Three months after covering South African exolinguistics, I have now seen District 9 – with audio description using a headset that actually worked, unlike at Brüno. The description track interfered with linguistic evaluation from time to time, as in the frequent case of listening to non-English speech and English description speech and reading English subtitles all at once.

Nonetheless, with a week and a half to ruminate, I actually have the chance to put my linguistics degree to use for the second time in a single year. Almost a new record.

No credits

First of all, I looked, I listened, I Googled, but I fail to see any credit given to the creators of the alien language. It could be worse: They could have called up a nerd at a second-rate captioning house and asked him to think up something that matched English mouth movements. (That really is how Klingon came into being.)

The lazy sound designer’s choice: Clicks

  • I have not read any mention of the fact that the alien language uses creaky voice, actually quite a common feature in human language. We even use it in English for a kind of emphasis from time to time.

  • But it’s been well noted in reviews that the aliens, whose species does not even merit a name, employ clicks in their language. Clicks are the go-to symbol of foreignness for anglo, and especially American, screenwriters. Even the Tenctonese on Alien Nation used clicks (actually just the alveolar click, though Americans can easily make the lateral click). They were scattered amid a language delivered in atrocious Hollywood accents.

    • At root, white people, accustomed to their own noble and mellifluous languages and centuries of intellectual and technical progress, simply cannot imagine how primitive, illiterate, often nomadic African tribes came up with sounds this complex. Nobody else knows either. We weren’t around when the sounds were invented.

    • If clicks made Tenctonese seem like aliens to California, then clicks merely make District 9 aliens fit right into Africa. Apart from one tribe in Oz, there is no other place that uses click consonants. Boy, did they ever pick the right spot to “land.”

    • The film falls into the trap of viewing clicks as exotic or savage when it fails to subtitle a Nigerian gangster’s click-filled utterance. But African Languages, Development and the State by Fardon and Furniss mentions that click or Khoisan language groupings are the only African groupings not represented in a country with 500 spoken languages. Checking through the Ethnologue lists for Nigeria and South Africa, I find no language in common that uses clicks. I stand to be corrected on this, but that actor was speaking a non-Nigerian language. But the fact he wasn’t given the courtesy of subtitles means we (or at least hearing people) are expected to find him foreign, bizarre, incomprehensible.

  • A rationally developed alien language in a feature film would do something nonobvious. It would show at least the degree of creativity Okrent depicts in the formation of artificial human languages. And unlike Klingon, whose phonology is a joke, all the action would take place at the grammatical level. Even something as simple as object-subject-verb word order would be a good place to start. Instead, District 9 commits the classic Hollywood dodge of dressing up Toronto as New York on the assumption that surface appearance will easily fool us. An alien language has to do more than sound weird.

Anyway, movie languages recapitulate other movie languages. If the aliens sound vaguely familiar, it’s because the creature they most vocally resemble is R2-D2.

Mock childish grammar

As subtitled, the child (not actually “son”) of “Christopher Jones” tends toward invariant non-past tense, exactly like Gilda Radner’s character of the foreign maid: “I clean up, OK?” The writers aren’t consistent in this respect. I gather this was an attempt to show an incomplete knowledge of its native language. If so, this could have been much better realized by mapping alien overregularization errors onto known similar errors in English (“I falled down,” “mans”). This would then have to be fully localized in subtitled foreign-language versions. I guess it was just easier to make the kid sound like somebody fresh out of Ellis Island.

Slave names

  • Similarly, a detail reviewers seem to have missed is that every resident is assigned a faux English name. (Wikus looks down to check for Christopher’s name on the associated form. The name’s later usage doesn’t come out of nowhere.)

    They did the same thing on Alien Nation, but staff at the presumed Ellis Island of the future got bored in short order and started assigning Tenctonese names like Abraham Lincoln and Groucho Marx. (I’m just going from memory. Those might not be real examples. But Sam Francisco was a real example.)

  • If South Africa has eleven official languages, why are aliens assigned purely English names? Even the hero of the story doesn’t have one of those.

Chewbacca–Solo mutual comprehension

It is almost tiresome to encounter yet another example of two alien species that cannot articulate each other’s language but understand each other perfectly anyway. Think of Han Solo and Chewbacca dodging Tie-fighters.

Of course people do that all the time, but we aren’t dealing with “people.” It’s especially egregious with idioms like “suicide mission” or “mothership” or Earth concepts like “24 hours.” It beggars imagination that one species could hear the entire frequency range of the other’s vocal output.

