OMG, everybody! Set your TiVos, update your NetFlix queues, run out to the video store if you have to! By a complete coincidence, as part of a "Gary Cooper" keyword search, my guy Art happened to TiVo a 1941 Gary Cooper movie, Ball of Fire. It's a pretty good movie even if you aren't a linguist, but it's especially hilarious if you are a linguist. The first 30-40 minutes are mostly taken up with scenes of linguistic fieldwork on American slang! Really! Orchestrated for comedic effect, and usually sounding like some layperson's half-baked impression of dialect research, of course, but nonetheless, actual linguistics on the silver screen! With GARY COOPER as the linguist! It's been a glamour comedown ever since, as tracked by the following graph:
This is a very sad comment on our profession. I trust that one of the major agenda items for the LSA Executive Committee in the coming year will be to arrange for Matt Damon to play Ken Hale in a big-budget docudrama (working title: "Man of a Thousand Tongues"), with cameos from Daniel Day-Lewis as Noam Chomsky and Ben Kingsley as Morris Halle. Actually, I'm sure it would make a great movie...
(This film has been noted on the Linguist List, here, but that was more than a decade ago, and Michael Kac, who posted, hadn't seen the film recently. But I've just seen it, and I'm tickled pink. Very timely given the recent LL posts about fictional depictions of linguistic research.)
I know some of you won't act immediately, so just to whet your appetite, here are a few choice moments. First, the scene establishing the impetus to get our (sometimes obtusely prescriptivist) hero into the field:
A garbage man has invaded the ivory tower, asking for answers to a radio quiz he wants to win.
Garbage man: (reading from his notes on the radio quiz questions) 'Which way wouldja say it? "Two and two is five", "Two and two are five", or "Two and two makes five"?'Moment two: Professor Potts has found a primo informant in the person of "Sugarpuss", a burlesque singer played by Barbara Stanwyck. He tries to talk her into participating in his research, but she turns him down flat. Later, he describes the incident to his colleagues, who are all agog at his adventures in the real world:
Professor X: Professor Potts covers English. Did you hear the question, Potts?
Professor Potts: I did. As the verb is always governed by the subject, the correct answer is, "Two and two are five."
(general smirks and snickers)
Professor Y: Correct for a grammarian, perhaps, but not for a mathematician — two and two are four!
Garbage man: That's a good one! Nobody's going to get that. Well, I certainly am obliged! I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week.
Professor Z: Mouse?
Garbage man: What a pair o' gams! A little in, a little out, a little more out… (gestures).
Professor Potts: I'm still completely mystified!
Garbage man: Well, with this dish on me hands, and them givin' away twenty-five smackeroos on a quizola —
Professor Caterpillar: Smackeroos? Hwhat are smackeroos?
Professor Potts: No such word exists!
Garbage man: Oh, it don't, huh? A smackeroo is a dollar, pal!
Professor Potts: (getting out his notebook) The accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a 'buck'!
Garbage man: The accepted vulgarism for a smackeroo is a dollar! That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck or a rug!
Professor Potts: What about the "mouse"?
Garbage man: The mouse is the dish, that's what I need the moola for! The dough! We'll be steppin', me an' the smooch— I mean the dish— I mean the mouse— you know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie?
Professor Potts: (writing furiously in tiny notebook) Please, please, not so fast!
Garbage man: Brother, we're gonna have some hoy-toy-toy!
Professors: (in unison) Hoy toy toy!
Garbage man: Yeah, an if you want that one explained, you go ask your papas.
Exit Garbage man.
Professor X: He seemed a most likeable fellow.
Professor Potts: Yes. And I'm an idiot! …I'm going out.
Professors: Going out!? Where are you going?…
Professor Potts: Research! The garbage man! Didn't you hear him?
Professor Caterpillar: Well, I didn't quite understand all he said.
Professor Potts: Nor did I! And it's catastrophic, gentleman! Catastrophic! I've just finished my article on slang. Twenty-three pages compiled from a dozen reference books, eight hundred examples! Everything from the idiotic combination absitively to the pejorative use of zig zag! I traced the evolution of hunky dory, tracked down skidoo from skedaddle — eight hundred examples and I may as well throw it in the wastebasket. Outmoded! Based on reference books twenty years old! Take smooch, take dish, take hoy toy toy! Not one of them included! Living in this house cut off from the world, I've lost touch, and it's inexcusable! That man talked a living language. I embalmed some dead phrases! I'm going out to collect new data. To tap the sources of slang, the major sources — the streets, the slums, the theatrical and allied professions. I know it's regrettable, this loss of time, gentlemen, but it must be done!
Exit Professor Potts, with a flourish.
Professor X: I'm writing about the planet's surface! Do I insist on going to the planet's surface?
Professor Z: (wistfully) Maybe my data on sex is a little outdated, too…?
Professor Potts: Unfortunately, she disclaimed any interest in our project…in words so bizarre they made my mouth water!The climactic moment, linguistically speaking, is four full minutes of screen time covering a three-day elicitation session with four or five speakers of several different dialects.
Finally, of course, the professor is smitten by his vivacious and incomprehensible informant. In confessing his love to her, he comes up with the following:
Professor Potts: The only thing I thought I could care for deeply was a correctly constructed sentence—the subject, predicate, the verbular clause [honest! -hh], each in its proper place.Anyway, the whole thing is a gem, really. Check it out!