The classic film noir era played out under the Hollywood Production Code, a strict set of guidelines that governed movie content throughout the nineteen thirties and forties. The Production Code meant specific restrictions on behaviour and language: no sex, no nudity, no blasphemy, no swearing… all of this meant that film makers had to get even more creative in order to express film narrative using metaphor, lighting, shadows, composition, focus and language.
1930/40s Motion Picture Production Code
The Motion Picture production code was introduced in 1930, although it didn’t come into vigour until 1934 when it became rigidly enforced throughout the era during which classic film noir is most associated – the forties and fifties. The code made it perfectly clear that profane or vulgar language was strictly forbidden.
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated
1. Pointed profanity-by either title or lip-this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” ” damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;” (Production Code)
The language used in classic film noir is a blend of existing slang and invented expressions to convey feeling, content and subject that couldn’t be said within the context of the Code.
Go climb a tree!
Go fry a stale egg!
Nuts to you!
And a whole vocabulary of nouns for everyday use where cars are irons and boilers, a crate or a heap; a train is a rattler or verbs like to red light meaning to eject from a car or train! There is a wide selection of terms of killing someone;
…the list goes on.
While making the initial immersive scenes for Noirscape, that feature a flashback scene in which a man aside a car (his boiler), I initially used an artificial intelligence solution for the speech. This was intended as a placeholder, initially; with the intention being to work with a voice actor in the long term. However, to begin with I was almost satisfied with the type of voice that it’s possible to create using AI speech. I was able to generate speech on the fly, at hardly any cost and it even came with a choice of accents and control of pitch, pausing and so on.
I convinced myself that I might just even be able to get away with using the AI voice throughout the app; not only for the initial male character but others too and even in multiple languages. But, when I began showing the final sequence to people, there was an almost unanimous sigh of disappointment at the robotic-ness of the voice. This is an example of why user experience and user testing in the early stages of development really matters.
I decided to invest some time to research voice acting resources to weigh up costs and create a shortlist of actors. For the initial version, I’d be working with an English version. This is partly because I already have a contact for the French version; however due to the current ongoing restrictions during the pandemic, we’ve been unable to meet up and the French version will require significantly more study to produce the English noir vocabulary into French. For the English version I could just sent the scripts off to the right actor.
When I sent the scripts to the chosen actor, I also included links to the AI recordings. This prompted the actor to ask whether I wanted a Chicago accent. I don’t know one American accent from another very well and if I’m honest I had selected the AI voice as it sounded somewhat gangster like. Apparently, this was a Chicago accent, and I thought that it was actually quite impressive that AI voice can produce discernible accents! But, I would need to give this more thought. Most the characters I knew from film noir didn’t have a strong accent, Chicago or otherwise. What I found was that the accents I was familiar with from class noir, were not necessarily regional at all; but, kind of temporal. So, when sending over the directions for the script I asked for a vintage sound, rather than a regional voice. The accent, most frequently (based on my own study) referenced during the classic noir era of film is a ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent. This a cultivated accent which mixes elements of British Queen’s English and American accents.
So, the final scripts were acted, and I was pleased with the results. Comparing the original AI versions and the acted versions made it immediately evident where the AI version lacked intonation, emphasis and delivery.
Through user testing, a point that was raised multiple times concerned the understanding of the language used. While my testers generally highly appreciated the colourful nature of the language, they wanted to better understand what was being said. This, I tried to explain, was intended as being part of the puzzle of the game. When you asked whether you want to “glom the mazuna” there is an element of risk that you, as a participant in the app, may not fully understand what it means and therefore you might get yourself into trouble, taking a decision in the forking narrative that you may come to regret.
I spoke to a couple of testers about the addition of a tool to help decipher some of the more opaque expressions and this culminated in the creation of a web based app called Noirspeak which is still under development at noirspeak.com
Here, I have started aggregating expressions and vocabulary from within the app but also through primary research in film and books as well as from other research projects on the same matter. While I was able to find various lists compiled around the web; I couldn’t find a definitive source; so I created Noirspeak.
Noirspeak is a companion web app for the Noirscape universe but it is also a fun tool for anyone interested in the subject matter. I intend to continue development of the tool so that people can easily contribute to it, share on social media and so on.
The name Noirspeak is inspired by other fictional registers or languages along the lines of Newspeak, from George Orwell’s 1984 or Nadsat, from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
References & Resources
Appendix 1 The Mition Picture Production Code (as published 31 March, 1930)
(accessed April 2021)
(accessed April 2021)
Kevin Drum, (2011) Oh, That Old-Timey Movie Accent!
(accessed April 2021) Robin Queen, 2015 Vox Popular, The Surprising Life of Language in the Media