April 22, 2005

Ku two

Yesterday I asked a few questions about the made-up language Ku, used in Sydney Pollack's new movie "The Interpreter". This morning's mail brought some additional information, in a note from David Nash.

It's the London Language Institute, according to http://portal.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2005/04/01/bfpollack.xml which Googles to an outfit in Ontario -- which clashes with "we went to a language center in England" that you quote, so we're not much better off. London, UK, would seem a better bet to find Africanists. I'll be interested to see whether you find the adviser.

After we saw the movie last Saturday, I was iChatting with Bill Poser, and he said his field methods consultant's mother is a Shona speaker, so I tried to interest Bill in getting an opinion of the "Ku" that way.

Anyway, there's not much of "Ku" in the movie really, and learning to rattle off a few sentences and expressions is hardly being "fluent in this tongue" eh. Also, it struck me that Our Nicole's character didn't use "Ku" to converse with native speakers (only to interpret) (with one exceptional moment when she barks out some "Ku" to startle a native speaker who doesn't know her -- then they proceed to converse in English -- with not a syllable of Ku thrown in even.) (Not that I want to pan the movie --it has some other strengths I think.)

In addition to the adviser's name and some information about the construction of the language, I'd still like to understand why the journalists involved are so incurious about the details of this aspect of the movie.

[Update: the indefatigable Benjamin Zimmer reports

I found the name of the linguistic adviser for "The Interpreter" from a Nexis search:

Financial Times (London), July 12, 2004, p. 11
The actors have spent time with UN and secret service staff, but the most elaborate arrangement has been commissioning Said el-Gheithy, an African linguist in London, to create a language for the fictional country of Matobo. He used Swahili and Shona as the models for the language, which will be called Matoboan or Ku, depending on whether it is a national or tribal language in the final version of the film. "It has its own internal dictionary, so you can speak it," Misher says. "The guy created a whole culture and history in his mind."

Googling on el-Gheithy's name finds that his affiliation is with the "Centre for African Language Learning," rather than the "London Language Institute."

Benjamin adds in a follow-up that "the Centre for African Language Learning has a whole page with information on el-Gheithy's work on the film..." The page includes this helpful paragraph, suggesting that 'Ku' is supposed to be a sort of approximation to proto-Bantu, and that the name is short for Chi'itoboku:

Although known as 'Ku' to foreigners, the actual language spoken by the Tobosa people of the fictional Democratic Republic of Matoba is indigenously known as Chitob uk u, literally meaning 'the language of the Tobosa people'. Ch'itoboku is the only surviving ancient Bantu language, and the Tobosa oral traditions indicate that 'Ku' is the root of modern Bantu languages spoken in contemporary sub Saharan Africa. The structure of Ch'toboku is characterised by its use of indicators to make up words. For example, 'tobo' is the root and 'sa' is the indicator for 'they'. There is no gender distinction as in French, hence the word for 'he' or 'she' is the same, 'a'. Verbosity is positively valued in Ch'toboku, and ordinary speech should approximate the elegance of poetry. This could be the reason for Sylvia's hesitation when interpreting.

Said el-Gheithy ends his discussion with a Ku proverb:

Truth requires no translation — Angota ho ne njumata


[Update #2: Jean Véronis at Technologies du Langage has a lot more (in French).

And if you're curious about Bantu language, you can find a lot of links at the Comparative Bantu Online Dictionary (cBold).]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 22, 2005 07:51 AM