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The Subtle Genius of Minion Language

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Because the 2010 film Despicable Me was about an evil genius, it was only natural that it should also feature minions. From Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor to Dr. Evil’s Mini-Me, underlings who are prepared to fawn over evil geniuses and do their every bidding are a staple of the genre. A minion is by definition a particular type of subordinate henchman. But, although they probably weren’t aware of it, when the directors of Despicable Me and subsequent “minion” films designed the now ubiquitous yellow creatures, they tapped into the deep etymological source of the word. It comes from mignon, the French for “cute.”

Mignon has connotations of delicate, tiny, charming, and adorable (think filet mignon), but in English this came to be associated with a lover or a favorite, then particularly a king or other powerful person’s favorite, and then with all the associations that go with that (brown-nosing, servility, groveling dependency).

The minions get back to those cute roots, but especially so in their language. It just sounds cute. One of the ways it does this is by imitating features of baby talk. The pitch is shifted upwards, it uses simple consonant-vowel syllables (ba-na-na being the archetype Minionese word), and it has an affinity for b and p sounds, some of the first consonants babies acquire. In this Minionese vocabulary list you can see this tendency in bello (hello), poopaye (goodbye), baboi (toy), and bable (apple). Bee doo, translated on the list as "fire," uses the age-old strategy of baby onomatopoeia (woof woof for dog, choo choo for train). It’s the sound of a fire alarm.

Minionese is not just a babified version of English, though. Phrases from various languages get into the mix. Director Pierre Coffin, who voiced the minions, says he basically made it up as he went along. “I have my Indian or Chinese menu handy. I also know a little bit of Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, and Japanese. So I have all these sources of inspiration for their words,” he says. “I just pick one that doesn’t express something by the meaning but rather the melody of the words.”

However, whether he intended it or not, meaning usually does come into play. And sometimes in ways that subtly reinforce the cute baby talk element. In this scene, where the minions are hitchhiking, one says “Me le due, spetta.” This is almost Italian for “I’ll do it, wait” (io lo faccio, spetta) but since it uses the “me” form instead of the “I” form, gives the sense of “Me do it,” which is how a toddler might say it. That “me” toddler sense also works for the Spanish (yo lo haces) and the French (je le fais). This babyish “feel” to the phrase, and the meaning of it, will be accessible to speakers of all those languages. What’s more, it will be accessible to English speakers too, because the “verb” has been changed to due, which sounds like “do it.”

Minionese is not in any way a fully-fledged, worked out language like Klingon or Dothraki, but it is more interesting than Ewokese, the babbling of the Star Wars Ewoks, another language engineered for cuteness. Ewokese was apparently based on the general sound of a Central Asian language called Kalmyk (and a few other languages), but without any regard for meaning. Actors simply listened to random recordings of the language, and imitated what they heard. Kalmyk speakers would not recognize any connection with what they were hearing and the action on the screen. 

Not so for Minionese. Speakers “hear” their languages in it because the phrases often work with what they see. When the Queen presents a minion with her crown, he says terima kasih, "thank you" in Indonesian. When they give a toast they say kampai, "cheers" in Japanese. They count in Korean (hana, dul, sae) and use Tagalog (pwede na) to ask “can we?” In the hitchhiking scene, when the angry minion says “macaron!” it sounds like “Madon!” an Italian phrase of exasperation.

Though it is possible to list a sort of rudimentary vocabulary of Minionese, it does depend to a much greater degree than more sophisticated languages on context. The McDonald’s Happy Meal toy scandal, where people thought a plastic minion was swearing, shows that the real reason people “understand” what the minions are saying is because it’s clear from the context. You hear the following phrases differently if you expect them to be saying para la bukay, and heh heh heh

The use of this babyish, suggestively international language is deployed expertly in the films within the surrounding context so that the audience never arrives at the uncomfortable sensation of being lost. There’s a lot of comic potential in the land between complete understanding and completely lost, as shown here in another masterful version of the genre, Andy Kaufman, Latka from Taxi, the adorable ur-minion before we had any idea what a minion was.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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