“America government for shit – Amerikas Regierung ist Scheisse”: Hollywood’s ‘broken English’ and its dubbed versions

Lukas Bleichenbacher Adrian Pablé

Universität Zürich, Englisches Seminar, Switzerland, Section d'anglais, Université de Lausanne, Switzerland


How well do second language users of English perform in Hollywood representations of multilingual interaction? What are the stylistic and ideological correlates of heavily marked interlanguage? How is ‘broken’ English rendered in dubbed versions of Hollywood movies?

Our approach to the Hollywood representation of ‘broken’ English is informed by Irvine and Gal’s (2000) theorization of language ideology, especially by the notion of fractal recursivity. Our hypothesis is that the contrast between positive and negative attributes of characterization is projected onto the opposition between fluent and ‘broken’ use of English as a second language. The hypothesis is tested on a corpus of utterances in English as a second language, both in the original and in dubbed versions, from recent mainstream Hollywood movies.

The analysis shows that in general, characters with a non-English first language display much higher degrees of multilingual proficiency than English L1 characters using second languages. Moreover, the characters’ use of marked interlanguage features often appears motivated, in a reasonably realistic way, by the micro context of the speech situation, rather than by macro processes of stereotyping. In fact, some characters speak ‘worse’ English the more emotionally agitated, or indeed the more hostile they are towards English L1 speakers and their backgrounds – as in the Bosnian character’s line from Behind Enemy Lines (2001) quoted in the title. However, there exist interesting differences between the ‘broken’ varieties in different dubbed versions, which show the extent to which language ideologies are culture-specific.

In a next step, we discuss the depiction of interlanguage on the level of pragmatics. It is only in very rare cases that speakers appear as pragmatically incompetent in that they unknowingly violate Gricean maxims or conventions of linguistic politeness. Instead, breakdown in situations of intercultural communication typically occurs because the speakers are being impolite on purpose, and most often, their impoliteness is performed in perfectly fluent English, and rendered accordingly in the dubbed versions. The picture the movies paint is an all too rosy one of unproblematic worldwide communication in English, where the blame for communicative breakdown, if not escalation, is put on the non-L1 speakers: not because of their ‘broken’ English, but because of their rejection of American values.

Irvine, J. and Gal, S. (2000) ‘Language ideology and linguistic differentiation’, in P.V. Kroskrity (ed.) Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press), 35-83.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 5 / Film-TV
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 17