In TV and movies, language is often done without thought

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/03/27 07:40 -05:00, original URI:

On the Language Log, Bill Poser posted about the use of Chinese in a particular episode of Law & Order in his post Chinese in Law And Order:

Television is confusing. I was watching Law and Order a little earlier. It was the episode in which the police find a little Chinese girl and her baby sister alone in their apartment, their mother missing. The story is about what has happened to her. The Chinese-speaking detective and the little girl converse in Mandarin, and so do the little girl and her aunt. Near the end, when they locate the little girl's teenage sister, she and her aunt speak Mandarin with each other. But when the aunt goes into a shop in Chinatown to consult the owner, they speak Cantonese.

He then points out the problems with this whole scenario.

This scenario seems unrealistic to me. That the man in Chinatown should speak Cantonese is what I'd expect. Most Chinese immigrants to the US until recently spoke Cantonese. Recent immigrants include many Mandarin speakers, so it isn't a surprise that the girls and their aunt spoke Mandarin. Indeed, just recently I had what to me was the rather odd experience of encountering a little girl, maybe 8 or 9, in a shop in Chinatown, who spoke neither English nor Cantonese. We spoke Mandarin (she rather better than me - yet another area in which age and academic degrees don't help).

What is odd is that the aunt spoke Cantonese with the man in Chinatown. Of course, many Cantonese-speakers learn Mandarin as a second language, so bilinguals are not rare, but it is quite unlikely that a Cantonese person who also knows Mandarin would speak Mandarin with her nieces. People who are basically Mandarin speakers rarely speak Cantonese; if they do it is usually because they have moved to a Cantonese-speaking area. The only other hypothesis that I can think of is that the adults are first-language Cantonese speakers who have learned Mandarin as a second language and who so strongly identify with Mandarin as the language of modernity that they have spoken Mandarin with their children and nieces. I guess that's possible, but I haven't ever met anyone like that. In my experience, Cantonese speakers always prefer Cantonese. They may make an effort to learn Mandarin because they perceive it as advantageous to know, but they would never use it with their children.

It is often a mistake, however, to try to ascribe higher motives to writers of a gritty television show filmed in New York.

So, I'm wondering whether the Law and Order folks had in mind some interesting scenario that would explain the choice of languages in this episode, or whether they just don't know one kind of Chinese from another, or don't think that anyone will notice.

The latter, I would say.

It is a bit like the work Mark Okrand did for Paramount in creating an entire Klingon language (for which he later created a dictionary). Dr. Okrand was once in school with Ken Whistler, who I have talked about previously. And there are times that he may regret the fact that most or links in Google Scholar pointing to him relate to scholarly work about a language that does not exist and whose principal speakers wear rubber protrusions for the foreheads when they speak it. Cornelis Krottje notes in his revisionary proposal of the Klingon Dictionary:

The current dictionary of Klingon (Okrand, 1992) is a bilingual, bidirectional dictionary, consisting of a passive Klingon-English section and an active English-Klingon section. We will maintain this nature of the dictionary; the alternative, an active Klingon-English section and a passive English-Klingon section, is unrealistic, simply because of the fact that native speakers of Klingon do not exist.

But note that despite the recognition of all of this by the lucid speakers of the language, the fact is that most of the Star Trek episodes that have involved Klingons since the original Star Trek movie for which Paramount commissioned Dr. Okrand have done so without any linguistic guidance. The script is used randomly on ships and controls, and the language used seldom matches the actual language beyond single words like nuqneH that the Klingon Language Institute has not yet managed to make as common in English as words like grok.

The writers of Law & Order probably did not have any deep motives or hidden scenarios for what they did. I frankly doubt they even really knew that the actors did this. Perhaps it was just an easter egg that they produced for the show? :-)

This post brought to you by "𠀀" (U+20000, the first Extension B ideograph meaning "the sound made by breathing in; oh!")

# Mike Dunn on 27 Mar 2005 7:04 AM:

I remember that episode, and since the exact language being spoken wasn't relevant to the plot, it was probably a case of the actors speaking whatever language they were comfortable with.

