Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man Linguistics

I just saw Iron Man (no no, this is not another movie review ... but you can still read my Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Juno discussions). There is an interesting linguistic side-point to be made about language diaspora in Afghanistan. As the movie opens, our hero, Tony Stark, is kidnapped near Bagram Air Base in northwest Afghanistan's Parwan Province. He is held captive with one other prisoner, a local Afghani doctor named Yinsin (a name carried over from the original comic book I believe, so not particularly Afghani) who says he's from a small town named "Gulmira" (I couldn't find any real town by that name, though it seems to be a fairly common given name). Luckily for Stark, Yinsin speaks "many languages", so he's able to understand some of their captors' shouts and orders, but not all (an interesting aside, the actor who plays Yinsin, Shaun Toub, has a backstory worthy of its own screenplay).

You see, the group which has kidnapped the unfortunate pair goes undefined throughout the movie. We are largely left to draw our own conclusions about their origin, ideology, and motivation (though we get some minor clarification late in the movie). The one thing we learn about their diversity is that they speak a wide variety of languages, as Yinsin lists some of them for Stark. I don't remember the full list, but I believe they included "Arabic, Ashkun, Farsi, Pashto" amongst others. So, kudos to the screenwriters for, in the very least, scanning Ethnologue for an appropriate set of languages to list.

But there's one other language that Yinsin mentions, and it got my attention: Hungarian. A few scenes after Yinsin lists the various languages the group speaks (a list that does not include Hungarian), he and Stark are being yelled at by an unnamed thug. Stark asks Yinsin what he's saying and Yinsin says something like "I don't know. He's speaking Hungarian."

This was meant as a bit of comic relief, I believe. So the screenwriters may have chosen Hungarian at random. Perhaps any language that American audiences would perceive as unusual or unexpected would have done the trick. Perhaps it would have been even funnier if he said "I dunno, he's speaking Comanche (ba dum boom!)." I don't know, but my linguistics radar picked it up and I went searching for any connections Hungary might have with Afghanistan.

Alas, I have found few. I would have to make some serious leaps of logic to connect the dots, and I don't think the movie was going for that. The clarifying scenes late in the movie suggest that this groups' motivations are largely financial, not ideological or political, so we might assume this was some random Hungarian mercenary. As far as I can tell, this is the most logically consistent interpretation (unless I've misunderstood the movie's plot or dialogue, in which case ... never mind).


Anonymous said...

I thought the group the Ten Rings were made up of those other peoples mentioned, including Mongols. Hungarian is a Ural-Altaic language, in the same family as Mongolian, Manchu, Turkish, and several other main ones.
Hungarians are originally from Central Asia, though not specifically Afghanistan. There are hundreds of words in Mongolian, for example, that are the same in Hungarian.
I'm not sure the intent of the writers with this one, whether it was random or on purpose, but this is what I thought of after seeing the movie today.

Chris said...

Thanks for the comment. I considered the typological connection, but it wasn't clear to me what that meant regarding contemporary speakers of Hungarian.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie last night and was utterly confused about the Hungarian in it. It makes no sense if they were Hungarian mercenaries then probably they would know English. There is no other mention of Hungarian in the movie. Comparing Mongolian to Hungarian is a little far fetched. The two languages do not share any words just sounds (from which words get formed). The Hungarian or Magyar people left the area over 1600 years ago so so any similarities between the two cultures is simply ancient history.
Besides this the movie was too slow and disappointing especially the ending. It was nothing more then a two hour introduction

Chris said...

Yeah, I'm pretty sure at this point that the Hungarian comment was strictly a random attempt at humor. I'm pretty impressed, though, with how much interest there has been. My Sitemeter log shows a lot of searches for "Hungarian" & "Ironman".

As for the movie, all superhero movies are stuck balancing the need for exposition for the newbies and fun for the fanboys. Few have done it well.

Jason M. Adams said...

My interpretation while watching the movie was that it was a band of mercenaries and thugs from all over the world and so the Hungarian reference was just demonstrating the international make-up of the group. Perhaps I am misremembering, but I thought Yinsin had said something to that effect when he was first describing the group to Stark. I think the random explanation is still correct, though.

Anonymous said...


I also saw the movie recently, and being Hungarian myself, I also found it odd at first. There have been terrorist cells recruited and trained in Hungary over the past decade, especially during the Serbian war, or so they say.

