I'm watching through Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre for a writing assignment lately (don't ask) and recently caught an intriguingly archaic way of depicting bilingualism.
In Foreign Correspondent, from 1940, Joel McCrea is in Amsterdam trying to tell local policemen about a criminal scene he has just witnessed. The policemen do not speak English. This we can let squeak by in terms of plausibility, as knowledge of English wasn't nearly as widespread among Europeans as it is today.
The cute part, however, is when they enlist a little girl to translate. When she announces "We always use English in school," she sounds more like an American doing the Muppets' Swedish chef, and then, when she speaks Dutch to the officers, she is plainly an American girl reciting the sentences phonetically, with an accent that is pure Cleveland.
No movie director who wanted to be taken seriously could get away with that today. We would expect, almost demand, an actual Dutch-speaking girl in the part. If necessary, she would be taught her English lines phonetically.
Yet this slapdash treatment of foreign languages and bilingualism was typical in American movies until the seventies. Earlier in Foreign Correspondent, well-travelled peace activist Laraine Day meets a Latvian ambassador at a reception. For one, the ambassador speaks neither English, French, nor German — I see. But then, never fear — Day's character turns out to know "enough Latvian to get by"!
For the record, the character is not depicted as having had any particular reason to get her feet wet in Latvian. It's apparently just that, well, you know — she's travelled a lot over there, and so she just knows a little of all of "those languages," even Latvian, and one imagines, Occitan, Sorbian and Friulian when they come in handy.
This sort of thing was par for the course in the pop culture in general back then. In I Love Lucy, Lucy is constantly depicted as speaking barely a single word of Spanish, despite it being the native language of the man she has been married to for over ten years.
One might wonder -- how is it that people as sane and intelligent as we are let implausible depictions of language use like this pass so casually?
I think one reason was that in 1940, sound film was less than fifteen years old, and the feeling that sound movies were on some level filmed plays had not completely dissipated (for example, by 1940, the term "photoplay" was only recently obsolete).
Thus in Foreign Correspondent, as in so many movies of the period, during scenes set outdoors it is painfully obvious from the way people's voices echo that they are on an indoor set, which plainly has a painted backdrop. There is little effort to disguise that it is a filmed performance — the painstakingly "realistic" quality of modern film would have seemed peculiar to filmmakers then, and in fact producers like Samuel Goldwyn resisted realism overtly ("People don't pay to see their kitchen," he once said).
In an environment like that, it's easy to see why there wasn't felt to be a strong need to dot every i and cross every t in terms of foreign languages.
Another part of it was also, I think, that America overall has more interest in foreign cultures than America then. Partly because of the realities of racial segregation until the late 1960s, partly because of how few immigrants were allowed into the U.S. between the mid-twenties and the late sixties, and partly because of the multiculturalism explosion after that time, American pop culture is more given to a more realistic approach to foreign languages than back in the days of baseball and apple pie.
Thus Gary Oldman spoke Romanian when playing Dracula. Spanglish gives us a grinding depiction of a Mexican woman's efforts to learn English, including demanding from her daughter how to render "Just try it on" complete with the pragmatic shading this entails, rather than having her turn up speaking and comprehending fluently after twenty minutes.
A recent episode of Studio 60 on Sunset Strip had a Chinese teenager translating for her father, and it is unimaginable that they would have cast a Chinese-American faking a Chinese waiter accent with the whites and chanting an American undergraduate's Chinese to her father full of tone mistakes. In New York, the stage musical The Light in the Piazza, set in Italy, has characters speaking untranslated (and carefully coached) Italian so much that it annoys some audience members.
Today, the old-time approach to foreign languages is mostly permitted in comedy. I recall an episode of Saturday Night Live in the nineties in which Melanie Hutsell had one line in a sketch set in witch-burning Salem, as an aggrieved Dutch person. Like the little girl in Foreign Correspondent, she did the line in a silly Swedish chef accent, including pronouncing "Dutch" as "dootch." But Hutsell even seemed to be in on how absurd her delivery was, breaking character and laughing a bit at herself as she finished the line.
And only a bizarre and comedic film like Borat can go back to the old days and have Sascha Baron Cohen speaking a mishmash of Hebrew sprinkled with some Russian here and Polish there and pass it off as Kazakh.Posted by John McWhorter at December 8, 2006 12:41 AM