Lennier: And in my eleventy-fifth year in the temple, I began to study the 97 dialects and subtongues of our homeworld. And I discovered something truly amazing.
Lennier: Yes. The same word, n!kai, appears in every Minbari dialect and subtongue, yet it never means the same thing twice. For instance, it can mean sand, father, boot—
Londo: Really. That’s astonishing. Truly.
—Babylon 5, “The Quality of Mercy”
Londo is right. Lennier has said something truly astonishing. He said there were only 97 dialects and subtongues on the entire planet of Minbar. That statement is so fractally implausible that it’s worth taking the time to dissect it.
First of all, note that there are only “dialects and subtongues”. Apparently there’s exactly one distinct language on Minbar, however fragmented. Did verbal communication only arise in one place on the planet, or was there some cultural or physical genocide that eliminated all other tongues and destroyed all record of their nature?
Then there’s the number: 97 is very precise. Are there, then, distinct borders around each of the dialects and subtongues? I’m in a mixed-dialect marriage, and Martin and I can’t agree whether our household language is British or American English. Do the speakers of the different Minbari dialects never immigrate or intermarry? Did language formation stop, and all scholars come to agreement about the borerlines among them?
These are ridiculous questions, and answering them would require a phenomenal amount of retconning and re-engineering of other aspects of their societies. The simple fact is that the Minbari, like pretty much all nonhumans in SF&F, aren’t realistically varied, either culturally or linguistically. I think there are two causes of this:
Writers map foreign cultures onto alien planets.
So many alien civilizations are just individual Earth cultures with the serial numbers filed off. But that’s blowing up a smaller thing to fit a larger canvas. Terran civilization is not made up of a single culture. Absent a good explanation, it’s hard to believe that an alien civilization would be, either. So the result just looks low-resolution.
Also, mapping a foreign culture onto an alien species practically guarantees oversimplification. Just as no human being looks as complex on the outside as they feel on the inside, so no culture seems as nuanced to a foreigner as it does to a native.
(Mapping one’s own culture onto an alien species would be interesting, but much harder.)
The vast majority of SF&F authors come from linguistic monocultures.
Most of the “old masters” who created our genre were—in addition to being white and male—monoglots1. And most of the “core” writers who define it now come from two of the most linguistically impoverished populations in the Western world. It’s not just that English-speaking Americans and urban Brits are bywords for monolingualism (though we are). We also happen to live in linguistically shallow places.
British cities are blenders for speech. Extra-regional accents vanish as soon as non-local kids go to school. Single dialect words and idiosyncratic pronunciations last longer, but they’re often detached from their original context and become mere family traditions2. Meanwhile, the incomers generally pick up fewer local words than they lose3, so there’s a dilution of native dialect in the general population.
And in America, our history of mobility has disconnected us even more from the origins of our language. That’s not because the people who brought English to the continent moved from the place where the language evolved. It’s because they mixed and shuffled about as they did so, losing regional context and coherence. Then, just as we were in the process of creating new regional identities and accents (stealing words from the other immigrant languages in the process), another wave of mobility and the introduction of mass media started to re-homogenize us.
It’s probably a minor additional factor that much of SF was pioneered by hard science geeks, who were as uninterested in language as they were in, for instance, sociology. There are plenty of writers now who understand linguistic complexity despite the surrounding monoculture. But they weren’t writing Golden Age science fiction; the genre is only starting to catch up with their particular geekery.
The elephant in the room here is, of course, JRR Tolkien, who invented philologically plausible languages and writing systems for several of the major races in his world. I’m sure there are criticisms to be leveled (Are his species as linguistically and culturally diverse as they should be? Why don’t the hobbits have their own language, separate from the tongue of Men?) But if other writers managed even the appearance of the complexity he created, our genre would be richer for it.
So how does someone who is not a tenured professor of philology at Oxford University go about creating linguistically plausible aliens? Let’s sketch out a realistic, generic cultural and linguistic backdrop for a species. Of course, a lot of it is stolen from human history, but I think the factors that influenced us are pretty universal to planetary populations.
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A species that’s scattered all over a planet is likely to “invent” civilization several times in different, isolated places. Each of these civilizations, which will include language as well as culture, will have its own distinctive identity. As a result, there will probably be multiple, mutually unintelligible language families. There may, at this stage of the species’ cultural evolution, be strong behavioral, religious, and ethnic traits associated with those families. That might not last.
Note that these are language families, not individual languages. Unless a population of speakers is close enough to talk to each other practically every day, pronunciation and local vocabulary will start to drift. Give it long enough, and the drift will get in the way of mutual intelligibility. Then the different populations are on their way to speaking different languages within the same family. A good example of this is the evolution of the Romance languages from late Latin.
Counterbalancing this slow spread of linguistic variety will be a number of consolidating factors. As small tribal groups unite into larger entities, one dialect may become the main language across them all. This is the story of most modern European languages: modern Italian comes from Tuscan, modern English is a descendant of Wessex dialect, modern Dutch is basically Hollands, and the ancestor of modern German was originally just spoken in Saxony. The previous dialects may still survive as subsidiary languages.
When two less-related languages meet, things get even more interesting. They may merge into a creole, or coexist side by side (think Belgium, or Switzerland). One may become the dominant language and the other the “kitchen” tongue. Or—and this is rare and difficult—one language may supplant another completely. I’d still expect, in that event, a large population of loan-words from the loser to infect the winner.
Languages will die, the way that Latin, Classical Greek and Cornish have. Languages may be revived, as Hebrew was. Conquered languages will be a source of national pride and nationalist fervor.
This braided pattern of branching, overlapping, conquering, uniting and resplitting languages is all backdrop. How does it affect specific characters? What plots does it create, and what does it make impossible? A few thoughts:
- If you grab two random representatives of the species, they won’t necessarily be able to talk to one another. I’ve got fair reading knowledge of four languages (English, Spanish, Latin and Dutch4). Given that, enough patience, and good Charades skills, I could probably have a practical conversation with any European5. But we will not be immediately mutually intelligible. And a person with no Indo-European languages, like someone who spoke only Xhosa, or Mandarin? Forget it.
- If you show me writing produced somewhere on Earth, the chances that I can read it are pretty small, too.
- People will travel, for business, tourism, or as refugees. So unless the setting is really isolated, there will probably be speakers of more than one language about. They may be unintelligible to others of their own species as well as to any humans around.
- Languages and accents will be markers for cultural and class-based rivalries. Some of the differences will be indistinguishable to humans, but they’ll be hugely important to locals.
- Many people will be multilingual. Many others will be able to say a few things in multiple languages, even if they aren’t fluent. Expect them to try them all on baffled humans.
- Little children will ask humans to “say something in human”, then giggle at the result. They may be particularly curious about transgressive speech.
- Speaking an alien language badly will cause locals to assume humans aren’t very bright.
- In addition to recognized dialects and languages, there will be jargons, argots, weird overlaps, and even wholly invented languages. This will be confusing.
Any more? And which works would you say do a spectacularly good or notably bad job of working with languages?
- The exception is Asimov, who was fluent in both English and Yiddish.
- My father, three generations removed from Ireland, grew up with a distinctive pronunciation of the word “almond”. I never heard it elsewhere until I worked with a woman from Dublin.
- I added no more than a score of regional dialect words to my vocabulary over fifteen years in Edinburgh.
- My Classical Greek is gone.
- The main challenges would be a Greek, a Finn or someone from Basque country. If they’re monoglots, we’re toast.
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- Toy bag & language textbooks: Abi Sutherland
- Maastricht street signs in Dutch and Limburgs dialect: Patrick Nielsen Hayden