Although most of the words were impossible to understand in the movie, there were a few recognizable sentences, (such as open the door) spoken with a heavy foreign dialect, which makes my hypothesis weak. My other theory is that Hungarian is a language few people speak, and is hard to learn, so it is a handy code to use.

But why would they want to use code when they are talking to their captives, and asking them to open the door? To teach them the secret language?

Chris said...

Hi Anonymous, it's an interesting socio-linguistic point about speaking a language to someone you believe does not speak the language. It's a fairly common phenomenon. Language is a tool of communication, so we use it to communicate, even when it may not be the right tool for the job.

Anonymous said...

Well, in that case, they could have said something more creative.

Hungarian ticket controllers are notorius for not speaking any foreign languages and shouting at tourists at the top of their lungs in Hungarian, beleiving that if they say it loud enough, the poor souls will eventually understand them. So perhaps the terrorirsts worked for the BKV in their past lives.

BTW imdb lists a goof under the same topic:

I don't know if these are just little quirky idiosynchrasies to keep viewers paying attention?

Anonymous said...

im hungarian......and nothing that was said even resembles anything in deeply offended .there is no connection to Afghanistan or the middle east as far as Hungarians are concerned .....truth be the told it;s actually quite the opposite ........poor planning on the film maker;s part...i fingd it ofensive

Anonymous said...

you could understand in Hungarian the following "What's going on inside? Hands up!" Which is weird because a Hungarian would never say Hands up! to people who he doesn't see (and the thug was still outside). He shouted with a heavy accent, so he wasn't Hungarian at all.

Yinsen shouted back "One minute!" in Hungarian.

At least the sentences were gramatically perfect.

BTW Hungarian and Mongolian has nothing to do with each other at all.

Chris said...

A quick scan of Ethnologue suggests at first that Hungarian and Mongolian have no obvious typological connection:

Uralic, Finno-Ugric, Ugric, Hungarian

Altaic, Mongolian, Eastern, Oirat-Khalkha, Khalkha-Buriat, Mongolian Proper

However, a quick bit of Googling led me to discover that there may be an historical relationship between these two languages as there is some reason to believe that Ural-Altaic languages share some ancestry.

I'm no typologist, so this is outside my area of expertise (i.e., verbs frames). For more info, check out this Wikipedia page:
Ural-Altaic languages

Anonymous said...

As a Hungarian speaker, I just thought I'd throw out there that, whatever language the thugs are speaking, it is not really Hungarian. When Yensin answers the thugs with "egy perc, egy perc" (one minute, one minute) that really is Hungarian, but whatever language the thugs are yelling, it sounds like no language I've ever heard. I'm not sure what the screen writers were going for, but they need to check their translators.

Chris said...

Thanks for all the comments. This topic is one of the most frequently viewed on this blog, so it's clear that people take this at least somewhat seriously. Since I have zero knowledge of Hungarian, I appreciate all of the native speaker providing their comments.

I'm going to have to watch the movie again when it comes out on DVD to review the context of the Hungarian comment. Then I'll try to provide some more info and analysis.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Hungarian-American who grew up with the Magyar language. I'm not as fluent in it as English, but I know a lot. It's still used in my family. You can make out several Hungarian phrases "open the door," etc. To me the guy's accent sounds Transylvanian (Erdelyi) or Romanian... based on things I've heard before. As for any connection between Hungarian and Afghanistan... well, the Odessa Maffia controls parts of Budapest and other Central and Eastern European cities. All of the many factions and forms of the Russian underground... who knows what they are doing in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and for that matter, Afghanistan. I don't think the movie's producers were insinuating that there are radical Hungarian Muslims out there (let alone any Hungarian Muslism). [And I know not all Muslims are radicals or terrorists; might as well put that disclaimer here now.] And as for Central Asian languages like Mongol and Hungarian... Hungarian IS a Central Asian language, whether it's actually Uralic or is actually Altaic (like Italian linguist Angela Marcantonio's theory). BTW, Farsi, Pashto, etc. are Indo-Iranian languages and so Indo-European... and cousins with English and not Hungarian. Comparing Hungarian with Mongolian is like comparing apples with pears, but Hungarian and Pashto is like comparing apples with toast.

Anonymous said...

There are Hungarian soldiers in Afghanistan and controlled the Bagran area for a period, if i'm not mistaken. That may be your answer.

And yes, you can definitely make out Hungarian words, even if spoken with a heavy accents.

Not Transsylvanian, though, i don't really know of a discernible accent there.

Anonymous said...

