Ever since I first heard that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) had signing apes, I wanted to watch it. With sweet stories like this heart-rending one of a signing chimp who’d lost her babies, the idea of apes using sign language to communicate is an endearing one; so signing is an obvious choice for such a film.
Before I watched it, though, I found an article that said, “forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that as far as linguistics is concerned, the science is crap.” I snickered. Linguistics is indeed one of the most neglected sciences in science fiction.
In the film, some of the apes had been with humans in America before the rise of the apes to intelligence and civilisation, and so they could have some knowledge of English. But after ten years, I can’t imagine they would have retained enough knowledge of English that they could have much conversation in English with the humans.
And yet, they do. They understand the humans quite well.
But… hmm… Okay, the apes do use written English:
Or, at the very least, words from written English. But that does not mean they should understand spoken English. I know this based on two language communities that I come in contact with:
- The Jamaican Deaf community use written English in WhatsApp and SMS communication, often in JSL grammatical order. Sometimes/often though, they don’t understand written English sentences, or Signed English sentences, because English is a second language for them.
- The Jamaican Creole language community also largely use written English words and phonics rules to write their words, but many, especially those who aren’t very exposed to English, aren’t very good at understanding written English and spoken English.
The signed language of the apes is influenced, largely, by American Sign Language. In fact, look at the motto “Ape not kill ape”; it looks reminiscent of ASL in grammar. Watching the film, I paid as much attention as I could to the signs. There was definitely some ASL there, but some of the signs (and, perhaps, grammar) were definitely invented for the sake of Simian Sign Language (SSL; my name for it). I asked a CODA friend of mine and she said the same thing. I think one thing is that facial expressions and other non-manual aspects of the language were lacking.
The movie starts with the apes using SSL exclusively. And then, all of a sudden, they speak. Their first word is simple: “GO!!!” And then, later you hear stuff that’s more complex: “Apes… do not want… war!” “Ape home! Human home!” English grammaticality in ape speech is so variable it’s laughable. But… that’s not the worst part to me.
Why can the apes speak at all?!
They develop intelligence because of a virus. The virus targets the brain, which makes sense, since the virus is supposed to be an Alzheimer’s trial drug. But why would it affect vocal chords, too? Why would it affect the size of the apes, too?
Over the course of the film, SSL vanished in favour of spoken English. Even in communicating with each other, and not humans, they spoke; they didn’t sign. That doesn’t make sense. Why would their natural language not be the one to use when they’re emotionally charged?
While I enjoyed the film, it shows again how little attention Hollywood pays to linguistics and language in its films. It’s probably not something that most viewers would care much about, but linguists would likely raise an eyebrow or two.
To close, I think there’s a bigger question here, too; one bigger than the universe of Dawn: With apes using an ASL-based sign language, why was there no Deaf actor in the line-up?
Deaf actors would have made the SSL far more realistic. I wish Hollywood would take opportunities like these to give Deaf actors more roles, especially unconventional roles. Let’s hope that changes one day.