Friday, November 25, 2011

the incoherent accents of Hugo


Saw Hugo. It's more for big kids than little ones, imho. I enjoyed it and found its retro-whimsy entertaining, but the 3D is frustrating for someone who wears prescription glasses. It has a talented cast of veteran British actors who don't get nearly enough screen time (Kingsley may get a best supporting actor nod come Oscar time). Also, I'm an unabashed Chloë Moretz fan, and she is every bit as good in this film as I expected. She is one of the best teen actors in history and she keeps getting better.  She has the facial expressiveness of Brando, and I don't say that lightly. Unfortunately, the film rests on the performance of its lead, Asa Butterfield, who is, sorry to say, flat and unconvincing as the orphan genius tinkerer Hugo. Partly this is because his dialogue is awful and clunky. No one talks that way, especially not a scared orphan. He also lack the facial expressiveness of Moretz but is in constant juxtaposition with her, so he pales even the greater in comparison.

For a little linguistic aside (since this is The Lousy Linguist, not The Lousy Film Critic), the film is set in Paris, but everyone has an English accent, including the Atlanta born American actress Moretz. Rumor has it she auditioned for Scorsese with the accent and he didn't know she was American (though I find this hard to believe since she has been a well known actress for several years now).

Moretz did an acceptable job affecting the British accent, as far as I could tell, though I'm not that good at spotting phonies unless they're really bad. I did detect the occasional break, though. More to the point, why is everyone speaking with a British accent in Paris!!!

Accents in movies are a storyteller's way to set the mood, so to speak. I find it to be one of the most incoherent, yet successful, tricks in the movie biz. When Hollywood makes a movie about WW2, the Nazi's all have German accents.

But here's the linguistically incoherent part. Back then, during WW2, when Nazis spoke to each other ... they didn't have accents! Not to each others' ears. When French people speak to each other in French, they don't sound foreign to each other. They sound like native speakers. Yet, Hollywood (and other film markets too, I'm sure) has decided that "sounding foreign" sets the mood for a film set in a foreign land.  Even more incoherent is when film makers think they are being more "authentic" by having actors speak in foreign accents, when, linguistically speaking, this is about as INauthentic as you can get. When native speakers of any language speak to each other, they don't sound foreign. Yet, when audiences watch films set in foreign lands, the key to making the audience feel the sense of authenticity, is to make the actors sound foreign. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Perry's tip-of-the-tongue flubb

Much virtual ink is being spilled/spilt about US Presidential candidate Rick Perry's tip-of-the-tongue gaff at Wednesday night's GOP debate. His inability to remember a third government department he would cut is being decried as the ultimate end of his candidacy. This may be the case, I honestly don't know. But I think the linguists of the world should point out that tip-of-the-tongue speech errors are universal and say nothing about a person's intelligence or even their preparedness. They are entirely a function of neuro-biological processes which we all encounter. Luckily one (and as far as I can tell right now, only one) journalist bothered to follow up on The Science Behind Rick Perry’s Debate Brain Freeze. Money quote:

When the brain juggles a reasonable quantity of information and tries to make sense of it—as Perry was presumably trying to do as he channeled what he knew, and began to answer CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo’s question—activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, increases: this is the circuitry that handles decision making and emotional control.


But as you attempt to tap into more and more information, as Perry was presumably trying to do (imagine him desperately going down the list of cabinet departments and other federal agencies trying to come up with the third one on his hit list), activity in the dorsolateral PFC drops like a stone. It’s as if a circuit breaker pops as a result of “cognitive and information overload,” Angelika Dimoka of Temple University told me for a recent story.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Calling all Brits stuck in the colonies...

The Economist's Johnson blog wants Brits living in the US to take a dialect survey.

One of the set-piece conversations that Britons living in America have with each other, besides how cold it is, how hot it is, or how interesting it is that people here don't talk about the weather all the time, is about which British words or pronunciations they have shed in favour of their American equivalents...If you're a Brit living in the United States, please take a minute (no longer) to fill out this web form. Just put in how long you've lived in the United States, and mark which Americanisms you use. I'll post the results in a few days..

The survey, in case you missed it, is here.

A linguist asks some questions about word vectors

I have at best a passing familiarity with word vectors, strictly from a 30,000 foot view. I've never directly used them outside a handfu...