Film Theory: Can You Speak Groot? (Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy)

Film Theory: Can You Speak Groot? (Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy)


You ever notice how it seems like every popular franchise has a character who doesn’t talk? Or barely talks?
[Mario: Lets-a go!] And how they are always so beloved?? Snoopy? Check. Kenny from South Park? Check. Chewbacca and R2-D2? Double check. [BB-8 noise] Pikachu, Groot, Hodor for crying out loud! Check, check, and screw you Bran! So you know what, guys? I’m just gonna do a bit of a rebrand. From now on, I’m gonna limit myself to saying five things: MatPat, theory, YouTube, Diet Coke, and subscribe. YouTube! MatPat. Subscribe? Theory!! [sigh] Diet Coke. Aren’t I adorable now? [theme plays] Hello Internet! Welcome to Film Theory! The show that speaks the true universal language, complaining about movies on the internet. Today though, I’m not complaining about some cinematic stinker, or even ruining a childhood classic. No, today I’m talking “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Which is one of my, if not my all time favourite slice of the MCU pie. Wait. you didn’t know I that loved these movies? Didn’t you see the last “Guardians of the Galaxy” ep – [record scratch] Huh. I haven’t done a “Guardians of the Galaxy” episode. Maybe it means that even from my cold little dead Theorist heart, There are some corners of moviedom that remain sacred. Well at least until today, and hey, better late than never, right? Chris Pratt, I’d never forget about you! And you know a movie’s good when you have a Pratt-tastic lead, a deadpan beserker who takes everything literally, and a smack talking trash panda, and none of them come out as the fan favourite of the movie, because as we all know, the fan favourite of Guardians is clearly Groot. He’s the Guardian that we all aspire to be; Eco-friendly, Laid back, Tree-person of few words. And it’s that last part that I wanna figure out today. Groot famously says only three words “I AM GROOT!” Except when he doesn’t at the end of the first movie, (Spoilers from five years ago.) “We…are…Groot.” And yet, we’re supposed to believe that this is a language, all it’s own. Rocket Raccoon doesn’t have any trouble understanding Groot’s meaning. “I am Groot.” “Uh-huh.” “I am Groot…” “That’s right.” He’s not just humoring the old sap, BA-DUM-TSH! Thor says in Infinity War that he took a class on Groot in Asgard “You speak Groot?” “Yes, they taught it on Asgard.” So we know that this language is not just specific to this one Groot, nor is it only understandable to someone who has been around Groot for a very long time. Which is how I first assumed it worked when I saw the first “Guardians” movie, So anyway, our question today hinges on the reality of a language built around three words; I am Groot. Would it be possible to have a workable language where you could actually communicate meaningfully with those three words? Would it be possible for a human to understand it? And could we, in the real world, learn Groot? We’re going well beyond Rosetta Stone, Duolingo and Babbel today, kids. We’re talking about talking to trees! And not the kind that’ll carry you to Isengard. We can determine how feasible Groot’s language is in real life from a few different angles, But they all require just a little bit of knowledge of how languages work and actually give meaning to everything around us. So obviously vocabulary is one big way that we get meaning. We assign different sounds to be associated with different objects or ideas, keeps everything pretty straight forward. It’s hardly the only way to tell one object from another. All the ways that we can assign meaning to things around us in language is called linguistic prosody. Prosody refers to the properties of syllables, words and sentences, that can change the meaning of the overall message. Sure, we can change the words we use and that changes the message we’re delivering, But there are lots of other ways to change the message that most of us never even think about. While there is no one standardized list of every category in prosody, The four major elements are pitch, length, prominence and timbre. Pitch, just like in singing, has to do with the tone or note of how you say a word or phrase. In English, it isn’t so much the specific note with which the word is said that changes, like different keys on a piano produce different notes, but more about how the movement of pitch creates different meanings. If I say the phrase, “You don’t like Cheetos” that kind of flat, even tone, you know I’m just saying that you’re not into the delicious puffs of processed cheesy deliciousness. But then, without changing any words, I can say the exact same sentence, and move the pitch upward at the end, to make it a question. You don’t like Cheetos? Asking whether you like them, and clearly implying that you have no taste in snack food. In other languages, pitch can change the meanings of the same word entirely. The best known example is probably Mandarin Chinese, Which is a tonal language and has five distinct tones. It has a reputation as one of the hardest languages to learn, particularly for Americans. In Mandarin, the word “ma” can mean “mother”, “scold”, “horse” or “hemp”. And figuring out which one is which depends on identifying exactly which tone is being used. Since I’d probably butcher the pronunciation and get dragged all over the internet for messing it up, I’m gonna let this lady demonstrate. “Ma” “Ma” “Ma-a” “Ma” Lots of languages allow for tonal variation, usually just with a high, medium or low tone, but there are some exceptions. Wobe, a language spoken in Cote D’Ivoire, has as many as fourteen different tones. Now, how does all this relate back to Groot? Well, despite the fact that Groot is only using three words, tonal variations on those words could very easily give us anywhere from three to fourteen separate meanings, and then, combining those tones together could generate a huge variety of meanings from their combinations, and that’s just the beginning. Length is the next type of prosody, and it’s pretty self explanatory. How long a sound is can affect how it’s interpreted. For example, you’re more likely to take me seriously if I say “Hey.”, than if I say “Haaaay!”