Learning the Language of the Minions in Despicable Me

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When Despicable Me hit cinemas back in 2010, the breakout stars of the show were “super villain” Gru’s little yellow henchmen – the Minions.

They were so popular that the adorable banana guys got their own movie – Minions – back in 2015. In 2022, this too received a sequel – Minions: the Rise of Gru. Since then, they’ve been perhaps the biggest draw of the ongoing series of movies.

One of the cutest and most interesting things about the Minions is the language that they speak – Minionese.

There’s just enough there to make it sound on the edge of comprehension. But if you want to learn the language of the Minions, it might actually be both easier and harder than you think.

What kind of language do the Minions speak?

The Minions speak Minionese, sometimes called “the Banana language”. Minionese is what’s known as a constructed language – or “conlang”.

Conlangs are often a feature of works of fantasy and science fiction. Other constructed languages you might be familiar with include:

  1. Klingon – from Star Trek. Klingon was originally just a few words developed for the screen but was then expanded by fans.
  2. Dothraki – the language of the nomadic horse people on screen in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
  3. Elvish (and several others) – the most famously complex and complete constructed languages in fantasy are those created by linguist J.R.R. Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings.

Conlangs also exist in the real world. The most famous is Esperanto, designed by L.L. Zamenhof in 1905 and designed to be a global second language.

In short, conlangs might be made up. They might be artificial. The goal of the creator might be to breathe life into a fictional culture – or to bring about better understanding and peace in the real world.

Yet, as the best examples show, it’s also possible for constructed languages to be rich, complex, and even serious means of communication.

What is Minionese?

Minionese – the language spoken by the Minions in Despicable Me and its sequels and spin-offs – is a conlang, but it’s not one of the more complete or complex examples of its kind.

However, that’s not what the language’s creators – movie directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda – had as their goal.

Instead, their idea was to bring together a bunch of funny or interesting-sounding words from around the world. The result, most people agree, is pretty hilarious.

Part of the language is clearly gibberish. But as Balda has commented in an interview, “Their language sounds silly, but when you believe that they’re actually communicating, that’s what makes it funnier.”

What words do the Minions say?

The backstory of the Minions was envisioned by the directors as them as the henchmen of various evil masters around the world “forever”.

With this as a motivation, they felt free to handpick words from all kinds of languages – with a liberal helping of nonsense and funny sounds added too:

1) Loanwords

Of course, some words the Minions say are just inflected nonsense gibberish. Yet you’ll also find words from well over a dozen real-world languages represented:

  • We love you – tulaliloo ti amo (Italian)
  • Ice cream – gelato (Italian)
  • I’m sorry – bi-do (Arabic)
  • Cheers – kanpai! (Japanese)
  • Wedding – la boda (Spanish)
  • Is it ready? – pwede na? (Filipino)
  • For you – para tu (Esperanto)
  • Thank you – terimakasi (Indonesian)
  • One, two, three – hana, dul, sae (Korean)
  • Open sesame – poulet tiki masala (French, sort of)
  • That’s all – et pis c’est tout (French, again sort of)

2) Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia – words formed from a noise associated with what is being named – is another major feature of Minionese.

Real-world examples of onomatopoeia in English include “bang” or “cuckoo”. In Minionese, you can hear a lot of onomatopoeia, including the bee do bee do bee do (the noise of a fire engine) one of the Minions makes when trying to indicate a fire.

3) English “baby talk”

Many of the Minionese borrowed from English are essentially made more like baby talk, such as:

  • Goodbye – poopaye
  • Butt or bottom – butt or buttom (toilet humour is often key to Minion communications)
  • Thank you – tank yu (though this may be an attempt by the minion in question to speak English)
  • Underwear – I swear
  • I am hungry – me want banana

4) Inflections and tone

Minionese creator Pierre Coffin has said that the language is “more based on sounds and rhythms than the literal meanings of words.”

The ability for the same word to have different meanings depending on tone is actually a feature of many real-world languages, especially in South-East Asia. For example, Mandarin has four pitched tones and a fifth neutral tone. These can change the meanings of a word – for instance, tāng (the diacritic indicates a high tone) means “soup”, but táng (the diacritic indicates a rising tone) means “sugar”.

Minionese has a somewhat analogous but greatly simplified way of inflecting by emotion. This takes advantage of the fact that humans pick up a great deal of meaning (it’s estimated as much as 93%) from intonation and body language.

This means that even though the Minions sometimes say nonsensical things or use words that its audience (who are, at least in theory, children) doesn’t understand, the meaning is still clear because of the body language of the characters and the tone they use.

A good example is the Minionese word poka, which appears to mean both “what” or “whatever” or perhaps “screw this” depending on tone. There is also papoi or baboi that has at least three different meanings distinguished by tone.

How many languages do the Minions speak? (And why?)

Thanks to the backstory of the Minions that sees them searching the entire globe for the perfect evil villain to serve for hundreds of years, the creators of Minionese felt they had license to borrow words from any tongue, make up wholly new interpretations, and even use general sounds that were interesting.

Their end goal was to make the little yellow guys adorable. So you don’t need to try very hard to get full meaning from their intonations and body language, even without going to any effort to learn the language of the Minions in Despicable Me.

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