  • Since the aliens conveniently have a broadly humanoid body type, with articulated arms and digits on hands, it seems more likely that the two species would develop a pidgin sign language. Either humans would use only three fingers or they’d use all five and it would just be the human dialect, which the aliens could reasonably understand. (For limited periods, you can more or less make yourself understood without using fingers if you and your friend both speak the language. The same phenomenon would happen in miniature here.)

  • If aliens have been here for nearly three decades, how many years did it take for one species to learn the other’s language? (What was the Rosetta stone – the mothership, its components, its materials?) If, at year 28, grown men can understand alien speech, does this not suggest that some human children have native competency in the language? (They don’t have to produce it to be “fluent.” Children with severe cerebral palsy, when finally given a means to communicate, produce grammatically correct sentences. Some cultures ban children from speaking until a certain initiation rite, where speech comes out as expected. There will be exceptions to both examples, of course, but all that human children require is exposure to language.) It seems apparent that Christopher’s child natively understands English.

  • Or they could have used machine translation of some kind, though possibly with Mars Attacks–like results.

Writing system

  • I had previously complained about a seriously half-assed alien writing system, a mere cipher made up of Ogham- or cuneiform-like scratch marks. Straight lines and harsh angles look “spacey” and “futuristic” to nerds, despite having always been with us.

  • Watch the heads-up displays and haptic interfaces carefully; I did and I didn’t see any written alien language. It was used inside bugs in the pretend TV-news coverage – rather odd considering all the onscreen type in those segments (also the subtitles) was straight-up English atrociously “typeset” in Arial. (Really, I know they cut these things on Macs, but Macs have better fonts.)

    Hence, are the legal notices Wikus shoves at the mandibular paps of the aliens written in their language or English? I assume the latter, because the aliens are merely asked to make their mark or their “smear” to agree to the terms. If someone hands you a contract written in Japanese and you sign your name in English, have you agreed to that contract?

  • If aliens can magically understand spoken English, can they also read it? We are led to think so, as one of the two aliens shown with intelligent-seeming eyes, Christopher, does an obvious eye saccade across printed text and says “This isn’t legal.” (If they have alien brains and eyes and visual cortices, couldn’t they read an entire page the instant they see it? Why laboriously scan line by line like a lowly human?)


If Wikus metamorphoses fully into alien form (note his uniquely colourful crinkles and skin; he’s one of a kind), did he acquire native fluency in the alien language? (Do we actually know it has to be learned by this species, or is it built into the brain’s physiology?) Can he still think in English and Afrikaans, or produce them if given a keyboard or pen he can manipulate?

Marginalizing the oppressors

White academics in D9 tend to speak in the near-British South African English dialect that, as in Australia, connotes high education and good breeding. (The twangier you are, the more native you are. And what educated person would want that?) All the whites at MNU, including Wikus, speak Afrikaans-accented English. But it’s English all the same. Surely when the cameras aren’t there, as officially happens between the bookends of the documentary segments at the opening and closing of the picture, these Afrikaners would naturally fall back to their own language.

I’m not one of these people, but here’s how a paranoid Afrikaner nationalist would look at it. District 9 tells Afrikaners we’ll let you star in our feature film – the one that daringly situates aliens inside a near-Soweto or District 6 manqué. But our daring ends there. You can keep your own name (we won’t do a Christopher Jones on you), but you have to talk to us in the language of the white people who sold your country out. First “de bleks” stole the country “back”; now somebody finally shoots a movie that’s set in the future and the other white people are still beating you down.

Again, this is a paranoid reading, but so are many readings of District 9. In all seriousness, it treats Afrikaans speakers unfairly. It says they don’t exist.

A failure of the imagination is all it could ever be

I stand by my previous posting: Nobody has ever done “alien languages” better than Tolkien. But he wasn’t creating alien languages. His languages were spoken by variant humans who inhabited a variant Earth. His characters were magical foreigners, not things from another world.

Alien languages are so hard we blow it every time. We keep doing that for the same reason we do not know life after death. The human brain, once extinguished, cannot report on itself. The human brain has a linguistic function built right in, but its function is to create human language. It is the only language we can create. It was always thus and likely ever will be thus. Even if we augment the brain with artificial computers, those computers will still have been formed by the human mind.

The reason we cannot create true or believable alien languages, that is, completely alien and incomprehensible languages, is the same reason we cannot produce or understand the languages of elephants, dolphins, and whales. (Of course they’re talking to each other.) We cannot originate the language of another species because we are our own species. We cannot conceive of what we cannot conceive.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.08.25 11:49. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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