Disney on Language Change

Just over a month ago, Diintensa_mente_nuevo_poster_latino_c_jposterssney/Pixar released its latest animated movie, Inside Out, in which we follow the emotions of 11-year-old Riley as she is uprooted from her happy life in the Midwestern United States and moved to San Francisco. The film’s main characters–the five emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger–engage in the normal type of cartoonish antics that have become characteristic of modern animation, though in this film the action is compelling in way that makes viewers forget they’re watching a movie for children.

As with any Disney summer blockbuster, Inside Out was also released to international audiences, dubbed or subtitled in a number of languages with a variety of different translations of the movie’s title, perhaps the most interesting of which is the Spanish one: Intensa Mente. A cursory glance at the title doesn’t suggest anything particularly special; the Adj + Noun word order is rather common in Spanish–as in la excelente película. What is interesting about this title is the noun mente ‘mind’, which, as any scholar of the history of the Spanish language can explain, gives rise to the suffix -mente that is used to produce adverbs (such as seguramente ‘surely/certainly’) from adjectives (segura ‘sure’). Furthermore, second semester Spanish students should be able to explain that -mente only combines with feminine forms of adjectives–i.e. seguramente not seguromente (at least not prescriptively).

This shift from mente as a noun to -mente as a suffix is a pretty routine example of language change, what some linguists refer to as grammaticalization. Documents show pretty clearly that, in earlier stages of the history of Spanish, mente combined with adjectives to make structures akin to adverbs.

y venjdo Nueua mente (mod. Sp. nuevamente) por sy mismo (Electronic texts and Concordances of Andalusian Documents, 15th Century, taken from the Corpus del Español)

Et por composiçion Adamo. as. ui. que es intensa mente (mod. Sp. intensamente) amar a vna sola cosa. (Universal vocabulario de latín en romance, 15th Century, taken from the Corpus del Español)

In this case, the noun mente has stuck around as a ‘normal’ noun meaning ‘mind’, still doing all the nouny things that a noun normal does. When the title translation of Inside Out was created, the translators unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) recreated the trajectory of change undergone by mente on its journey to grammatical greatness. In some ways, this title should seem archaic to Spanish speakers, sort of like going to see the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and wondering what in the hell “art” and “though” mean. Still, I’d like to applaud Disney/Pixar for their efforts and would indeed encourage more titles that evoke similar uses of grammatical times gone by. As a start, I’ve come up with a short list of titles and synopses for movies that, in my humble opinion, would make the media shelf of any scholar interested in language change.

  1. Joe’s Going to Live: In this film, the titular character, Joe, has recently learned that he has a terminal disease that can only be cured by embarking on a perilous journey. Only at his journey’s end will Joe be able to find out the secret that will save his life.
  2. A Lot of Trouble: While playing in an abandoned plot of land, a scrappy bunch of school kids encounter more than just backyard fun. Their encounter takes them on a wild adventure, full of danger, mystery, and excitement.
  3. My Best Friend’s a Zombie, -ish: Cindy is devastated to learn that her best friend Laura has been bitten by the living dead. But when she learns that Laura’s infection is only partial, nothing will stop the friends from finding a cure.

PS. I took my two children to see Inside Out and found it to be quite entertaining.