by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/03/27 07:40 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2005/03/27/402647.aspx
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:
# Tim Smith on 27 Mar 2005 8:49 AM:
# Michael Kaplan on 27 Mar 2005 9:31 AM:
# M on 27 Mar 2005 2:17 PM:
# Michael Kaplan on 27 Mar 2005 2:24 PM:
# Marauderz on 27 Mar 2005 6:23 PM:
# Dean Harding on 28 Mar 2005 6:04 PM:
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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