I see there are many clever guys here who know the mafia relations between Hungary and Afghanistan and know about the hungarian soldiers.It would be the same if I said, that, hey many US soldiers are in Iraq, so they must speak like people speak in Iraq.What??NO??Do they speak English?Blahh!!
This piece of shit movie is really a big offense against hungarian people.
I'd like to see those muppets who put this hungarian scene into the movie.

Anonymous said...

Gyerekek ne írjunk már ekkora irdatlan baromságokat hogy a nemtudoménmilyen maffia irányítja Budapestet...
Meg hogy székely akcentussal beszél, komolyan az agyamat eldobom egy amerikai-magyar aki hallotta valakitől aki hallotta valakitől osztja itt az észt.
De más is nagy felháborodással hogy semmi magyar szó nem hangzott el pedig tisztán lehet hallani pl, hogy egy perc.
Meg, hogy magyarországon terrorista sejteket képeztek ki, de érted "bazmeg" ha így is volt mert nagyon szereted az összeesküvéseket, komolyan ezt írod le az "iron man linguistics" nevű post-hoz???!
Ez a sok okosmegmondó... hihetetlen.

Sry m8 i just had to get rid of some of the bs in the comments.
Bottom line is
Budapest is not controlled by maffia.
We didnt train terrorist
Mongolian has nothing to do with hungarian.
The guy was only saying a few hungarian words.
Afghanistan has just as much to do with Hungary as any other european country.
Whoever has questions about it, please check the map first.
Also, whoever is offended by 15 seconds in a movie .... should just watch borat and get trolled to death.
thats my 2 cents...

Anonymous said...

Mongolian and Hungarian actually share many words together, you can see it in a study done by Profesor Toth:
Aside from Mongolian, there are many Turkic words which are the same, including a few Manchurian.

Anyhow, the main bad guy said he wants a weapon that will make him unstoppable, something as good as recurve bow used by the Huns, Mongols, Manchus, etc. long ago which helped them conquer Central Asia.
In short, Hungarian wasn't random, the whole bad guy syndicate was made up of people from around Central Asia/Transoxania.

Chris said...

Anonymous (last), thanks for the Toth reference. Should be an interesting read. And thanks for the paraphrase translation.

seminar2007 said...

As I saw the movie last year and heard the Hungarian words I just started to sink in my chair. (not having watched it in Hungary, where actually as I heard from friends they dubbed the movie and the notorious part was re-dubbed, so they said the terrorists spoke Polish, hahaha , obviously it would have made much sense, if it is dubbed and then they can't understand what he says because it is ALSO is Hungarian) anyway
Just to cut through the chase why there are common words in Mongolian Hungarian and Turkish language:
is that we share common history, as Hungarian started the age of migration and through their way they "stopped for a rest" at more locations, where they contacted these ethnic groups. Due to their overwhelming activities in nomad lifestyle and some agriculture these words show similarities in these languages (from Mongolian mostly nomadic words, from Turkish more agriculture and domestic related expressions).
I just guess that it is similar to certain Spanish, Japanese words entering English in the USA due to the immigrants, which does not necessarily mean that they share ethnic roots. Ethnic mixture and common words do not necessarily run together, however do not exclude each other either.
from a Hungarian with friends from Mongolia and Turkey.
ps: the terrorist groups in Hungary are of foreign nationals, the famous one as all over Europe, I do not want to point fingers, since obviously these groups do not represent the total population of either country.
That's it.

AW said...

Fascinating comments. I'm married to a Hungarian and have been studying the language. I just watched it on DVD (a little late I know) and was very surprised by this comment, and Google led me right here as Chris observed several times.

I think a theory that is just as likely: many Hungarians have migrated to California. Maybe one of the people on hand writing the script or acting in the movie jumped in and said, "I know Hungarian, how about if we throw that in?" And as has been said, it would be an 'inside joke', they knew it was ridiculous, but Hungarian is so obscure.

When Enrico Fermi asked his famous question about the absence of signals from extraterrestrial life, another member of the Manhattan project (also overrepresented with Hungarians), Leo Szilard said that they, "are already among us — but they call themselves Hungarians" It's an old joke about a language that is alien within it's Indo-European environment.

iunastasa said...