. The elongation of the second one in English tends to imply that I’m either a little drunk or I’m coming onto you. But any elongation or abbreviation of the way that we say a word in English isn’t gonna change what the word fundamentally means, just how we interpret it. But in other languages, the length can absolutely change the literal interpretation of the words as well. With one of the best examples being Morse code. In Morse code, sequences of short and long beeps, known as “dots” and “dashes”, are combined to form letters that eventually spell out a message. Now, you’re not gonna get a lot out of the phrase “I am Groot” if you’re thinking in Morse code terms, That’s only three beats. And it takes a full eighteen beats in Morse code just to say “Diet Coke” without even adding #NotSponsored. On the other hand, it would be perfectly feasible that there is a difference in meaning between; “I am Groot.” and “I AM GROOT!” While it’s hard to measure the lengths of words exactly, you can use music as a proxy. And at least say that you can compare the length of words to a whole note, half note, quarter, eighth or sixteenth, and that gives you a lot more room to work with. So as long as Groot can keep time by tapping his… I don’t know, he doesn’t have toes, his… roots, I guess? He can get a lot of different rhythmic variations out of that single catchphrase. We’ll add how many different variations to the calculation in just a minute. The next bit of prosody for us to consider is the one I experience every time I get a phone call from a number that isn’t saved into my phone: Stress. Or even when the number is saved into my phone. It’s a phone, I don’t wanna talk to you! Also known as accent, or emphasis, or prominence, ironically, linguistics can’t make up it’s mind about what it’s wants to call it’s own terms. Anyway, the meanings of phrases and sentences can change dramatically when we either stress, or don’t stress a certain part. My favourite example is actually a meme that’s melted the brains of redditors for years. The sentence “I never said she stole my money.” has vastly different connotations when you stress each different word. “*I* never said she stole my money.” Indicates that somebody else accused her of being a thief. “I never *said* she stole my money.” Implies that you think she probably jacked your wallet, but you weren’t going public with that. “I never said she stole my *money*.” Means that she stole your bike, or your heart, or your Netflix password. And so on, and so on, and so on. This one is pretty binary, in that you can stress a word or you can leave it un-stressed, but that still multiplies the number of ways Groot can say “I am Groot.” by a factor of eight. “*I* am Groot.” “I *am* Groot.” “I am *Groot*.” “*I am* Groot.” “*I* am *Groot*.” “I *am Groot*.”, “*I am Groot*.”, “I am Groot.” Eight. Eight different varieties. Thankyou ladies and gentlemen, Vin Diesel eat your heart out. And the last bit of prosody we’re discussing is timbre. Talking timbre of a talking timber, am I right?! Hoho, the dad jokes are just coursing through my veins today! Timbre is the hardest of the prosodic elements to define, because it’s pretty subjective. But in layman’s terms it’s the sound quality that’s being produced. This can get super technical if you start using terms like “Microintonation”, “Prefix” and “Spectral envelope”. But we all experience timbre in ways that are easier to describe, like vibrato. There’s certainly a difference between saying “Groot” in a normal voice, and modulating it to “Grooooot”. And then, you’ve got things that are hard to quantify, but easy to differentiate, like sound quality. Like in Dumb and Dumber, Jim Carrey’s most annoying sound in the world… *most annoying sound in the world* Okay, okay, cut it. That’s enough. The most annoying sound in the world is just a note, that is obviously gonna sound a lot different from the same note played for the same length, at the same volume, from say, an Oboe. *oboe noise* One sounds like music, and sounds like a goose being shoved through a paper shredder. Fun fact, in college I took a voice class that focused heavily on timbre. Our professor made us develop a voice called the “hollow wood voice”. I literally spent a semester trying to talk like hollow wood. Also “metal voice”, metal voice. There it is. That’s what I did for an entire semester. Ladies and gentlemen, the life of a theater major. Ironically enough, even with a name like “hollow wood”, I am still no better at translating Groot. What a waste. (that was “hollow wood”.) This is actually part “hollow wood”, part “broken earth”. Putting that college education to use! Now, from here we can keep going down the old timbre road, if we were to include things like coloration and sound quality and vibrato, at which point the permutations of “I am Groot” would be infinite. But timbre rarely affects the meaning of language, it more affects the experience of it. Morgan Freeman’s voice doesn’t fundamentally change what’s being said, it just makes it more soothing. And buttery… “What does the fox say?” “A ring-a-ding-ding.” I don’t know what it is with Morgan Freeman and my episodes lately, but mmm! Like butter! Therefore, I’m gonna leave timbre out the calculations, though Groot’s timbre would definitely fluctuate based on his mood. “I am Groot.” “I am Groot.” “I AM GROOT.” So, is there enough variation in the way Groot can say those three magic words to make it an official language? Well, let’s imagine a best-base scenario. If we say that Groot’s language has as many notes as Wobe’s fourteen, that length can be distinguished into whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes to create different meanings, and that the meaning changes when a word is stressed or unstressed, well, we get a lot of ways of saying that phrase. Two million, seven-hundred and forty-four thousand ways to be exact. Maybe that’s being a bit too optimistic though, so if we keep the tones, but instead of using all those differentiations in length, then instead focus on whether the word is short or long, like in Morse code, we still end up with one-hundred and seventy-five thousand, six-hundred and sixteen different variations of “I am Groot.” For comparison, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary gives the English language a strangely similar number of words, at one-hundred and seventy-one thousand, four hundred and seventy six. So the number of ways that we can say “I am Groot” are at the level of the English language. Not too shabby! I, for one, am pretty darn happy with those findings. We have made a solid case for Groot’s language here, but, I can see you arguing that this can’t actually work because there’s no real world language that works this way. “No language just works with three words, and just modifications in tone and rhythm and stuff, there’s no proof. And you know, that’s a reasonable complaint. Or, at least it would be, if it were true! The fact is, plenty of languages exist with limited vocabularies. The created language Toki Pona only has a hundred and twenty-three different words, and while it relies on creating compounds to create more complicated ideas, much like German does, it’s able to express a lot of complex thoughts. “But that’s a manufactured language, not a language with any native speakers!” Says you, the stickler who should really stop watching my videos, and just start cashing in on your vast trivia expertise, Jeopardy! is calling to you, friend. Alright, so if you only want to count languages that are native to a specific real world culture somewhere on planet Earth at this moment, there is a real world language that gives us a new minimum of words in a vocabulary, and that number is zero. On the Canary Islands, the native Silbo Gomero language is composed entirely of whistles. *whistles* No spoken words whatsoever. That sounds like you probably can’t say much with it, but you would be incorrect. *whistles* So there you go, Groot’s three word vocabulary is three more words than a language actually needs. Which then by proxy means we could learn to speak Groot, right? Fans could gather at Comic-Con like Trekkies do at conventions, except instead of speaking Klingon, they’d be speaking Groot! No you can’t! As much as I would love to see it, according to Maximus the Mad in the War of Kings series, it’s likely impossible. Groot only sounds like he’s repeating his name over and over, because of his hardened larynx. and the key to understanding him is to listen to the sigh of breeze beneath it, the nuance of meaning. For one, listening for some kind of magical breeze is not really an area of prosody, but more relevant is the hardened larynx bit. Humans do not have a hardened larynx, and it’s not worth trying to figure out a way to get one, because in people, a hardened larynx is actually a serious medical condition. In this condition, called Presbylarynx, people have incredible difficulty speaking loud enough to be heard easily, and usually have to find other non-verbal forms of communication like sign language to help. So, at the end of the day, the condition that would allow us to speak Groot, would actually prevent us, as humans, from speaking any words loud enough to be heard at all. Guess we’ll just have to stay rooted, and come to terms with the fact that when it comes to speaking Groot, we won’t be able to branch out. But hey! I am Groot! I am Groot! IIII am Groot! Holiday theory wear is still available! So if you like soft, cozy, over-sized things with hoods and in the color black, well boy howdy, did we create something for you! We’re calling it “Holidays in the Hood”, because , well, it’s cold outside, so we wanted to keep everyone cozy warm with a hood. Hats, coats, sweater dresses, PJ pants! Even this Film Theory hoodie has a hood! Ladies and gentlemen, unbuckle your safety belts, because we have reached the altitude of peak comfort! Links are where they always are, down in the description below. And if you order in the next few weeks, it’s all guaranteed to arrive before Christmas! But, don’t wait too long, because a lot of the items are selling out fast!