I remember from an interview with Jackie Chan about Rush Hour - at one point in the movie he had to say something in Mandarin, and his agent (or some close friend, I forget which) was on set and started laughing because Jackie apparently butchered the pronunciation. Jackie's reaction was "it's a US movie, who's going to know?"
And BTW, the Chinese folks in Rush Hour are supposed to be from Hong Kong, yet they speak Mandarin in the movie. Talk about unrealistic! ;)

# Tim Smith on 27 Mar 2005 8:49 AM:

This reminds me of the type of questions trekkies ask the actors.

Fan: "During episode #245, you spoke a line of Cantonese instead of the in Mandarin you were speaking earlier. Was this some sort of protest against the regional laws and hardships faced by the everyday people in China?"

Actor: "Huh? I was too drunk at the time to even know what I was saying."

The guy from the Actors Studio was interviewing Bill Joel and asked him about how he went about creating one of this early multi themed songs. I know they were expecting some deep and involved process, but being a musician myself, I knew that he probably just pieced together a whole series of old song ideas. I was right.

# Michael Kaplan on 27 Mar 2005 9:31 AM:

Exactly! And the Billy Joel rif reminds me of something....

Aimee Mann recently put out a DVD (live at St. Ann's Warehouse) and one of the extras was interviews. They basically did one set with the band (John, Paul, Julian, and Jeb) and one with Aimee. Then they shuffled them together, asking the same questions in each interview.

The funniest moment for me was one about what song preferences. John likes Save Me for the power and really all of them play themselves. Paul likes the form of the whole set list, and especially Amateur and Sugarcoated. Jebin throws down for the construction and build and intensity of Deathly. And Julian loves songs in terms of the ones he loves to play with Aimee -- and he puts Wise Up at the top, feels like it just rips him open.

And then Aimee says what she likes best are the ones that are easiest to sing, and easiest to play -- simplest chords, with the fewest words, etc. And that towards the end of the set she decides she needs to write songs with fewer words in them....

I was just on the floor since that *is* how they all feel.

(yes, I played the interview again to write this comment, I have good recall of details but not *that* good!)

# M on 27 Mar 2005 2:17 PM:

Michael - your blog is marked as SQL Server related, and shows up on - but it appears that it was marked as such by mistake. Can you please update it, such that it will be shown on the relevant pages only. Thanks !

# Michael Kaplan on 27 Mar 2005 2:24 PM:

Hmmm... I do post things related to SQL Server regularly.

Note that my two TechEd talks that I have been talking about are both about SQL Server, as are several other posts here that talk about SQL Server information like and others.

My categorizations are not by product; they are by type of international issue. I will talk to some people about the best way to mix stuff here....

# Marauderz on 27 Mar 2005 6:23 PM:

The people in my country, Malaysia speak multiple dialects fluently and swap between them without skipping a beat. Not uncommon to find a chinese conversing in Mandrin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teow Chew, etc. etc.

# Dean Harding on 28 Mar 2005 6:04 PM:

Hehe, I love watching TV and movies for the mistakes they make. Though I only notice computer or techy-related mistakes, and then I have to apologize to the non-techy people who are watching with me when I laugh out loud at them :)

I remember one episode of Law&Order (or one of those cop dramas anyway) where they were checking mail on hotmail. They had the hotmail interface just as it appears in 'real-life' but when they clicked on "check mail" it came up with this "checking mail" animation and a couple of seconds later a "no new mail" animation. I laughed because the animations were still in the same style as the rest of hotmail, but obviously just there to give viewers a real sense of what was actually happening... I then had to apologize for laughing out loud to the non-techy people with me who saw nothing wrong with a giant "checking for mail" animation.

John Cowan on 3 Feb 2011 9:07 AM:

Just to set the record straight five years later: Mark Shoulson has never worn a rubber forehead.  It's stylistically incompatible with his Moebius-strip yarmulke.

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2011/02/03 Mike Myers is the one who who brought deeper (if not subtler) meaning. WTF?

2005/03/27 Post categorization (and people who pick up the feed)

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