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Akeelah and the Bee Movie Analysis

Over the course of the semester we have been studying the different sub
disciplines of linguistics. We have studied starting with the smallest parts of a
language all the way up to the discourse level. In the movie Akeelah and the Bee
there are many scenes that can be found that relate to these different parts of
linguistics including phonology, morphology, semantics, and language in use.
Phonology is the study of the smallest contrastive parts of a language which
have no meaning. Minimal pairs are words or phrases in a particular language that
differ in only one phonological element and have distinct meanings. In the film
Akeelah and the Bee there is one scene in particular that shows how these
contrasting phonemes can affect meaning.
The scene takes place in Akeelahs school during her first ever spelling bee.
The first contestant is given the word grovel and mistakes it for the word gravel.
These two words are minimal pairs. The phoneme [] in grovel is confused with the
phoneme [] in gravel. The contestant asking for clarification asks, Gravel, like
little rocks? to wit the officiator replies, No, grovel like get down on your knees
and grovel. We can clearly see that these two phonemes contrast to create two
words with distinct meanings.
Phonemes can be combined and rearranged to create morphemes.
Morphemes are the smallest contrastive part of the language with meaning.
Morphology is the study of these parts and how they can be combined to create
new meaning. There are two basic categories of morphemes. There are free
morphemes, those that are words and can stand by themselves, and bound
morphemes, those that cannot. Looking at the word cats we can see that it is
made up of two morphemes, one free and one bound. Cat is the free morpheme.
It is a word that has meaning and can exist by itself. The s is the bound
morpheme. It is a morpheme because it adds meaning to this lexical item turning

the singular cat in to the plural cats, but it is bound because it can have no
meaning by itself.
In the movie there are many examples of words that have been created by
combining different free and bound morphemes. In one part of the movie, Akeelahs
coach was teaching her how to deconstruct words in order to learn how words are
created. He showed her the word soliterraneous which means of and relating to
the earth and sun. He explained that the word is made up of two main parts, or
morphemes. The prefix Soli is from the Latin word Sol meaning sun. Terraneous
is the free morpheme and means of or relating to the earth. These two combine to
make a new lexical item that is used to describe how the sun and the earth work
together. In this scene we can see very clearly how two or more of these smallest
parts can be combined to create new meaning.
These new meanings can be combined into words and sentences to create
new meaning. Semantics is the study of meaning and the relationship between
words. Some of the things that are studied in this area of linguistics are referential,
social, and affective meaning of words and phrases. For the purposes of this paper,
only an example of affective meaning will be provided.
At one point in the movie a contestant who was highly favored to win had
narrowly beat Akeelah in a game of scrabble. After the game the contestants father
took him away to another room in the house to talk. Akeelah, wanting to
congratulate him on the win, overheard their conversation. The father said to the
son, If you can barely beat a little black girl at a silly board game, how do you
expect to win the national bee?
The affective meaning of the phrase little black girl differs from the
referential meaning. The referential meaning is that the person he could barely beat
is a small, pre-adolescent female of African descent. The affective meaning,
however, is derogatory and meant to be demeaning. In this context, all three words

carry a negative connotation. While the word black is referring to her ethnicity, it
also implies that she is uneducated, uncultured, and for all intents and purposes
unworthy to be in a competition like the national bee. Girl is also used in a
demeaning way to show that she is nave, undereducated, weak, and altogether
unthreatening. The word little is the cherry on top creating a phrase designed to
imply that if the son cannot beat someone as unimportant and weak as this young
girl, then he is clearly not ready for the bee.
Language is complex. Its uses are infinite. Linguists have labeled many
aspects of the language to be able to study and evaluate language in use. In this
work only historical change, lexical borrowing, and the difference between
denotative, and connotative meaning will be mentioned.
Something that makes a language a language is that it changes over time. In
English, new words are added to the dictionary every year. In the movie we can see
evidence of this. At one point in the movie Akeelah and her coach are having a bit of
a dispute over a missed study session. She says to her coach, Look, I wasnt
dissing you. I was Christmas shopping. He replies, Dissing? I thought we didnt
use words like that. I thought we only used words from the dictionary in here.
Akeelahs retort shows exactly this principal when she opens up the dictionary and
reads, Dis, dissed, dissing: to treat with disrespect or contempt; to find fault with.
Later citing that new words are added to the dictionary every year because of the
nature of language.
Languages too often borrow words from other languages. This process is
called lexical borrowing. Many English words have their roots in Latin, Greek, and
other foreign languages. When learning how to deconstruct words, Akeelah is given
the word staphylococci to spell. She begins S-T-A-F then her coach interrupts
by saying that There is no F. ITs derived from the Greek so there cant be an F.
The unvoiced phoneme [f] that is generally prescribed the consonant f is actually

spelled with a ph because of its Greek origins. This word is actually a combination
of the Greek staphyle meaning grape and kokkus meaning granule giving us a
word that describes the grape-like grouping of the bacteria.
All words and phrases have actual definitions but many word and phrases can
have underlying meanings. Denotative and connotative meanings describe this
where the denotative meaning is the actual prescribed meaning of the word and
connotative would describe the underlying or double meaning. At one point in the
movie Akeelahs coach tells her to stop using ghetto talk. The denotative meaning
of the word ghetto is a part of a city, especially a slum, occupied my minority
groups. The connotative meaning here is quite different. When using the word
ghetto in this context, the coach is meaning uncultured and uneducated
language.
Examples of linguistics can be found in everyday conversation. The more we
pay attention to these things the better we will be able to understand the subtle
nuances in language. In turn, the more we understand about language, the better
interpreters we can become.