It seems that this topic never gets old. :)
Well, I'm from Romania, a country neighboring Hungary, and I have to tell you that I've never heard any Hungarian speaking such a poor Hungarian language (as they do in "Iron Man")in my life. Plus, if they had chosen to place little green men amongst terrorist, I would have been far less surprised and perplexed. And how is possible for this Yensin character, a local guy, to be so capable in Hungarian, but not so competent in local languages (as his knowledge is "not enough for this place")? Maybe he went to school in Budapest, together with those two bad guys.... :))
While it is indeed exaggerated to be offended by pointless movie scenes, I understand completely the annoyance or puzzlement caused by this totally uninspired sequence. This kind of Hollywood superficiality towards Eastern Europe appears far too often in their productions. I'm curious what the reaction of American viewers would be watching a movie where a couple of European middle-aged housewives would be talking Apache or Cherokee. Fiction may it be, but make it "eatable".

vuk said...

I recognized 2 phrases in there, one of the guys at door is yelling "kezeket fel" meaning "hands up!", and Yinsen answers "egy perc" (one min).
The funny part is in hungarian dub those guys were said to speak Polish ;)

Chris said...

vuk, that is truly weird. So Hungarian speakers know it's Hungarian, but they're told it's Polish? That's awesome and weird.

Chris said...

wait, I should have asked, did they dub the Hungarian phrases with Polish? THAT would be seriously weird.

István said...

Hungarian and Mongolian might have common words but Hungarian and Estonian/Finnish also have common words so do you say they are connected to Mongols too? Of course not. Magyars traveled a long route from the Ural to actual Hungary, and they met Turk peoples on the way too. Hence the many common words. I study linguistics, English, Finnish, and Hungarian and the theory about Hungarians and the Finno-Ugric relation is 100% proven. The closest relatives of Magyars are mansi and Khanty and they are still around in Russia. You can google "Friar Julian" who traveled back to the old home of Hungarians to convert those who remained there. He found them eventually and they could still communicate in Hungarian even after 400 years of departure.

Kamilla S said...

I was really surprised by the Hungarian 'context' of Iron Man as well, but then I remembered the Huns of the Night at the Museum and the Hungarian flag in the Black Night... I think the Americans just taking the mickey... ;)

Mad Hatter's Midnight Wolf said...

I read a lot of comments about the thugs not really speaking hungarian. Perhaps that's the point. Yinsen says he "doesn't know what they're saying, it's hungarian" well how would he know it's Hungarian? If three people were speaking to me in three different languages I could tell you that it's not English Spanish or French, but other than that you have to guess off accent and intonation. It is supposed to be funny, he can interpret the lanuguages when they're relatively safe but not when there are soldiers at the door? It's ironic. That's all. It was also said that "The Ten Rings" spoke many languages; Who's to say they didn't have other mercenaries or thugs from say, Germany or Austrailia? Yensin only names a few languages after all.
It was just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I just like to add a few things for the topic after 5 years of existence :)

I'm also Hungarian so I could easily recognise that the guys speaking Hungarian in the movie are simply not Hungarians at all.

They are some actors saying some wrongly emphasized Hungarian sentences.

Nothing to be offended... :)

Btw please note that Budapest is not controlled by any maffia (except the stupid prime minister and his mob) and we aren't traing any terrorists at all :)

Timothy Marton said...

I'm Hungarian and was pretty offended those guys weren't Hungarian but gave the random phrases if you opened your ear you caught it. Plus if those two guys spoke Hungarian 80% of their speech was Arabic ... Yensin spoke Arabic... So why do these guys suddenly need to switch ... If it was called anything other than Hungarian its offensive to Hungary it was Hungarian a poor attempt at that yyensin's "Egy Percent" meaning one minute was perfect pronunciation

Anonymous said...

After 7 years and finding this blog I want to throw up a funny connection. Many arabs studied and still studies in hungary, and back in the soviet times, it was a more frequent sight to see them attending classes than today (because CCCP had several contracts with their allies) This can lead to some funny encounters. For instance, when in middle east, people hear about your origin and the next minute you are mingling in hungarian (to no small degree of surprise) And to add some extra information UN (and other peace keeping organizations) use hungarians as workforce or contractors because of this already good public relations. What might give the backbone of this theory is:Shaun Toub who played the doctor was born in Iran, and he was the one who spoke some kinda clearly understandable hungarian line.
Other connection to why they might have spoken hungarian might be that a lot of behind the scene workers are hungarian, and you can clearly hear them in other movies shouting (not in iron man) Those scenes usually stay in the final release for whatever reason, and they might have wanted to make an insider joke. (Both of these theories don't exclude each other)

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