The Subtle Genius of Minion Language

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Images: iStock
arrow
Words
25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Words
Have You Heard? Trading Gossip Can Be Good for You
iStock
iStock

Like picking your nose or re-using a dirty coffee cup, trading petty observations and suspicions about others is a function of life no one takes any particular pride in. You might have been told by parents not to say anything about someone "behind their back," and gossip often involves some degree of schadenfreude. In terms of keeping a positive outlook, there's not much to be said for chattering about whether someone got a facelift or if a divorce might be imminent.

Or is there? Ben Healy of The Atlantic recently aggregated compelling data that points to gossip having surprising benefits. When two people discuss negative feelings about a third, they tend to bond over the shared hostility more than if they were sharing pleasant thoughts about him or her. The badmouthing parties also tend to enjoy a sense of accomplishment by reflecting on their own positive traits compared to the failure of others. They might even take a "lesson" from an anecdote about someone's catastrophic life, using it as a cautionary tale. If the gossip has a positive slant, it might be used as inspiration to pursue self-improvement.

That's the other surprising thing about gossip: 96 percent of the time or more, it's not overly negative. Among adolescents, it's usually used to vent about frustrations or to create conversation in pursuit of a bonding experience.  

If gossip truly is good for the soul, most of us are in luck. Talking about an absentee third person is what accounts for two-thirds of all conversation.

[h/t Atlantic]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios