Parents still reeling from the decimation of sanity caused by the soundtrack to ‘Frozen’ will be all too aware of a new plague, as the childless amongst us laugh uncomprehendingly at their misfortune. It is known to a generation as Minionese – the virtually-incoherent language spoken by those googly-eyed yellow chaps, introduced to an unprepared world by the 2010 movie ‘Despicable Me’. The internet is abuzz with Minionese-English dictionaries; and this is exactly how it would have started with Klingon, if there were high-speed internet in the 1970s. Should we fear, or embrace, this new language?
We may have little choice. Now they have become the stars of their own self-titled, full-length movie, the Minions are more inescapable than ever. In the movie we learn that they have served many masters the world over, so it makes a bit more sense that they couldn’t be held to just one earthly language.
What’s intriguing is that the creators and voices of the Minions, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, haven’t actually made up a new language at all. Minionese is in fact a Frankenstein’s monster of a language, stitched together from odd phrases here and there which will be familiar to different people the world over. “Gelato” from Italian means the same thing, ice cream when said by the Minions. The Minions’ word for “thank you”, “terimakasi”, is borrowed from Indonesian. “Para ti” is “for you” in Esperanto (itself a mish-mash of other languages), extremely close to the Minionese “para tu”. It’s also why those parts of the world acquainted with curry will laugh for both recognition and absurdity when the phrase “Open sesame” is replaced with “Poulet tiki masala!”, a rough approximation of the most popular curry in the UK, chicken tikka masala.
This is bound to have a mildly disconcerting effect on a grown-up audience, bringing back my baleful memories of when a high school teacher thought it would be a great end of term treat to watch a movie in French… without subtitles. Of course, for the Minions movie’s prime audience of pre-teens this only adds to the hilarity, and it surely would have been more confusing for the characters to speak in an entirely unrecognisable nonsense language. But with a critical eye and quizzical eyebrow raised, it behoves us to be grown-ups and ask: how are we actually supposed to understand this gibberish?
Well, there is a way. Like any language, the inflection or tone of voice used by the speaker carries as much meaning as the words themselves. This is why our brains – from a young age – can usually figure out what’s going on between characters in film and television even with the sound off. In studies of non-verbal communication carried out by Dr Albert Mehrabian and expounded in his book ‘Silent Messages’, it was found that only 7% of meaning is expressed through the words spoken, leaving 93% for vocal intonation, facial expression and body language. Since the Minions come from a series of movies aimed at kids, to understand Minionese, it’ll mean as much to observe body language and tone as it would to try to make out every word.
The movie’s directors, Coffin and Kyle Balda, have said as much – the language isn’t gibberish as such, but a collection of funny-sounding words from around the world. As Coffin has explained, Minionese is made up of “Funny words, like in the Japanese language, and the Korean language, Chinese, Italian – and mix everything up to make this very special language that they have.” This makes sense; some words and sounds, like gaseous bubbles in a bath, are intrinsically funny in any language. Appropriately, a great deal of Minionese originates from toilet humour.
And, we must reluctantly conclude, if Minionese is simply a way of bringing together all of the laugh-inducing terms, noises and tics from native tongues all over the world, then the Minions are bringing us something a hell of a lot more useful than Esperanto. It might even catch on. So let’s embrace the nonsense. I say to the Minions, and their all-too-imitable new universal language: tulaliloo ti amo*!
I know you wanted one so here’s your cut-out-and-throw-away phrasebook.
Guoleila: Come over here
Madoca (or Me want banana): Hungry
Poulet tiki masala: Open sesame!
Speta: Watch this
Haiyaku: Hurry up
Papagena: Beautiful/hot person
O poop!: Oops!
Terimakasi: Thank you very much
Fire!: wee woo wee woo (to imitate a siren)
…no English translation required!
*We love you!