deep sleep, she’ll often talk to me in gibberish, but with normal English pacing and intonation. It often takes two or three repeats before I’m able to verify that, yes, I’m hearing total gibberish. (And yes, when asked to repeat, she will in fact speak the same gibberish again.)

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