Thursday, November 01, 2007

Well obviously he's comprehensible

This topic came up today in my practicum for teaching intro linguistics. Subtitles convey more than just a simple ongoing transcript of a spoken text. The decision for or against using subtitles carries with it the implication that some accents and pronunciation patterns are more or less likely to be understood by some viewers. But for which viewers are the subtitles intended?

I habitually set the television to display subtitles. No matter what's on. So I often wonder how newscasts documentaries and telezine programs (60 Minutes, 48 Hours, Dateline, Frontline...) rationalize their alternating subtitling choices. I've seen several episodes in which it's clear that the choice involves a lot more than pure phonetics and phonology.

Recognizing the implicit claims made regarding standard forms and mainstream usage helps to identify what lines the editors feel deserve attention. And which viewers are valued/catered to.


  1. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!

    Where did this clip come from, by the way?

  2. Monica and I also use the subtitles sometimes. The other night we were watching Ned Kelly and when a horse made a sound, the subtitle read, "Nicker".

    Is this really a sound horses make?

  3. Just last night I was watching Evan Almighty (not recommended) with the subtitles. During the credits, they have a crew wide sing along to "Everybody Dance Now." More than once the subtitles said (Lip Synching). I'm very glad they didn't try to mislead someone who had muted the TV into thinking Steve Carell was actually singing. The word "Clamoring " was often used for general mumbling as well.

  4. Like you, I turn subtitles on whenever practical ... I've found it surprising how much more movie dialog I comprehend that way. I would say that with DVDs, the subtitles are pretty true to the speech. I suppose this is the advantage of leisure in creating them vs the on-the-fly transcriptions of closed captioning.

    For those who study languages, watching a movie in another language while reading the subtitles can be very helpful, of course. It also occasionally illustrate an interesting way in which the translators have had to interpret dialog, either to cut for length or for such problems as translating idiomatic language.

  5. And to comment a little more on topic, I saw something on the BBC in the early 90s about subtitles. (My memory here is faulty, so many of the facts will be fuzzy, but I'm sure the gist is correct! :-) ) I believe it was Billy Connolly who was pitching a TV show that was set in Glasgow to the BBC. The BBC wanted to put subtitles on it, because it was deemed to difficult to understand Glaswiegian. This steamed Connolly, who then went out into the streets of London and filmed various Londoners speaking. He took that back to the BBC and said "Do you understand what they are saying?" Which of course they didn't, yet the BBC would never in a million years subtitle the speech of native Londoners, no matter how incomprehensible. Point being overall that the BBC was reflecting a kind of cultural bias that you point to here -- those weird [other people] are incomprehensible! We need subtitles!

    BTW, a great sequence with subtitles is a scene in the movie "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", where there's a little incident with a guy who speaks Cockney. In fact, I think that subtitling Cockney, even in British movies, has become a kind of joke in itself.

  6. "I've seen several episodes in which it's clear that the choice involves a lot more than pure phonetics and phonology." Such as...?

    Come on now, substantiate your claims.

  7. "Nicker" is not the sound, but the name of the sound. Some say "whicker". Some - probably under the influence of the belief that if there are two words they must be naming two things (like "er" and "uh") - think nickering and whickering are two different sounds, usually really the same sound in different situations.

    Oddly (to me) MWU defines "nicker" as "to neigh gently, to whicker" and "whicker" as "to neigh, whinny". To me, a nicker isn't a neigh at all. It's more of a chuckling grunting noise. Anyway, it's something horses do to attract your attention and sometimes to express impatience.

    Subtitling is certainly a tricky thing even without getting into whether they're needed or not. I've noticed BBC America inviting its American listeners to use the close captioning for shows like Hotel Babylon and Torchwood and Graham Norton... "Not even British people can understand British accents", they say.

  8. Come on now, substantiate your claims.

    Haakaa Päälle: You're absolutely right to expect and demand that. It's a broad claim that I would love to address with such specifics as recordings transcriptions and comparisons.

    Right now I'm relying on my memories of having gone through the rant out loud to Buffy and friends and students when I thought something was sketchy in a documentary or report.

    I know--that's pretty indulgent.

    Dave and Ridger: I've always used nicker to indicate (but not imitate) that soft snorting sound. I've always used whinny to indicate the high pitched sound--usually associated with the horse raring back and agitated. As different as a cat's purr and a yowl.

    Mike: I've not seen Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I've noticed what you're saying about certain non-RP languages playing patsy in British humor. From My Fair Lady to Snatch and beyond. With pronunciation becoming a common throwaway joke.

    Daniel: clamoring for mumbling? Was the mumbling soft or loud? Can mumbling be loud? I would use clamoring for a louder crowd noise. And mumbling can be done by one person while I'd only use clamoring for a group.

    Elizabeth: I have no idea. I stumbled upon it on YouTube several months ago and just now found it again.

    Anyone know?


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.