Written on November 6, 2009
Films are often used and viewed as diversionary entertainment, but films often have the power to provide an excellent look into American society. The power of language, its use and what its use entails is often a critical factor in how immigrants get along in America. The use of language and its mastery can relate power and weakness among immigrants. The film, The Godfather Part II is an excellent example of the use of language and its effects on immigrants. The sociolinguistic situations of the film provide an excellent examination to see how language use affects immigrants.
For immigrant groups coming to the United States, language is power. The inability of an immigrant to learn English can often leave them with a feeling of powerlessness and in a second class state. The immigrants generally then stick together to their own group where their language is dominant, as with the Italians in the turn of the 20th century, and Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups later on. Adjusting to and learning a new language can be tough especially for older immigrants, as language is learned more easily during the first years of life.
The Godfather Part II tells two stories, one of a young immigrant named Vito Corleone’s rise to power, and the other of his son Michael Corleone’s bid to keep the family power. Early in the film an important scene occurs that shows a connection between language and power. At a public ceremony for Michael Corleone’s son, a United States senator badly mispronounces the Corleone name. But, in a later one on one meeting with Michael Corleone, the senator not only pronounces a dislike for Italians, he also proceeds to pronounce the Corleone name perfectly. He thus showed that not only could he properly pronounce the name, he deliberately mispronounced the Corleone name as a sign of disrespect and to assert his power over the Corleones, who come from a stigmatized ethnic group.
In the film’s progression where Vito is a young poor man, he never speaks English. English is used as a language of emphasis to declare emphatic points, while everyone speaks mostly Italian. The first time Vito uses English it is when he uses the words, yeah and sure, as he goes out to commit his first crime. Vito’s partner Clemenza addresses him in English in giving him instructions showing his power over Vito. A turning point in the film and Vito’s life is when he takes a turn from being a subordinate to his crime partners is when he addresses them in English for the first time basically asserting himself as the power among his group. Vito then uses English as the language he speaks when making assertive claims. Vito from then on uses English as the language he needs when making dominant statements, and others use English toward him in a subordinate role. As a rich man English the dominant language of the country becomes the language he uses to establish and reinforce his dominance over others.
For the later characters of the film such as Michael Corleone on the other hand Italian is rarely used. As a more refined American born member of society he uses English. Frank Pentangeli on the other hand who is portrayed as a more crude non upper-class member of society speaks Italian at times frequently code switching with English. When Michael speaks with Frank at a point he also breaks off into speaking in Italian. Michael’s use of Italian here does not signify a loss or shift of power as it would have for his father, but simply reaffirms his status as a member of the ethnic group despite his upper class lifestyle. When Michael though does speak to his mother in Italian later on, due to his feeling of losing his family it signifies a moment of weakness. Michael is unsure of whether he is doing the right thing and English normally the language of power and confidence can do him no good in the situation.
The Godfather Part II is a film that shows the significant role between language and power among immigrants and others in America. The shifts and usage of the language can mean much more if you really take a look into the meaning.
Bonvillian, Nancy. Language, Culture, and Communication: The Meaning of Messages
5th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.