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  1. Matpat: am I adorable now
    Me: no, speaking with only five words is FUCKING ANNOYING and no this is not a theroy but pearsonall thing. This is me signing off.

  2. Groot uses 5 words, at one point he says we are groot (obvs the "we" and "are" words are different that's another 2 words ontop of the 3 he normally says)

  3. Me and a friend had a made up language of only one word; Adeba.
    And pitch, tonal value and situational use (some sign language included) gave you so much meaning! Boy did it work O_o
    Well, couldn't do complex lines, but we made by =P

  4. 5:00 the backdrop is a place in Hong Kong, not in mainland, and we don't use Mandarin Chinese here in hong kong…
    but i DO know the hardest language in the world 🙂 xdd

  5. Wait dose that mean that when anyone says I am groot there bullying and making fun of disabled people as they can only say that

  6. There is a reason no one else uses the phrase "I am Groot" when speaking to Groot. There is a component of Groot's speech that we, the audience, are not privy to.
    This may be an audio component, but as Quill's universal translator was unable to convert Groot into usable sentences for Quill in the first Guardians movie, this is unlikely the case.
    More likely is that there is a chemical component to the language that one must learn to apply to the verbal components. Groot may give off smells when he speaks or other chemical markers detectable by several species.
    Even more likely is there is a telepathic component to his speech that takes time to understand.
    Most likely, though is that there is a biological component that takes hold over time allowing other species to understand Groot if they spend enough time around him, like spores that a Groot gives off that get into the system of animals and change their brains in a way that allows them to understand Groot even if they themselves are not able to speak it.
    This would also explain why it is a popular elective among Asgard's student population and Thor in particular as it likely requires little more than hanging around a Groot for a semester until the biological component takes root…so to speak.

  7. 12:20 it’s fun to think that that picture is of an actual person. Imagine just chilling back, watching some matpat, then seeing a picture of u being used on youtube

  8. mandarin
    it has 5 sounds and it is one of the hardest to learn
    Cantonese(language in Guangzhou, Macao, and Hong Kong): 9 sounds and all mean different meanings

  9. Literally as he says he hasn't made a gardians of the galaxy video in the clip with all his videos there's a gardians of the galaxy one

  10. YES. S. Y Bran! Barely says anything or DOES anything.
    I watched a video of an Alexa talking like Pikachu. Aparently, it IS possible. You just can't be 100% sure if what you hear is 100% what pikachu is saying. Same with Groot. Also, gotta look at real life animals like dolphins and whales that probably communicate in pitches we can't even pick up.

  11. I'm surprised you didn't mention the Chinese poem "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den", which is a Chinese poem comprised of a single word repeated over and over again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vExjnn_3ep4

    Or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo

  12. Guys. I. Am. Chinese. And uh mandarin is not hard MatPat. I teached my Japanese friend it for 8 hours and he can speak fluent and understand!

  13. WTF MATHEW PATRICK?! — You make so many puns, and yet at 9:47 you said "hollow wood" many times over, even discussing voice *acting*, and didn't make a "HOLLYWOOD" pun? Dude, it is 3AM, and I was falling asleep, and now I am awake and enraged.

    Please get back to me, I have a PO BOX, a Fax, and my live-in secretary accepts color telegraphs on her Commodore 64.

    Thank you,

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