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April 23 2008

Ken Jennings blogs about Firefly. Yes, that Ken Jennings. The 74-time Jeopardy champ shares some thoughts on Firefly, which he just recently watched. Also a brief Buffy mention.

Somebody really likes the look of their own text.....
"The last network space show to have ratings success was…well, I don’t think there have ever been any. Lost in Space nearly made the top 30 a few times in the 1960s."

Do none of the Star Trek shows count? That seems kind of off...especially for a trivia master.
Somebody really likes the look of their own text.....

Is it you? ;)

(But seriously, now. Anyone who offers their opinion in print could be accused of liking the look of their own text. That include people who comment on WHEDONesque. So maybe we don't want to go there.)

ETA: On the matter of Star Trek, septopus, he referred to "network space show[s]". Outside of the original run, which of course was cancelled due to low ratings, no other Trek show was broadcast on one of the Big Four networks.

[ edited by theonetruebix on 2008-04-23 06:41 ]
I'll make up for Ken. I was wearing my Browncoat shirt as an undershirt when I won Jeopardy! last Monday. :)
"I'll make up for Ken. I was wearing my Browncoat shirt as an undershirt when I won Jeopardy! last Monday. :)"

I can't help thinking I saw last Monday's Jeopardy!...was the Final Jeopardy question an Oscars question?

rubix: Yeah I was trying to think if Next Gen was on a big network, I know that one did well ratings wise.
I'll take the bait. Not all of the Chinese was swearing. Okay, the fun ones were. But it was also used for many mundane phrases, basically anytime the audience didn't need to know exactly (or could reasonably figure out) what they were saying. There's no reason to conclude that the rest of the language has been forgotten. I won't touch the rest of that paragraph except to say maybe perception of races should be reevaluated after 500 years of leaving Earth.

And the adult diapers came later! ;)
And how many dialects does Chinese have?
Even though English is widely varied, what with the Brits, the Americans, the Aussies, etc. each speaking with their own accents and phrases (I just recently learned the term "all fur coat and no knickers" and love it!), it is still the same for the most part.
Although I can't for the life of me understand Catherine Zeta-Jones when she's speaking in her normal Welsh accent.

Chinese has, just off the top of my head, at least two big variations: Cantonese and Mandarin. Figure in the fact that most of the world tries to learn English to trade with us, and yeah--I'd say that English would survive mostly intact, just to be peppered with phrases from other languages. And anyone who says anything else is just full of go-se.
Hey, he obviously liked the show. This particular entry isn't one of his best, but I've always enjoyed Ken's blog.
What odd comments about the show (which I'm guessing he enjoyed since he galloped through the episodes).

Of course most of the dialog is in English; it is an American show. That's like criticizing Star Trek because 99.9% of the aliens looked like humans with different colored skin or bumpy foreheads. It's a limitation of using human actors.

I could have done with more Asians in the cast, but I wouldn't switch any of our main actors for anyone. I assume if the show had continued we would have seen more Asians, especially if we had seen more of the inner planets.

Would the show have had a chance if it had been treated right by the network? Who knows.
Firefly as Felicity? Please don't touch the hair, Captain Mal!

There were a few language-based essays in the book 'Finding Serenity' which gave me a much better understanding of the Chinese used in the series. It's well worth getting a copy, if you're into that kind of thing.
Which you probably are, you know, being on Whedonesque!

[ edited by missb on 2008-04-23 08:28 ]
Yikes! Can't he just enjoy something? I'm sorry, I know he won a lot of money on Jeopardy, but doesn't this guy have a job? If not, he needs one... Plus he uses wikipedia? Shouldn't this guy have, like, an Encyclopedia Britannica collection or something? (not that "Browncoats" would be in it (maybe we are, I don't know), but have some pride, man!)
Wikipedia is less reliable and authoritative than e.g. the Encyclopaedia Britannica but that doesn't make it totally useless IMO, especially for information that develops quickly as with fandoms.

