Sunday, March 3, 2024

Language and Text


New Yorker - "“Dune” and the Delicate Art of Making Fictional Languages"

Hollywood’s current obsession with constructed languages arguably started with “The Lord of the Rings” film adaptations of the early two-thousands. J. R. R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at Oxford and a lifelong conlanger, and he famously created the tongues of Middle-earth long before writing the books. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” he once wrote. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” The trilogy’s success showed the power of conlangs to create engrossing alternate realities, inspiring filmmakers to seek out skilled language creators.


Of the Arabic excisions in the new “Dune” films, two in particular stand out. One is of jihad, Herbert’s term for the fervent crusade led by Paul Atreides with the Fremen against the oppressive interstellar regime. Herbert saw jihad as the embodiment of messianic and religious passion—a force that is socially transformative and potentially liberating, but also dangerous and to be feared: “The ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path.” Though now the word is overwhelmingly associated with Islamic extremism and terrorism, the original “Dune” offers a nuanced consideration of the concept that goes beyond simplistic and negative portrayals.

The second omission is evident in that powerful moment from the trailer, Paul Atreides’s call to his fighters. From what we’ve seen, Paul speaks Peterson’s fictional language. Without a subtitle, he would be unintelligible. In the book, however, the phrase “Long live the fighters” is written as “Ya hya chouhada,” a reference to a celebratory chant from the Algerian war of independence, which Herbert renders in Frenchified Arabic. This line, more than any other, connects the Fremen’s struggle to recent independence movements, turning them from outer-space sand people into portraits of anti-imperialism. The scholar Khaldoun Khelil, drawing on his Palestinian Algerian heritage, has described the whitewashing of these characters as an effect of Western media’s tendency to portray Arabs as “bad guys—fanatics with unreasonable demands and a strange religion.” Because “Arabs can’t be heroes,” Khelil writes, “we must be erased.”

New York Times - "Microsoft Word’s Subtle Typeface Change Affected Millions. Did You Notice?"

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