Armchair Linguist

An amateur linguist drinks strong coffee and makes interesting observations about language from the comfort of his armchair.

Location: United Kingdom

Friday, July 09, 2004

Great films for linguists #2: The Royal Tenenbaums

This is one for the pragmaticists. Or pragmatists. Or whatever the hell you call linguists who are into Pragmatics.

Pragmatics, just in case you're even more of an amateur at this linguistics thing than me, is the study of how the entire context in which language occurs gives meaning. It goes further than Semantics, because it takes into account not just words but anything and everything that contributes to the meaning of an utterance, whether that be the social context in which it occurs, body-language, shared knowledge between speaker and audience or whatever. Pragmatics is about all the things we, as speakers of a common language, take for granted when it comes to deciding how to use words and how to interpret them in everyday speech.

That cleared up, I just can't get enough of Wes Anderson's brilliant 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. Particularly interesting from a linguistic point of view is a character called Dudley Heinsbergen, a teenager suffering from a syndrome his psychiatrist father (Bill Murray) imaginatively calls Heinsbergen's Syndrome. The symptoms seem to be similar to Autism and more specifically Aspergers. Those with Aspergers Syndrome have difficulty relating to the rules and principles of discourse that those without Aspergers take for granted. Knowing when it is appropriate to take an utterance literally and when to take it figuratively is a problem, for example.

There are a few points in the film when Dudley's situation becomes linguistically a tad interesting. One is the scene when a relative of Dudley's, Richie (Luke Wilson) has attempted suicide and is recovering in hospital. Into the hospital comes Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), out-of-breath and distraught, looking left and right anxiously. Think about the context: Richie is in hospital recovering from attempted suicide; distraught sister enters in a hurried panic.

Margot: Where is he?
Dudley: [Looks around blankly] Who?

A second example is the amusing scene when Eli (Owen Wilson), drugged up to the eyeballs, crashes his car into the front of the Tenenbaums' house and is sent hurtling through the living-room window. Everyone in the room is of course shocked, but the spaced-out Eli has no concept of reality at this moment.

Eli: Where's my shoe?
Dudley: [Without missing a beat] Here.

What makes the scene amusing is that it shows Dudley's total incapacity to relate to the norms and taken-for-granteds of everyday discourse. While everyone else is in utter shock and probably wondering whether Eli is going to live or die, Dudley's thought-world at that moment is exactly that of the drugged-up cowboy lying on the living-room floor.

Well, I thought it was kind of amusing, anyway.


Anonymous David Roberts said...

You look at pragmatics in this very funny movie is interesting. I'll have to give it a closer look. Thanks.

25 September 2006 at 01:43  
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