In light of the upcoming release of the Minions movie—or it might already be released, depending on where you are—I think it would be apt to discuss the intriguing world of these yellow, banana-like creatures and their language. Many believe these beloved, simple-minded homunculi speak gibberish, but few know the linguistic legitimacy of what they’re saying. The directors of the massively popular Despicable Me series, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, have labelled their language “Minionese”, but it’s more popularly known as “Banana Language”—after one of their signature pet phrases. The use of constructed languages is not uncommon, however, as there are actually many movies and literature that specially create languages for the purpose of realising a fictional community. Some famous examples include Quenya and Sindarin in the Lord of the Rings universe; the Valyrian languages in Game of Thrones; Bordurian in The Adventures of Tintin; and more recently, Na’vi in Avatar.
In an interview, the directors claimed that they didn’t actually construct a language, and alleged that Minionese is just gibberish. However, some reports and fans are asserting that a good number of the words are translatable and actually do make sense. Many have noticed that several Minionese terms originated from languages like Spanish, Filipino, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese. Some of these examples include tara tropa (Filipino for ‘come on guys’), chatool (Hebrew for ‘cat’), hai-bo (phonologically similar to ‘hajmo’, which means ‘let’s go’ in Croatian and Serbian), kanpai (Japanese for ‘let’s toast’), and even counting to three in Korean. Fans have also noted the repeated use of words that appear to embody specific meanings throughout the movies, such as ba-boy (‘toy’), bi-do (‘I’m sorry’), para tú (‘for you’), and la boda (‘marriage’).
The Minions are also known to use English in their speech, such as “OK”, “potato”, “idiot”, and even phonological variants like bapple (for ‘apple’) and bello (for ‘hello’). However, Mionionese does not seem to have a grammatical structure, as the Minions tend to only blurt short phrases. The directors added that Minionese may not be linguistically or syntactically coherent, and that it’s based more on random sounds and rhythms. It’s also interesting to note that the Minions have typical English names such as Stuart, Kevin and Bob. While the movies have made attempts to accompany the Minions’ jabbering with comprehensive actions, these are also aided by proper subtitling of their language. Today, there are even apps (like Minionator, Bananie, and Minion Translator) that help translate Minion dialogue.
Although Minionese is largely incomprehensible to us, the Minions’ conversations with their owner, Gru, show that both parties can understand each other perfectly well. It appears that this ability manifests itself only in Gru, because his assistant, Dr. Nefario, and his kids, do not seem to share this understanding—though we’ll never know for sure! On the other hand, the Minions arguably show full comprehension of English as they are able to carry out Gru’s commands accordingly and also physically respond to what Dr. Nefario and the children say. But again, this is refutable, because we don’t know if the minions are simply responding to their physical actions and emotions, or if they have been engineered or taught to understand English.
Rather than choosing to allow the Minions to speak English, the existence of Minionese sets Minions and humans apart, and enforces the master–slave relationship between them in the movie—albeit in a family-friendly manner. The Minions’ dependence on Gru also comes through in the fact that Minionese is only intelligible to Gru. On a lighter note, this gives the movies their humour since linguistic misunderstandings allow for comedic effect. Of course, much of it is also in a bid to emphasise their humourousness and likeability.
While movies like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings have hired linguists to construct new languages for their characters, the directors of the Despicable Me series have instead pieced together their own, and possibly opened up a creative gateway for more of such language construction to occur. There is much to be explored, and the nature of Minion language comprehension shows great potential for language evolution since they show the ability to adopt and adapt vocabulary from other existing languages—perhaps Minionese might even be one of the more enterprising forms of language blending (banana-ing?) around.