The 13th Warrior, Mythology, Film and Language Language Resources

A while back, I re-read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology – a classic, of course. I’m actually quite glad that I read it again, finishing it exactly when I did because immediately after, by coincidence, I watched The 13th Warrior. Mythology had a brief introduction to Norse Mythology, and I had a better understanding of the characters in the movie as a result of reading the book before watching the film (when they were yelling “Odin!”, I understood why). Who knew what the chances were that I would finish reading the book, put it away, then watch a movie, not knowing how the last few chapters of the book would make my movie experience that much more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know, The 13th Warrior, is based on a book, The Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors. I really appreciate Crichton’s work as an author because he is pretty historically accurate and well-researched. It took me a quite a bit of time after watching the movie to finally get around to reading the book (try two years). For the record, that is not the order I usually do things. I’m more of a book first, movie second kind of girl. And even worse than that, is that I am a huge Michael Crichton fan and I have quite the collection of his books (books are probably the only things I hoard). That particular book has been sitting on my bookshelf for about ten whole years. Ten years?! Absurd, I know but unfortunately, fiction does not frequently make my “must read” list any more.

So why am I talking about Michael Crichton on a blog about crafts and language? Well, my dear friends, I am talking about them because of one particular scene in the film that has bothered me since I saw it. It is also the reason I finally decided to read the book this week, hoping to gain a better understanding as to why it happened the way that it did. I also have a huge interest in the relationships between books, film and language and how the former two portray the latter.

How Popular Culture (Film) Portrays Language Learning

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (I’m not sure if this counts as spoilers…), there is a pivotal scene where Ahmed, the main character, learns to speak Norse by means of complete immersion. This happens after traveling with the Norseman where he remains silent yet observant, taking in everything that goes on around him (in the book he annoys his translator with endless questions). Then suddenly, he begins to speak “their language” in response to a comment made by one of the men, gaining the respect of the Norsemen for learning their language. You can watch the scene here.

In the book, on the other hand, Ahmed learns a few words of the Norseman’s language (“Herger translated all for me, although I had spent sufficient time among theses heathens to learn a word or two of their tongue.”), but relies on his translator throughout the entire story. Towards the end, he is able to have very basic conversations if the others speak slowly enough for him, but at one point he says that when he spoke in the language he was not very fluent, if at all comprehensible. I should also note that this voyage appears to take a few days in the film but takes months (maybe even a year or more) to complete in the book.

For the most part, I find this scene highly unlikely despite the fact that I know that this type of immersion is a practice that has frequently been used by the military. In France, for example, there is a region where one of the spoken languages is Breton, a Gaelic language. During the wars, when many young Breton-speaking men went to fight with their fellow Frenchmen (late-nineteenth, early twentieth-century), they were thrown into French-speaking environments and were forced to learn the language (their survival counted on it). Considering the situation, one would definitely learn a language quickly. The lingering question, however, is how fast and how well they actually learned it.

This is quite comparable to the situation Ahmed from Eaters of the Dead/The 13th Warrior was in, and being able to speak with those he was fighting with would have absolutely given him the incentive to learn the language. My only question is which reference points (words) he picked up on in order to begin understanding words and eventually sentences. What seems quite amazing (in the film) is that he is fluent the very first time he speaks. Thankfully, the book is more realistic.

I’m really curious about knowing your thoughts on this scene and how probable it is in terms of language learning. Personally, I don’t think it is a wholly accurate portrayal of the results of total language immersion, but they did do a cinematic gloss-over of what it might have actually been like for Ahmed in real life.

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  • Rich E.

    Hi Shannon, thanks for posting this. I have studied Russian, German and French and have had the pleasure to be ‘immersed’ in another language on a few occasions. To answer your last question, if they sat around the fire and traveled for a month or more, he would have been able to pick up simple words like, wood, fire, water, drink, eat, sleep, horse, yes, no, plus the names of the foods they were eating. He would also have learned sentence structure for commands so some basic verbs such as get, take, find, fetch, want etc…the fact he speaks fluently in the movie after just listening is literary license to show his intelligence and build respect quickly in the 90 minute movie. I always find it entertaining when different movies use the native language to start and then they show us some moment or time progression to switch to English. It must be done, of course, for English speaking audiences as most native English speakers tend to not like sub-titles (I actually do like them personally). My favorite switch to English was in the movie The Hunt for Red October. They switched on the word Armageddon – and thank goodness too, because listening to Sean Connery speak Russian with a heavy Scottish accent was making me laugh a little 😀

    • Hi Rich, thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate your input! I agree that they used some creative license in the film to speed up the language learning process (it wasn’t quite the same in the book) and I understand that they were trying to shift away from subtitles. Like you, I don’t mind having to read subtitles while watching a film, but I can see how it can take away some of the enjoyment for others.

      Funny that you should mention Red October – I just watched it for the first time last week. I didn’t notice that “Armageddon” was the word the switched on, but I did feel that the change was rather abrupt (in my personal opinion). I don’t speak Russians so I couldn’t really appreciate the accent – wish I could! I’ll have to watch that scene again, now knowing how they did it, it might bother me a bit less.

      • Rich E.

        😀 My pleasure, thanks again for posting

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  • Arvydas

    Hi, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m a linguist, researcher and teacher. Obviously the film has some flaws (why did they come by sea, but then go back by land?), but the commitment to language issues is more than honorable. Sure the journey was not done in three evening, this is just to get the grip of the situation. A barbaric language in 10th century AD, the more as spoken by warriors and (with one exception) not cultivated men, would probably have got by with 400 to 500 words. This is neatly depicted in the film, see for example the matters the Norse talk about, mostly everyday’s language. Note also that in the following scene instead of “read” and “write” periphrases are used. Though probably not with the most acculturated accent, I believe that with a full immersion a literate man as Ahmed (also posing a lot of question to his interpreter, though it’s not shown) could get a reasonable understanding and speaking competence on a new language.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Arvydas. I thought it was interesting how Ahmed’s language learning was covered in the film vs the book.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Arvydas. I thought it was interesting how Ahmed’s language learning was covered in the film vs the book.