Re: the language, I agree with hacksaway that we hear non-cursing Mandarin a few times (and even some of the "cursing" is more along "May you live in interesting times" lines than plain old "shit" e.g. the one about "wacky nephews" ;). English is the quintessential borrower of words though with 90% + of English vocabulary being loanwords (mainly from Latin, French and German - interestingly, outside of place-names, there're very, very few from Celtic) so for mainly English speakers to incorporate Chinese into their standard discourse isn't at all unbelievable (to me it wasn't clear whether the crew were all fluent in Mandarin as a second language or whether they used a subset of phrases in the same way that English speakers will say e.g. "caveat emptor" or "c'est la vie" without actually being able to speak Latin or French).

(in the UK a few words from Hindi or Arabic, like "pukka" or "shufti" are in fairly common usage for precisely the same reason - a melding of cultures, though in those cases distinctly less benignly)

The point about the rarity of Asian characters is valid though (albeit not new).
Huh. I'm not, y'know, a Jeopardy champion or anything, but I really didn't see speaking faux-future English and swearing in Chinese as being intrinsically any different from speaking the Mulligan stew of modern English and swearing in Anglo-Saxon...
It's just a matter of how long ago it was integrated, how different it is from its original form and, therefore, how much it sticks out to us. As you say Rowan Hawthorn, no-one thinks of 'fuck' as a foreign word and though most English speakers would know "clan" isn't "English" English, how many would say the same of 'slogan' (from the Gaelic 'sluagh-ghairm' for - roughly - 'battle cry') ?

(funnily enough 'joss' is a Chinese loanword - from Cantonese in that case ;)
I've never seen an episode of Jeopardy. Yay me. Like Saje, I was more puzzled by the lack of asian actors than the lack of more Chinese being spoken. That being said, perhaps if we'd seen more of the core worlds...?


Wikipedia is less reliable and authoritative than e.g. the Encyclopaedia Britannica but that doesn't make it totally useless IMO, especially for information that develops quickly as with fandoms.


There was a study recently about inaccuracies in the Britannica vs. Wikipedia, and there was surprisingly little difference (there were many errors in both). Wikipedia has the benefit of a "talk page", where you can see what any contentious points are, which increases your knowledge in a slightly different way. Also, it's invaluable for just quickly looking up a formula or a scientific constant (though, I'm always just a little bit paranoid that they've put a wrong number there just to screw with my answers). And it's free at the point of use.
Yep, in many ways it's an amazing project so long as you approach it as you do MattK i.e. with a bit of caution (but then that's true of all sources).

(it's maybe worth pointing out though that if you mean the study mentioned here then it's as true to say "Wikipedia is only 75% as accurate as Britannica on average" - which is still pretty good for a free, community created service - as it is to say there's not much between them. Also Britannica, as you'd expect, disputes the Nature study's conclusions ;)
Huh. I'm not, y'know, a Jeopardy champion or anything, but I really didn't see speaking faux-future English and swearing in Chinese as being intrinsically any different from speaking the Mulligan stew of modern English and swearing in Anglo-Saxon...
Well, except for the bit where Anglo-Saxon is the core of the English language, and Chinese isn't. (Words that have been part of the language all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times are, if anything, more authentic modern English, not less.)
That's debatable Shmuel (in the sense of a large-scale replacement around the 5th century i.e. it's at least possible that Anglo-Saxon merged with a pre-existing germanic language already in eastern/southern Britain) but yeah it maybe doesn't make too much sense to talk about English separately from Anglo-Saxon.

Surely the point is though, if you went back to 500 AD (ish) then the melding of e.g. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon (limited as it was) or Latin and Anglo-Saxon would be comparable ? In the 'verse it might well be that in 1500 years time people will see 'go-se' (or whatever it becomes) the same way we see 'slogan' or 'candle'.
Huh. I'm not, y'know, a Jeopardy champion or anything, but I really didn't see speaking faux-future English and swearing in Chinese as being intrinsically any different from speaking the Mulligan stew of modern English and swearing in Anglo-Saxon...

