As a linguist ourself, it warms our heart when we hear real-life tales of the exploits of these mighty beings. Some of them we have documented here:
I never thought I’d post one with the title “Tattoo’d Chinese linguist saves the day”, but hey, this is America. (As for what that’s supposed to mean: it doesn’t mean anything.)
Our newest example is unfortunately fictional (indeed, as we shall see, lame even as fiction), but what with all the attention lavished on celebrities and sports-stars, we take such scraps as we can get.
In Monday’s pilot of the lustrous though ludicrous new series, “Blindspot”, concerning a shapely unclad tattooed Special-Forces polyglot female amnesiac with superpowers (go back and read that again slowly: yes, that’s what it says) a situation arises in which, for reasons too complex or rather too contrived to go into, the FBI needs to decipher instanter some emails in Chinese, or else Very Bad Things will happen to Gotham. The agent in charge barks: “Get me all the Chinese linguists!”
That conjures up a fairly comic image, in which several dozen Sinophiles are clustered around the screen displaying the email, translating in unison, in a sing-song chorus, “Dear sir or madam: I am an imprisoned Nigerian prince …” -- However, there’s a reason for the broad-sweep order. On television, to show decisiveness and leadership, the floor-boss barks (or “snaps”):
“Check these prints against the files of every police department in the country!”
“Scan the footage from every security camera in the city for the past ten years!”
“Seek a match in the dental records of every adult male going back to the Neanderthals!”
Still, we forgive all that, since it poses the question which so many have asked and so few answered: “Where’s a linguist when you really need one??”
But now the screenwriting takes a turn for the absurd. None of the Bureau’s chinoisisants are up to this task, for, as we are instantly informed (by a non-linguist), the dialect variety in question is, um, Wen Zu (how could she possibly know that?), commonly known to other Chinese speakers as “the Devil’s language”. Omigosh, then Gotham is doomed!
Where did that come from? -- Simply to set matters up so that the mnemonically-challenged Wonder Woman (who can’t remember her own name, but who remembers every language she ever studied, to the last detail) can pipe up pertly and pluckily :
“I know Wen Zu !”
At which point the program’s full agenda stands revealed, as clearly as had it stepped naked out of a hold-all in Times Square. So far from being mere eye-candy for men, as P.C. critics were objecting before the show even aired (her déshabille is never more than partial, with the best bits left out), this show is the latest media sacrifice upon the ever-higher-towering altar of Feminarcissism. This is the new paragon of womanhood: the rocket-scientist-cum-brain-surgeon-cum-astronaut-cum-poetess-cum-Black-Belt, the woman who can Have It All, Do It All, as well as men or rather better, all without smudging her makeup.
Scenes from future episodes:
Hapless FBI guy:
“O noez, the only way to find out what these superintelligent but fusedly-confused brain-joined Siamese twins know before the bomb goes off, is to perform a neurosurgical separation, and here we are with them in a rowboat, without oars, and far from any hospital. Whatever shall we do?”
“I can perform the operation! I’ve done it many times under battlefield conditions, with no equipment but a tongue-depressor -- one of which I happen to have right here in my right breast pocket, just above my right breast!”
Hapless FBI guy:
“Curses, the only way to save humanity is to solve the Riemann Hypothesis, pronto! And me without my pencil!”
“I can provide the solution! It follows as a direct corollary from a more general theorem which I have already proved!”
Hapless FBI guy:
“Oy veh! Here we stand stranded with the doom-timer ticking, at the bottom of a sheer five-thousand-foot cliff, at the top of which lies the remedy, and I forgot my climbing shoes! We’d have to fly!”
“I can fly!”
Now, there is a wrinkle here, which will likely strike no-one but linguists. The puzzle is an e-mail -- i.e., in written, not spoken Chinese. And Chinese is ideographic, not alphabetical. Which means that the various dialects, which vary from village to village and which are sometimes mutually unintelligible, still are written in basically the same way. The email would thus be intelligible to all.
(And after all that, the episode never even made use of her marvellous skill, so far as I can tell. Of course, I may have blinked, and missed the content of the email -- the pilot tried to pack a season’s worth of flim-flam into forty-five minutes, so as to cater to those with short attention-spans. Instead, the key to it all turned out to be a cryptic phrase they’d heard earlier but now suddenly cryptolinguistically decrypted: “mother of exiles”: Aha, the Statue of Liberty! -- Cf. the crossword-puzzle motif in “Rubicon”.)
Anyhow, even though NBC may in this case have stretched the facts a bit (indeed, racked the fiction), we appreciate the shout-out. Linguists really are rather godlike beings. For starters, we’re taller than other people.
Here are some actual portraits from our archives:
|Archie the Arabist|
Gertie the Germanist
Rickie the Russian-maven