Alumni Profiles

Blair Rudes

Hollywood linguist is meticulous with reconstruction of native languages

Rudes close-up
UB degrees in linguistics PhD ’76, MA ’74, BA ’73; His dogs Ben, an English Boxer/Anatolian Shepherd mix, and Heidi, a Chow Chow/Labrador mix; Favorite language Tuscarora. “It’s about as different from English as a language can get in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.”

You might think Blair Rudes has one of the few fail-safe careers in Hollywood. He trains directors and actors in lost, or dying, languages. Having worked on the sets of both The New World and the forthcoming The Ruins, he’s coached actors in Virginia Algonquian and Yukatec Maya. It would seem that when you’re translating dialogue into a moribund tongue, it’s hard to go wrong. First, there’s not much competition. Second, who’s going to fault this kind of detective work?

Believe it or not, somebody will. Rudes didn’t work on Dances with Wolves, but apparently it’s well-known how the native dialogue took a glaring wrong turn in that film.

“There’s always somebody on looking at a film with a microscope,” he says from his home near the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he teaches. “People have pointed out the male actors all spoke in a female Lakota dialect.”

Yet Rudes has gotten only raves. He based his meticulous reconstruction on his knowledge of related languages and notes taken by a friend of Shakespeare, William Strachey, on a long stay in Virginia. Director Terrence Malick was so charmed by Rudes’ native dialogue for one scene in The New World, he asked him to translate lines into Algonquian for a third of the film. As Rudes modestly describes this huge vote of approval: “Terry was impressed with the authenticity of the sound.”

Rudes (PhD ’76, MA ’74, BA ’73) started at the University at Buffalo in biochemistry but switched to French and then to linguistics. After hearing a Native American woman speak in her own beguiling Seneca tongue, he plunged into the study of Iroquoian languages. Yale accepted his application for graduate study, yet he stayed at UB because it allowed him the freedom to earn a highly individualized PhD as a field linguist. With it, he left school to compile an exhaustive dictionary of the Tuscarora language, just in time to interview its few remaining native speakers. His dictionary has become the authority on Tuscarora vocabulary.

Although academia remains his professional home and has earned him many honors, he loves consulting for Hollywood. In both endeavors, it’s a path of discovery, at once scientific and creative. As he puts it, in both fields, “You have to go beyond what you know.”

Story by David Dorsey, with photo by Erin Ellis