Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lincoln’s pronunciation: Historical sociolinguistics in the movies

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☞ One of the big debates concerning recent American movies is their truthfulness or authenticity. There is much discussion on two of the major movies: Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, as some of the entries on this blog illustrate: on truthfulness; on authenticity. Spielberg‘s Lincoln is not an exception here, except that the comments and complaints do appear to be usually more innocuous than those directed at the two other movies. In the following article by Mark Liberman, we have another linguistic discussion, like the previous blog entry on Lincoln. But this time, it is not on profane concerns, but on historical sociolinguistics. It is a rather positive take on the movie, with an emphasis on its historical value in the study of language.

[Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portr...

Did the movie get his language right?: Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portrait, holding glasses and newspaper, Aug. 9, 1863 (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

“From reader JM:

My son Chris (age 26) e-mailed me to ask which was correct: “younger than me” or “younger than I”.  He had been watching “The Patriot” (the movie with Mel Gibson), and noted the use of “younger than I.”  I assume that this would have been the standard in the late 1700s.  When he and I saw the movie “Lincoln” last weekend, I noted that Daniel Day Lewis pronounced what and which, etc. as [hw].  I gather (from Wikipedia, etc.) that the more common pronunciation in both the U.S. and the U.K. is now [w], but couldn’t find anything about the time course of this merger. Is it known for sure that Lincoln said [hw]? Just curious….don’t know anything about how much effort film directors put into this kind of historical accuracy.

The discussion of than in MWDEU suggests that 18th-century usage of “than I” or “than me” would have been a coin flip. As far as I know, there’s been no empirical work on how that coin was biased over time (and space, and register, and social stratum) — this would be a good term project in a linguistics course, and maybe even a good thesis topic.

With respect to Lincoln’s use of [hw] or [w], there’s a survey of relevant evidence in Donca Minkova, “Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]”,  and Lesley Milroy, “An essay in historical sociolinguistics?: On Donka Minkova’s ‘Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]'”, in Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons, Studies In The History Of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, 2004.”

Labov et al. on contrastive /hw/ and /w/ in the United States (late 20th century)

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The skills of a cinematographer

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☞ Cinematic narrative is not merely the concern of the director and script writer. All persons involved in making the film are involved in it, in varying degrees. The role of the cinematographer in the creation if narrative in cinema is still under-recognised. In the following article, the Indian cinematographer, Rajiv Menon, discusses the art and craft of cinematography. He argues that an important aspect of cinematography is the cinematographer’s sensitivity to the film’s narrative. In this regard, the chinematographer’s art is quite different from that of the still photographer, where awareness of narrative, quite naturally, is not a prime consideration.

Ace cinematographer and filmmaker Rajiv Menon shares some tips on what makes for good cinematography and screenwriting.


❝The technical aspects related to lens, lighting and composition are similar to what a still photographer would require, but the skill of a cinematographer lies in using all the available tools for a narrative format and he contributes to the story-telling process. So one of the most important things you must have is the passion for the story you are telling. Lighting, lens and taking pictures won’t necessarily help in becoming a successful cinematographer because beyond these things one has to realise he/she is part of a team that is telling a story.

A basic knowledge of the still camera is very important and the person must like seeing things through the lens. Another requisite skill for a cinematographer is communication as the story has to reach a large number of people who have varying capacities of understanding. It’s very important he/she convey things with clarity. A cinematographer has to keep his thirst for learning alive and keep learning about the latest trends in the business. There is so much to learn in terms of light and composition. One must try to develop ‘new skills for new opportunities’ to keep up with changing trends and be fearless to succeed.❞

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Ed Wood Jr Discusses Filmmaking with Orson Welles

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☞ The YouTube description for the clip from Tim Burton‘s Ed Wood (1994) indicates that the meeting was between “the world’s greatest filmmaker and the world’s worst filmmaker.” I won’t quarrel with the description of Welles as “the greatest filmmaker”; if he’s not the greatest in everyone’s estimate, he’s up there, among the greatest who’d ever lived. But Ed Wood as “the world’s worst filmmaker” (even though he’s frequently accorded this accolade)? The trouble with Wood is that, his exploration of cinematic badness is so consistent and determined that one wonders about the genuineness of the badness of his movies.

The meeting, as it is depicted above in Tim Burton’s movie, is interesting in the enunciation of the common ground between Wood (Johnny Depp) and Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) — at least as it was seen from Burton’s perspective, or the perspective of the writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who conceived the movie. In the clip, both Wood and Welles decry the studio control over the films of that time. As we know, Wood’s resort was a complete capitulation from the studio system by making B movies. Welles tried to work within the system, but at arm’s length from its limitations, not always successfully: arguably, less successfully in his subsequent films than in Citizen Kane, where there was no studio control (also mentioned in the clip). Interesting mention by Welles in the clip on the studio’s decision to have Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil: surely a bad decision, with respect to viewers of that time, who knew who Heston was, and would find it hard to associate him with the role he played in the film.

Using film to engage students

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☞ Cinematic narrative can be used for education. As this article illustrates, some film narratives, such as Oliver! and Edward Scissorhands could be used to enhance students’ narrative writing.

Films, such as Oliver!, could be applied to improving students’ narrative writing

“So we all know how it goes in the secondary English teaching world; read the book and then watch the film adaptation. This tried and tested method has been used by teachers since time in memoriam (or at least since the birth of the VHS tape).

After spending a particularly frustrating evening reading a set of narratives written by my year 8 class of which the majority ended with the immortal words: “And then I woke up,” I realised two things. Firstly, my comprehensive lesson on creating an interesting and cohesive narrative had been unsuccessful and secondly, something else had to be done. During the same academic year I was also teaching AS and A2 film studies and realised that the storytelling element of films could be applied to improving my students’ narrative writing.

The following week each English lesson was spent analysing the opening 20 minutes of Edward Scissorhands with pauses to write dialogue between the characters, create vivid descriptions of Edward’s garden and discuss the impact of the film’s non-chronological structure. At the end of the week, I gave my class a timed assessment and I was pleased to see that their narratives had improved greatly with non-linear structures, improved character descriptions and settings; although some students still stuck to their favoured “and then I woke up” ending.”

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