Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Firefly Dialectology
I found myself needing to catch up on some Language Log reading earlier this week, and I noticed a post by Arnold Zwicky on sci-fi inspired slang. This reminded me that I had a related blog post idea more than a year ago, but which never got posted because it turned into an academic paper for my pidgins and creoles sociolinguistics class. However, it is time to rectify this situation, as I suspect people out on the internets will be more interested in this topic than people in my class were.

I got the idea for the paper when watching the extra features interviews on the Firefly DVDs. The actors talk about how hard it was to learn to pronounce Chinese, and admitted that they undoubtedly got it completely wrong. In class, we'd been learning about how the various contributing languages to a creole or pidgin influence each other, so I extrapolated that perhaps, in this portrayal of a far future supposedly bilingual Chinese-English society, such mispronunciation by the actors would actually be a more accurate representation of how people would speak.

From my paper:
The problem with the Chinese portions of the dialogue is not the grammar. Because the script writers included a Chinese consultant, all of the Chinese portions are correct, at least on paper. When the lines are spoken by the actors, however, the lines become mostly incomprehensible, due to the actors forcing the Chinese words and phrases into an American English sound system, as well as stripping off all of the lexical tones. It is here that we can begin to see the beginning of pidginization of one of the main languages in this cultural contact situation.

As we can see from Bakker's (1995) section on the standard phonological features of pidgins, the Chinese spoken by the actors here fits the pidgin pattern exactly. He notes that pidgin speakers "adjust words to the phonological system of their first language," (35) which we clearly see in Firefly. In addition, he notes that tones are rarely present in pidgins, even when one or more of the languages in contact utilize tones. In fact, he offers the example of pidginized Sango from Central Africa, which has no tones, even though all of the languages contributing to its formation are tonal (Bakker 35).

Therefore, in this case, it appears that the actors' "poor" pronunciation is actually more accurate for the representation of a true language contact situation. From a sociolinguistic perspective, this renders the society represented more plausible than before, giving it another hint of realism.

Interestingly, Bakker also notes that because speakers usually adjust words to fit their L1 phonological system, "in some cases, different groups may pronounce pidgin words in different ways," (35). From this, we might extrapolate that the Chinese portions of the population would have the reverse of the above phonology, in that their Chinese pronunciation would be normal, with the correct sounds and tones in place, but their English would be phonologically pidginized. More evidence for this can be seen from the past, in the Chinese Pidgin English developed around Canton (Guangzhou) and Macao from the 17th to early 20th century for Chinese and Western trade purposes (Bolton, 2003). Chinese Pidgin English also lacks tones, conforming to Bakker’s standards, but fits (primarily) English words into a Cantonese phonological system.
Then I looked at how bilingual the society Whedon created actually was:
At first glance, it appears that all instances of Chinese are expletives... These instances are the easiest to notice, coming as they do at plot points of high excitement and being fairly obvious in their intended meaning. Adam Baldwin, the actor who plays the coarse character Jayne, tells of his glee at getting to curse so extravagantly in Chinese while knowing that the censors would not catch it (DVD commentary).

But in closer examination of the scripts from 11 episodes of the show, only about 30% of the 81 instances of verbal Chinese prove to be cursing. Nor are all instances of Chinese negative or low-class. From an examination of the situations in which Chinese is used, and in which ways, we see that Chinese appears to be on equal prestige standing with English, and as naturally used and understood by the crew. For example, [intersentential single word code switches, endearments, intersentential phrasal code switches, whole sentence code switches, Chinese-English conversations, Chinese conversations, short Chinese conversational words (thanks, tag questions, affirmations, negations, etc.), as a lingua franca in some places, and in addressing people in formal, high-class situations.] (There were a bunch of actual examples from the scripts in between all these conversational types.)
My conclusion was this:
Given the necessary limitations of the medium, the Firefly television series does a remarkably good job of presenting the beginnings of what a fully Chinese-English bilingual society would sound like. The inevitable pidginization or nativization of one language’s sound system as adopted by a large society of non-native speakers is there. The widespread bilingual code switching is also present. However, beyond the mixing of strictly lexical items, there is little interchange of grammatical structures or calques. In a society that has no diglossic system to keep the languages separated, there are few barriers to prevent such interplay.

But what would such a language of the future be, if not a completely new language in the form of pidgin or creole, but instead a recognizable running interplay between two distinct languages? Clearly, it would not be a mixed or intertwined language, with the lexicon of one language and the grammar of another (Bakker & Muysken, 1995), as there is no evidence of this offered in the available data, and it would seem to go against the creator’s original vision of the society.

Instead, I think the closest we may be able to see an example of the kind of language contact situation proposed by Firefly is the developing language of Spanglish in the United States... It relies on the bilingualism of its speakers and listeners, utilizing code switching extensively without compromising the grammar of either the Spanish or English parts, but also manages to gain new meanings from the combination of the two languages. The speakers of the Chinese-English of Firefly live in a world of two languages, as the speakers of Spanglish do. They are actively engaged in the creation of their language every time they speak. It is left to our ability to speculate to imagine what the end result of the language of Firefly might be.
In the process of writing the paper, I learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about the use of English in Hong Kong, as well as the early influence of Chinese on Japanese male writing. In the interest of brevity, (though it is possibly too late,) I won't address that right now.

If you want to look at translations of the Chinese used by the characters on Firefly, I used this fan transcript site to collect all my examples. I think this was the most fun I ever had writing a paper.

(If anyone actually cares to read the whole paper, email me.)

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