I have no aptitude for languages - I passed 'O' Level French only with great difficulty - so it's ironic that I spent my professional career at the BBC World Service dealing with over forty languages. Of course my monolingualism wasn't a disadvantage, since no-one could be expected to speak all forty (except possibly George Campbell - see my earlier post).

Like all my colleagues, I learned to recognize certain key words in many languages - 'once haberler' means 'here is the news' in Turkish: time for a microphone change - and one developed a remarkable ability to sense, to an extent, what was going on
from tone of voice and the odd recognizable word. I can also identify many languages, though I never could separate the Balkan group which are all very similar.

This makes it more interesting when watching films where the wrong languages have been used - for example, if I remember correctly, in Across The Pacific (1942) a supposedly Chinese hotel assistant is speaking Japanese: and in older British films set in Africa the native language is almost always Swahili (East Africa) instead, for example, Hausa, Yoruba, or even Arabic. (Swahili-speaking Africans were the most readily available, and many of these films were shot in Britain anyway).

Very occasionally a language has been invented: of course Tolkein famously invented Elvish for The Silmarillion (the precursor to The Lord of the Rings) and the Klingon language invented for Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979) has got well out of hand and has been used to translate the Bible...

Probably the first invented language for the cinema was for the 1950 film State Secret, starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior and set in the mythical Balkan country of Vosnia. The producers hired a language expert, Georgina Shield, to invent a convincing language: the result is impressive, sounding as if it belongs to the Balkan/Romanian group. The national saying is, with a shrug of the shoulders, 'Natalne!' ('Naturally!'). No subtitles are provided - the natives speak English when necessary to the plot - but what was interesting was that during a scene, entirely in Vosnian, set in a cable car, I was able to use my experience in the World Service to get a fair idea of what the characters were 'saying' - which shows how much care had been taken in constructing the language. Natalne!

Posted: Sat - September 20, 2008 at 08:26 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM