Minion language – do you speak it?
By Caroline Godwin
With all the hype about Despicable Me 2, I decided to explore the Minion language and find out how French director Pierre Coffin went about creating the Minion lingo.
In Despicable Me 1 and 2, Coffin does the voices for most of the Minions, both in English and in many other languages where he did the dubbing.
When creating the language, he purposely went with a gibberish approach for comedy purpose. But in the Despicable Me 2 production notes, fellow director Chris Renaud says, “What’s great about the Minion language, while it is gibberish, it sounds real because Pierre puts in words from many languages.”
The gibberish has meaning
The minion language – known as Minionese – is understandable because so many languages are used.
I particularly like the well known songs that are parodied: Boyz 2 Men’s I Swear becomes Underwear in Minionese, Copa Cabana ends up being Bella Banana and The Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann becomes Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Ba-Na-Na - to name but a few.
By listening carefully, we can identify words from a variety of languages such as French, English, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Indian languages, Filipino and more.
Here are a few examples:
Poppadom? – a common Minion phrase.
Gelato! – Italian for icecream.
Kanpai – Japanese, meaning Cheers!
Hana, dul, sae – Korean for one, two, three.
Pwede na – Filipino language – it means Can we start?
Para tú – Spanish for for you when a Minion gave Agnes a replacement toy.
Phonetics and pragmatics
To explain why we understand Minionese without learning it, there seems to be a trick Pierre Coffin uses – phonetics. If something sounds like, or has the rhythm and tones of a word or phrase you’re familiar with, it seems your brain will understand that word.
This is especially true when context is considered. When the Minions are buying a toy for Agnes, they say Papoy? Wha kind a papoy? It sounds like the word toy and they are buying a toy, so there’s no confusion. The French peluche – soft toy – becomes papuche. Again, it sounds similar and is in the right context for the story.
Context helps us understand
With Minionese, Coffin distances himself from semantics, which would have meant a language regimented by codes and hard rules such as grammar, preferring to use pragmatics. This counts on context of the spoken word and pre-existing knowledge about those involved. So pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity, because meaning relies on the manner, place, or time of an utterance.
In a wedding scene, one Minion sings a gibberish song and all of a sudden you clearly hear the word boda – Spanish for wedding. If you have pre-existing knowledge of Spanish combined with the visual context, the meaning of the song is then clear. You feel like you understand Minionese.
I’ll end this with my favorite example of how phonetics and pragmatics work so well here. In the film, a Minion is dragged behind a car before he takes flight with a pair of underwear as a sail. All of a sudden, while flying in the sky, he opens his arms and screams oki-kalo-mata. He sounds and looks strangely like Leonardo DiCaprio shouting I’m the king of the world.
So is Minionese the new Esperanto? Probably not – but regardless, I look forward to seeing and hearing more of it next year in the Minions movie.
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