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And the Oscar goes to …

Oscars

The 2011 Academy Awards® take place this Sunday, 27 February, the culmination of months of speculation about who will wear what, who will have the hardest time with the TelePrompTer, and, of course, who will win. But regardless of who goes home with an Oscar—whether it’s Natalie Portman for playing a tormented ballerina or Annette Bening for playing a tormented wife—language lovers already have plenty to celebrate with this year’s honorees. Films in 2010 had an array of unusual linguistic choices that highlighted their screenwriters’ unique skills.

Kings and billionaires, both accidental

The film to generate the most adulation for its language was probably The Social Network, in which the dialogue from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was spoken so quickly (and so articulately, even for Harvard students) that a 162-page script became not a five-hour saga but a two-hour rush of suspense. Sorkin’s script made legalese and technology terms not just comprehensible but exciting, introduced the term ‘Winkelvii’ (to describe the pompous Winklevoss twin characters), which now gets 14,000 hits on Google, and reminded us that articles are never hip—according to one of the characters, Facebook’s success is rooted in founder Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to drop the ‘The’ from the title.

The Social Network is a frontrunner, but its main competition is The King’s Speech. One of the central themes of this historical biopic of King George VI is the importance of clarity in communication—something all writers and speakers strive for, and a goal achieved by the film itself. At one point King George remarks, ‘I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.’ Scriptwriter David Seidler uses this tactic—words as tools to enthrall and enlist—to make audience members align themselves with an actor playing a king (which couldn’t be further from what most audience members are).

Ballerinas, boxers, and LaBoeufs

Three other best picture nominees couldn’t be more different from one another, but are united by a common thread. Black Swan, True Grit, and The Fighter all delve into a distinctive subculture and embrace that culture’s linguistic idiosyncrasies. Dancers, cowboys, and boxers use language that would sound foreign to anyone outside their professions: chaîné, tendu, fouetté, rond de jambe, tinhorn, hoosegow, buckaroo, punchball, undercard, ringster, and cruiserweight are rarely used in common parlance. Even words that are used frequently take on different meanings in specific professional circles. Each film presents this language in a way that makes it intelligible, largely through contextual clues.

The underdogs

A few nominated films aren’t expected to bring home any gold, but are noteworthy for many reasons, among them their curious titles:

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has played with language before in Babel (2006) and Amores Perros (2000; the title does not translate directly into English, but is loosely suggestive of ‘love’s a bitch’). He follows suit with Biutiful, nominated for Best Actor for star Javier Bardem. The spelling draws attention to a word we see all the time, reminding us to notice even the most commonplace components of our language. It may also be an orthographical representation of how a Spanish speaker might pronounce the word.

‘Alright,’ according to language expert Bryan Garner, ‘has never been accepted as standard in American English.’ That hasn’t prevented many writers from using this shortened version of ‘all right’, and in fact, there is evidence of ‘alright’ from as far back as 1100 AD. The fact that the title of the film The Kids are All Right uses ‘all right’ instead of ‘alright’ introduces a double meaning that resonates throughout a film in which the adult characters are often the ones with the most learning to do. The kids are all right—the kids will be okay, despite the challenges they face—but the kids are also all right, that is, they are the ones who understand what their parents have yet to see clearly.

Regardless of who wins, there was much to appreciate in 2010 cinema. Now let’s just hope the ceremony is as inventive as the scripts it honors!

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