New life on screen for old languages

There seems to be new life for dead languages in movies. The latest beneficiary, of course, is 1st century Aramaic, resurrected in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with help from a California Biblical scholar. Before him Derek Jarman got his actors speaking Latin in the Sebastiane (note the cool vocative), though listeners to Nuntii latini (Finnish radio station broadcasting in Latin) would naturally disagree that Latin was a dead language. I haven’t seen Mel’s film but wonder whether there is an Aramaic version of the title anywhere in the movie.

BBC (and now DVD) buffs might have seen a docu-series by Tony Mitchell called Ancient Egyptians, with actors speaking bits of reconstructed Egyptian. The main story line, though, comes through a spoken English commentary. Opportunities for narratives derived from dead languages (Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh, etc) abound, and lend themselves to the sort of superb computer graphics that morph old landscapes into pristine beauty. And viewers appear to suspend disbelief and accept the pseudo-authenticity of bits of, say, Elvish in Lord of the Rings, just as their elders accepted phoney foreign accents in U.S. movies purporting to tell stories set in Germany, or France. I presume someone can guide us to a website where a tally is being kept on linguistic oddities (not necessarily moribund tongues) in the reel world, whether mumbo-jumbo Egyptian in Mummy movies, or fantasies like Anthony Burgess’s invented ‘prehistoric’ language in Quest for Fire

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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