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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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