Well, except for the bit where Anglo-Saxon is the core of the English language, and Chinese isn't. (Words that have been part of the language all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times are, if anything, more authentic modern English, not less.)


I also agree that Anglo-Saxon was probably not the best example. However, I agree with the idea. I realized when I was fairly young that I could say certain words in a bunch of languages because I was around an ethnically diverse group of people. These included "bad" words, curses, toasts, and things to say after people sneeze. The kids in my English as a Second Language classes know all the bad words in the main two totally different languages in the class as well as English and will sometimes have one of those words unthinkingly pop out of their mouths rather than the ones from their own language. (Maybe because they can get away with them at home.) For whatever it is worth, I heard a Neopolitan curse so often at work 22 years ago that, though I never use it, it still roles off my tongue well enough for a native Neopolitan to understand it and blush.

Along the same lines, I also never had a problem with the pronunciation reportedly being so far off from actual Chinese in Firefly. Most words that become very common are also corrupted after a while. Words are pronounced with less and less of the original accent until they hardly sound like the original words at all.

The lack of Asians in the cast was unfortunate, and has been discussed enough that I am not going there. I'm just hoping Dollhouse gets more diverse. A few people with lines on their faces would be nice...
*shrug* That was just the first thing that popped into my head. Anglo-Saxon is so much closer to German than it is to modern English (take a look at Caedmon's Hymn for an example,) that the average English speaker would no more recognize and understand it than if it was Chinese. But we still recognize some of the old "bad words."

[ edited by Rowan Hawthorn on 2008-04-23 15:57 ]
I compare it to Latin. We still use words and phrases from Latin in our daily lives. But conversation Latin is pretty much dead to all but small groups. It's very likely that small group in Firefly is on the core planets. Latin is mostly a written language these days. It's possible the rim dwellers and less educated of the future masses just didn't learn the proper way to speak. I suspect the Tams, Inara, and Wash are well versed in languages.



*edited for spelling

[ edited by thatweirdgirl on 2008-04-23 16:31 ]
If it wasn't for someone mentioning that he won Jeopardy I would never have known who this guy was... afterall, I don't watch Jeopardy.

Nonetheless, his opinion is his opinion. I can't bash him for that, though I will say that despite Star Trek:TNG not being on a major network it did garnish 40+ million viewers in its hayday. Better than most shows today... So, his logic is flawed.

We know Firefly was great and still is great, despite his lack of appreciation.

'Nuff said.
Mudkicker, I'm not sure that it's that he didn't appreciate it, it's just that he's commenting on a couple aspects of the show that stuck out at him and his observation that the fans of the show in feel cheated because Fox cut it short. He's saying that it didn't have a lot of room for error in the first place because the genres that Firefly came from are not traditionally popular, Star Trek notwithstanding.

Firefly is great and as a project was extremely bold, but it might have worked better on somewhere besides the major networks.
He doesn't actually say he didn't like it (ETA: as archon said ;).

There're approximately, ooh, infinity fan-wanks about why we don't see many Chinese people but personally I don't think any of them are necessary. There's no evidence that Chinese is dead as an everyday language in the way Latin is just as there's no evidence that ethnically Chinese people are dwindling or marginalised, there's only lack of evidence that they're not.

The old refrain applies: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2008-04-23 17:12 ]
I used to know lots of young people in an all-white town in Northern California who used tons of slang that would normally be identified w/ black English. If you filmed them (and didn't listen to their music or watch their TV shows), you might be mystified about where that language came from.
If you count the comics, there was one Asian speaking part, the leader of the other gang robbing the same bank. And I believe that Bushwhacked had an Asian female aide to the Alliance captain. So that's two. But yeah, a problem, although one or two lines of dialog could have explained it away in some fashion. Probably would have happened some time later in the season or the one after.
Allow me to quote Mr Jennings:

"Now it’s true that Fox screwed Firefly (even perversely skipping the pilot episode and airing it last!) but let’s face it: this show wasn’t going anywhere anyway."

