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|Written by||Helen Eaton|
|Read by||Helen Eaton|
|Edited by||Helen Eaton|
In the Official Visual Companion to Serenity, Joss Whedon describes the language of the verse as “basically based on everything”, but with “a healthy dollop of made-up Joss talk”. It’s this “made-up Joss talk” that I’d like to consider in this article. We all know it when we hear it, but what is it that gives something that Whedon flavour?
Much has been written in answer to this question, but mainly with reference to the dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than Firefly. In some ways, the language of the two worlds is quite different. There is no reason, for example, why the characters in Firefly would make pop culture reference that we as viewers would understand, and so they don’t, unlike the characters in Buffy. The main characters in Firefly are also in the main older than those in Buffy and therefore don’t sound like teenagers. Leaving those differences aside, there is much in the language of Firefly that has that Whedon touch previously heard in Buffy.
For a start, there’s the use of the adjectivising suffix –y in unexpected and amusing ways:
This use of the suffix may sound modern to us, but in fact in the case of “vasty”, we don’t have a new word at all, but an archaic one, which dates back to the late sixteenth century, and was used by Shakespeare on several occasions. In fact, Kaylee’s “vasty nothingness”, referring to space, is very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “the vasty deep”, referring to the underworld. It is also an example of the often seamless blending of the past and present in the language of the ‘verse, happily taking its place amongst the more modern uses of the –y suffix.
Other distinctly, well, Whedony elements to the language of Firefly are also the results of suffixation allowed to run free:
On first listening, “corpsify” and “creepify” probably sound slightly odd and therefore raise a smile, but, like many Whedonisms, given time, they take hold and begin to sound just as normal to the average Browncoat as “shiny” as a synonym for “cool”.
Jayne’s use of “uncomfortableness” is a slightly different case as this is a perfectly respectable word, found in dictionaries today, although “discomfort” is more common for the same meaning. However, Jayne treats “uncomfortableness” as a countable noun by using the indefinite article “an” with it and this is what makes the line stand out as unusual.
Another Whedon trait in dialogue is to drop part of an established phrase and allow the listeners to fill in the blanks themselves, such as “off the beaten” for “off the beaten track”, or this example from Mal:
This leaves an adjective standing in for a noun, in the way Joss Whedon often did with Buffy, letting “a happy” stand for a positive thing, for example, or “a funny” for a joke.
Another aspect of the language of Firefly which I associate specifically with Joss Whedon is simply the creativity shown in putting certain words together. Jayne describes Simon’s care for River as “noble as a grape”, for example. I’m not sure why exactly a grape would be considered noble, but somehow, like many Whedonisms, it fits perfectly:
It is often the creative combination of adjective and noun that makes phrases like “terrifying space monkeys” and “black-market beagles” so memorable. In contrast, there is nothing particularly creative about combining “pretty”, “floral” and “bonnet”, but the idea of swearing by one, and of the person doing that swearing being Mal, certainly does make this line stand out.
The rhythm with which lines are delivered in Firefly also often has a distinct Whedon touch to it.
So many lines in Firefly and Serenity could be used as illustrations in a masterclass on comic timing. Yes, the lines themselves are extremely well-written and very, very funny, but in the hands of our BDHs, they become even better. All the major characters have their moments to shine when it comes to funny lines and the humour in these lines tends to flow naturally from their characters, as good humour should. Jayne, for example, is often unintentionally very funny, when he is trying to be serious:
Wash, on the other hand, tends to be intentionally funny:
For all the differences between the ways humour is expressed through the various characters, there is still something recognisably Whedon-like in the dry delivery and masterful use of pausing.
There are many voices competing to be heard in the linguistic melting pot that is the language of the Firefly ‘verse, but in amongst the influences of different time periods and different dialects, the voice of Joss Whedon is one that can be heard loud and clear.