December 07, 2006

Apocalypto: Raising linguistic hackles

After months and months of anticipation, Mel Gibson's Mayan epic Apocalypto is finally upon us. Originally the buzz surrounding the film was mostly about Gibson's choice to shoot the entire film in Mexico with local actors speaking Yucatec Maya. Now, of course, observers are more interested in speculating if the film will be dead-on-arrival at the box office thanks to Mel's notorious anti-Semitic rant and DUI arrest last July. But linguistic issues are still getting some attention in the Apocalypto coverage, for instance in this Associated Press article describing the mixture of excitement and ambivalence among the Yucatec Maya community about a major Hollywood movie filmed in their indigenous language. But what about that foreboding Greek title?

You might have seen Gibson himself explaining in the TV commercials for the movie that "Apocalypto means 'a new beginning,'" an assertion he was making to reporters more than a year ago. Back then, Languagehat ridiculed Gibson's gloss, pointing out that the Greek word apokalypto (ἀποκαλύπτω) is actually a verb meaning 'uncover; disclose, reveal'. I speculated (in Update #2 here) that the 'new beginning' interpretation might have something to do with New Age mysticism, adherents of which take great stock in the notion that the Mayan calendar — and therefore the world — is supposed to end on December 21, 2012. As Gibson intones in the commercials, "Unfortunately, to have a new beginning, something else has to end." ("Like your career," one wag responded.)

So is Apocalypto really about the 2012 theory? The writer of the AP article investigated this possibility:

Mauricio Amuy, a non-Maya actor who participated in the filming of Apocalypto, says the production staff discussed the theory on the set.
"We know the Bible talks about prophecies, and that the Mayas spoke of a change of energy on Dec. 22, 2012, and it (the movie) is somewhat focused on that," Amuy said. "People should perhaps take that theory and reflect, and not do these things that are destroying humanity."

Fortunately, it seems that not everyone is buying Gibson's New Age-y mistranslation of the title. Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips takes exception in his review of the film:

Gibson and company chose to translate the Greek word "apocalypto" as "new beginning," which has raised linguistic hackles, since the word is a verb meaning "uncover" or "reveal." The director has said he considers his apocalyptically scary-sounding title to be "a universal word. In order for something to begin, something has to end. ... But it's not a big doomsday picture or anything like that." Right. No more so than "Passion," anyway.

Nice to see the griping of linguabloggers get noticed, even if the owners of those raised hackles are left unspecified. I'm guessing Phillips mined Languagehat for that one, since a Google search for <apocalypto greek> returns last year's LH post (and my response) as the second result, right after the Wikipedia page for the movie. Now if we could only get reporters to stop referring to Yucatec Maya as an ancient and obscure language...

[Update: John Lawler saw the movie last week at a preview at University of Michigan — Touchstone Pictures invited UM language faculty and students, so the Linguistics Club made an event out of it. You can read his pre- and post-Apocalypto reactions on his blog. His takeaway message: "Read the Popol Vuh and skip the movie."

And for a withering critique of the film with more on the Mayan point of view, Simon Musgrave recommends "Mad Mel and the Maya" by Earl Shorris in the latest Nation.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 7, 2006 04:47 PM