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The Linguists

Director: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger
Cast: Gregory Anderson, David Harrison

(US DVD: 1 Nov 2009)

The last utterances of dying languages, totally rad!

“Words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.”
  - F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power (1968)


In Terrence Malick’s pulchritudinous The New World (2005) there is a scene near the end in which Pocahontas’s uncle, Opechancanough (played by Wes Studi), is walking through the royal gardens of King James. Having never seen ornamental trees he runs his hand through their heavily manicured geometrically pruned branches, as if dismissive of the civilization and idleness they represent. His niece walks beside him, apologizing for assisting the European settlers. Instead of responding directly he utters enigmatically, “They are so many. Like blades of grass.”


The Linguists is an exercise in contradiction. Portraying languages that are on the edge of extinction the last speakers of these languages are shown to be victims of a dominant culture that has engulfed their smaller one—be it in the US, Bolivia, India or Russia. And yet far from giving hope the film functions as an hour long eulogy. These last vessels of a cultural heritage are so integrated into the larger society that they’re indistinguishable from anyone else. At one point the last speaker of the Chemehuevi Indian language is interviewed in California. He drives a tractor for a living and is wearing a Caterpillar tractor hat and dark sunglasses, speaking the last utterances of a language that predates writing.


Language is one of the great thorns in the side of philosophy. Despite a multitude of theories, how and why it began can only be guessed at, yet to imagine life without it is impossible. To attempt to describe language is to eventually find that we’re describing ourselves. For many philosophers and theorists language signifies the beginning of abstraction, of a disconnection from nature, and the descent into the synthetic. Modern languages, factual instead of metaphorical, only exacerbate this alienation.


Words are cheap and our collective obsession for finding meaning in our lives, be it through music, career, art, money, books, travel, fashion, celebrity worship, alcohol or drugs can be construed as a reaching for something beyond the finite experiences available through language. What we may not understand is that this is a reaching into the past. While Bruce Chatwin was traveling through Patagonia in 1977 he wrote, “The Indians called themselves Yámana. Used as a verb yámana means ‘to live, breath, be happy, recover from sickness or be sane’.” There is a vast distinction between modern languages and so-called primitive languages.


The Linguists chooses to characterize its subjects, Gregory Anderson and David Harrison, as collectors of languages, mere archaeologists. But in truth language is possibly the most important thing in our lives. It defines how we are able to interpret the world and in the either/or syntax of modern languages it limits it to a set of finite definitions. Philosopher John Zerzan writes, “Modern languages employ the word ‘mind’ to describe a thing dwelling independently in our bodies, as compared with the Sanskrit word, which means ‘working within,’ involving an active embrace of sensation, perception, and cognition.” The language we use to communicate love for each other, to describe the wonders of nature, to pass along knowledge, is a language of spiritual poverty.


Like many documentary films that have been produced since digital video cameras and PC video editing democratized the medium more than a decade ago, The Linguists suffers from a severe lack of depth. This is not to say that the filmmakers, Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger, didn’t have the chance to make this documentary superb (although part of its incoherence may be due to having three directors). The film’s main subjects, Gregory Anderson and David Harrison, are Ph.D.‘s but come across in the film not as intelligent scholars but bumbling outsiders. Visiting indigenous cultures in India and Bolivia they insist on looking the part of the Western outsider by wearing Nikes, expensive North Face jackets, and their ubiquitous Ivy League t-shirts. Were pith helmets too hard to find?


The most saddening scenes, and at the same time the most ironic, take place in the extras section of the DVD. At UC Berkeley a program exists that teaches native Indian languages to what’s left of the populations that have forgotten them. The teacher, UC Berkeley Chair of the Dept. of Linguistics Dr. Leanne Hinton, is a white woman obviously benefiting greatly from the European colonization of the Americas. She holds a cushy tenured job at UC Berkeley, a school funded by corporate America (not to mention weapons manufacturers Northrop Grumman and Lockheed), in addition to State and Federal funding.


Functioning in her role as good cop to the 500 years of bad cop since Columbus, Hinton attempts to atone for the sins of her culture by teaching a classroom of Native Americans pidgin versions of the language of their forefathers. Perhaps while working their construction jobs or sitting behind a computer terminal entering data they can daydream of a time when their language reflected contentment.


Part of the difficulty in watching The Linguists is that it seems to have been made in a vacuum in which critical thinking does not exist. To call it one dimensional would mean that it—or anyone in the film—actually took the time to argue a point. We’re shown image after image of the downtrodden, of the victims of centuries of conquest, but to what end? It’s unfair to Gregory Anderson and David Harrison both of whose research and writings go much deeper than the film bothers to show. If one were to simply judge by how they’re portrayed in The Linguists they are both a couple of fey nabobs who tote around MacBook Pros and really expensive cameras and don’t seem to ever understand that they live better than most of the people in the United States, let alone the countries they visit that have no running water.


At one point in the film a scarred, violent-looking Bolivian street youth starts ranting to them about “the oppressors” that have destroyed his country. The filmmakers could easily have let the pair explain their odd reactions to this frightening moment in a subsequent interview, instead we’re left to assume that they are as naive as their blank stares imply.


According to Jennifer Hughes of the New York Times, the filmmakers were given a $520,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to make this film. She also reports they supposedly spent an additional $40,000 of their own money. A nearly $600,000 budget is unheard of for the vast majority of documentary film and to come away with something as disappointing as The Linguists forces the question of “what happened to the money?” It doesn’t take $600,000 to make a handheld documentary on digital video cameras. I’m sure if you checked their receipts the three directors ate well, traveled well, and now own a lot of nice camera gear. It’s a shame they were better salesmen than filmmakers.

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George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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