The comment that the show wasn't going anywhere anyway is a gross reflection of his lack of appreciation. But once again, I say that is his opinion.

Did I read his opinion incorrectly?

:: shrug ::
septopus and Mudkicker, all the later incarnations or Star Trek, including TNG, were released in first-run syndication, meaning that no network owned them, they had to be bought by a local affiliate. So, his statement about it being network sci-fi is correct. ETA: You're correct, it was a ratings success as a space show.

[ edited by k8cre8 on 2008-04-23 19:24 ]
The comment that the show wasn't going anywhere anyway is a gross reflection of his lack of appreciation.

No, it's a gross reflection of what he then goes on to say
To repeat: it’s a space western. On network television. The last network western to have a successful season ratings-wise was Gunsmoke–in 1975. The last network space show to have ratings success was…well, I don’t think there have ever been any.

i.e. space shows aren't generally successful and westerns aren't generally successful so what hope does a space-western have ?

Right now I’m working on Season 4 of The Wire, another show that never found the popular embrace it deserved during its first run.

(my emphasis)

That is, surely he's saying 'Firefly' deserved to be embraced by a bigger audience? So it seems like you may indeed have read his opinion incorrectly Mudkicker ;).
septopus:

My final jeopardy was the science fiction question. (4/14) I was so hoping it would be a Firefly question, but no!
I will admit one thing: had Firefly aired when I was a kid, it would have been a runaway hit (well, except for the parts of it which couldn't have been aired - or even hinted at - on TV when I was a kid.) Westerns were the thing then, and space shows were very popular, too - the latter being only not-successful because most of them were either relegated to kids' TV, or just kinda generally sucked. Or both...
I agree with the discussion on this thread, but I have to point out that not all of the Chinese phrases were cursed. They also used love & endearment phrases. The one most used that comes to mind is:

Mei-mei ("may-may")= little sister: Simon uses this on River when he has heart-to-hearts with her & comforts her; Mal uses it on Kaylee to reassure her that they'll all be okay; Mal also uses it on River when he gives her lessons on life

I believe that Zoe & Wash also use "love" words to each other, like husband & wife, but since I'm at work and can't watch the episodes without being caught at the moment, mei-mei will have to be my only solid example.

As it's been stated before, although some of the characters (Tams, Inara, Wash) may have formal schooling and possibly be bilingual, I think, overall, it was a melding/absorption of the two languages. For example, my cousins (8 & 9) have an aunt that speaks Spanish and insists on being called "Tia" (aunt). I'm not sure they even know her real name, because they'll always call her "tia". They know what it means, and it's engrained in them, along with other words that they use in substitution of English words. Absorption best describes it.
First of all, has any linguistic switch like this ever happened in the history of the world? That is, one language incorporates another, but only in its profanity, leaving the rest of its vocabulary untouched?

*cough* Well, obviously he is not a linguist… because, it happens a lot – I know so personally. Especially with swear words. The English “Fuck” comes to mind. Myself, I’m known to use various Japanese words when I’m excited/angry about something, a favorite to call my brother “Baka” and “Dobe”. I love my brother.

And many have already mentioned this, but it just seems that he does not deduce meanings from context well if he thinks Simon would curse River or Inara would curse Kaylee. There have been other uses of Chinese that haven’t been curses the most general use (been a while since I watched Firefly) would be the affermative "yes". He might want to check out: http://fireflychinese.kevinsullivansite.net/

It isn’t really new to us that Joss counters censors by cursing in a non-American fashion. Spike’s “bugger” and “bent” as well as the two finger salute are fan favorites ;) but our dear blogger wouldn’t know since he sadly hadn't watched Buffy.

[ edited by Mirage on 2008-04-23 21:25 ]
Not to mention "wanker" (and "sod" but like "bugger" that's barely swearing IMO). Would Spike not have been allowed to "flip the bird" on US network TV then ? You guys are weird ;-).

