What are subtitles actually for?

Some think subtitles are merely a device to allow the hard of hearing to understand and enjoy TV programmes and films more easily, and that is, of course, how they began their life, but what about everyone else? Are they just irrelevant choices on a DVD title screen?

If you’ve got this far then hopefully you have a feeling that there might be a little more to it than that.

A reliable (though basically designed) internet page tells us that subtitles have been considered since the inclusion of voices in film in 1929. In those days, a lot of films came from abroad in foreign languages, so the only way British audiences could understand them was to have the films ‘dubbed’ into English, a practice which still goes on to this day.

Dubbing is expensive though, and soon film-makers had the cunning plan just to show the words on screen as they did with the title and credits and the beginning and end of the films, but tucked away at the bottom of the screen so you could still see what was going on, hence subtitles.

Fast-forward to today and you see subtitles telling you the latest news in railway stations, when audio would need to be deafeningly loud to be heard over busy commuters, as well as in nightclubs to let you enjoy an episode of Family Guy or whatever it might be while you take a break from all that hard boogie-ing.

In foreign films still, subtitles are used, and in Japanese anime films and series there are not always English-dubbed versions of series available, making reading ‘subs’ the only way to understand the action.

Subtitles can also be used in education, since many children may be daunted at the prospect at watching Harry Potter’s adventures in French, but once the subtitles are put on they can watch a good(ish) film and learn the language at the same time: the definition of enjoyable learning.

There are still practical reasons for the inclusion of subtitles, and it baffles the mind to think that in an age where we’re (supposed to be) more accepting and accommodating to people than ever before, some DVD releases still don’t have subtitles when others boast alternate audio soundtracks and dozens of world languages to read through.

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