Linguist Jamie Thomas on the Language of the Undead
The Source (Washington University): Language of the Undead
In 2003, bestselling author Max Brooks published the Gray’s Anatomy of survival guides. The Zombie Survival Guide took readers on a journey through the anatomy of the living dead: their physical attributes, behavioral patterns and historical origins. Some balked at the concept, some wrote it off as nonsense, and some hid a copy under their bed just in case.
If you are Jamie Thomas, AB ’06, the survival guide sits alongside a collection of research on the re-animated dead: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Resident Evil, Night of the Living Dead, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and soon Zombies Speak Swahili, Thomas’ upcoming book published through Oxford University Press.
An assistant professor at Swarthmore College, Thomas specializes in sociolinguistics, Swahili, and zombie studies. Given that zombies aren’t known to be literate or loquacious, the intersection of fields is both unorthodox and curious.
“Thinking about zombies is a way of thinking about what makes us human. That’s the way I approach it,” Thomas, dawning vibrant lavender glasses and a broad smile, explains. “And without language, humans are not as human as they purport to be.”
Thomas’ fluency in Swahili and love of language originated at WashU, where she studied anthropology and Swahili studies, but her zombie intrigue didn’t surface until her year of fieldwork in Mexico City, where she observed African studies classes. One day during a discussion around media and violence, a student introduced Thomas to Resident Evil, a survival horror video game with zombies speaking Swahili instead of their typical dribble.
“When you get this idea of a zombie being paired with a language like Swahili, what you begin to see is the dehumanization of such a language,” Thomas says. “Then it begins to point to a larger issue in the constellation of the way we treat each other – which languages count closer to humanity and which languages don’t.”
Thomas’ undergraduate class, Languages of Fear, Racism, and Zombies, delves into the evolving cultural iterations of the zombie and the present and prescient anxieties monster films communicate. This year, the latest horror hit and talk of the town, Get Out, was a ripe case study.
Jamie Thomas is an expert in language learning; second language acquisition; study abroad; identity; race, color, and ethnicity; Africa; African diaspora; Mexico; Tanzania; African languages; Swahili; Pan Africanism; zombies; and the afterlife. She maintains the #languagestory blog where she posts enthographic videos and shares critical commentary on communication, intercultural learning, and her most recent international fieldwork.