(we were kind of alluding to "fuck" upthread Mirage, isn't that thought to be of Anglo-Saxon origin though and isn't Anglo-Saxon pretty much the root of English making it pretty hard for English to borrow words from it - surely that'd be like saying French borrowed from Old French ? Not to mention that English obviously has a lot more Anglo-Saxon than just curse words ;)
One of the more standout examples of Anglo-Saxon words would be the ones related to what we eat. The words for the animals themselves tend to be from the Anglo-Saxon/Old English/Old Germanic, whereas their counterpart terms for the food tend to be French. So you get...'cow'/'beef'('beouf)' and 'pig'/'pork'('porc') and both are now fully incorporated into English. Nope, NOT just curse words.
Saje, I also meant using the word in other languages not derived from Germanic and Latin tongues. I've heard it spoken by various African and Asian natives - all admittedly influenced by television (a strong factor in the cultural borrowing of words). Some explained that it meant less when spoken in another language, other said the opposite, that it was a stronger expression.

I'm guessing it is all subjective to the time, place and person saying it.
Ah, I get you ;). That's cool if a bit weird to me (can't imagine many native English speakers doing the same thing, but then right now I guess there aren't many other languages with the same cultural impetus). Are they saying it as a loanword (i.e. has 'fuck' actually entered their language) or as a sort of consciously "borrowed expression" (like "caveat emptor" or "c'est la vie") ?

(I do love hearing English expressions just pop up in foreign speech though, tickles me because it stands out so much and yet sounds totally fluid - much moreso than most foreign expressions in an English conversation, probably partly because you can't always distinguish word boundaries in the speech of a language you don't know so it all seems to flow together)
Japanese has been incorporating a lot English words and phrases in the past few years. For instance, the Japanese word for "diamond"? Daiyamondo. They also use many common English phrases in their regular speech. So I've never found it odd that Firefly did pretty much the same thing except with English speakers using random Chinese words.
The Chinese in "Firefly" always makes me think of Bollywood films, which I enjoy, though I know little else about them.

I do of course, know a very basic colonial history of India, but I was wondering if anyone here might know why in the middle of some speech, a character will interject not only individual words but sometimes whole sentences in English? The history that I know doesn't account for this seeming oddity. There never seems to be any rhyme or reason to the English bits--no culturally specific ideas or words to be conveyed. Just...spontaneous English.
Saje,

My apologies then with regards to Mr Jennings comments and my misinterpretation of them. It was early in the morning, I was cranky and had yet to flog my minions, much to my regret. I recant my previous statement and offer my condolenscences to those that had to endure my sad offering of dialogue.

All things forgiven? ;)
First of all, has any linguistic switch like this ever happened in the history of the world?


I guess if he phrased this as 'is it really conceivable that this could happen?' rather than 'has it ever happened' it wouldn't strike me as being so odd. But as phrased, it's kinda wacky, seeing as how sci-fi is pretty much fiction about the future.
All things forgiven? ;)

Ah, no worries Mudkicker, done the same thing myself, especially pre-coffee ;).

... but I was wondering if anyone here might know why in the middle of some speech, a character will interject not only individual words but sometimes whole sentences in English?

Not sure BreathesStory but English is the second language in India and large numbers of people there speak it as such. Maybe it's just because of that ? It also may sound more out of place just because you're not used to it ? I mean, if you heard someone in an English language film say even entire phrases/sentences in Latin it probably wouldn't leap out at you in the same way.
Saje, it is a personal borrowing for various individuals but certain scientific and technical words have found themselves melded into becoming part of the language itself. Just like some scientific Arabic words have long been integrated into the English language, some identifying terms like Television, Radio and Film are used in other languages with according phoneme changes.

BreathesStory, my guess is that it not only relates to the British occupation of India (that left a lasting imprint in education and culture) but also (through observation of movies) most of the character that speak in sentence in the English language within a native speaking come from affluent families that usually enroll their children in English based school.
It'd be interesting to know if the English segments are usually closer to British (or American) English or closer to Indian English (the former would presumably confirm an educational/cultural cross-fertilisation, the latter may suggest more the second language idea ?). Course, they may not be long enough to tell.

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