Allochthonia: Languages

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.
Londo: Yes?
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.

McDonald's toy bag

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:

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

Language textbooks

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.

– o0o –

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.

Dutch & dialect street sign, Maastricht (photo credit: Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

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?

Goed Slecht
  • The Uplift books by David Brin, albatross @33
  • The Barryar books by Lois McMaster Bujold, Slybrarian @24
  • The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh, Sylvia Sotomayor @12
  • The Chanur books, by CJ Cherryh, lee @32
  • “Story of your Life” by Ted Chiang, Nix @8
  • Hellspark by Janet Kagan, TexAnne @1
  • Outies by Jerry Pournelle, thomas @41
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Richard Edgar @7
  • Fiasco and Solaris (intra alia) by Stanislaw Lem, Q. Pheevr @9
  • A Caticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr, Nightsky @15
  • pretty much everything by Vernor Vinge, albatross @33
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV show) Becca Stareyes @2: Common and timeless universal language
  • Enterprise, TexAnne @6: instant comprehension of alien languages.
  • “Born to the Purple” (Babylon 5 episode), Joshua Herring @10: Russian-speaking characters speaking English to one another; her father’s Russian endearment translated into English by Ivanova.
  • Stargate TV series, Lenora Rose @11; film, TexAnne @14: Instant comprehension of alien languages and ancient Egyptian!

  1. The exception is Asimov, who was fluent in both English and Yiddish.
  2. 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.
  3. I added no more than a score of regional dialect words to my vocabulary over fifteen years in Edinburgh.
  4. My Classical Greek is gone.
  5. The main challenges would be a Greek, a Finn or someone from Basque country. If they’re monoglots, we’re toast.

– o0o –

Photo credits:

  • Toy bag & language textbooks: Abi Sutherland
  • Maastricht street signs in Dutch and Limburgs dialect: Patrick Nielsen Hayden

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51 Responses to Allochthonia: Languages

  1. TexAnne says:

    More remarks when I’ve thought some more, but I wish to mention _Hellspark_ as a book that did it right.

  2. Becca Stareyes says:

    Interestingly enough, recently there was a scientific paper that suggested verbal communication arose only once on Earth, most likely on the west coast of Africa, based on a relationship between the number of phonemes in a region’s native languages and distance — the farther a language was along the path humans left Africa, the fewer sounds it had (with a secondary pattern showing that in the Americas, the further south and east you went, the more phoneme loss there was). So humans were able to develop languages that are completely unintelligible between one another from the same origin.

    It also makes me wonder how the Minbari count languages — would their ‘dialects and sub-tongues’ be more like the differences between American and British English or French and Portuguese. Or even Cantonese and Japanese, which are different language families, but two literate monoglots could probably have a simple conversation in writing because Japan and Korea borrowed the Chinese writing system, which retains a lot of logographic elements.

    (Of course, we could go with the idea that the Minbari are alien enough that their language either changes far slower than human ones, had less chance to branch, or that they had more reasons to merge and lose languages between the start of global communications and the present.)

    Most SFF I’ve read seems to make the blanket assumption that linguistic barriers are no fun and handwave them away — either everyone is a polyglot of the important languages, there’s some dominant trade tongue and nothing important happens in your native language, or somehow there’s a global/universal/planet-wide language. (Actually one thing that annoyed me about the otherwise excellent Avatar: the Last Airbender TV show — not only is Aang, the protagonist who spends 100 years frozen, able to seamlessly able to speak to everyone, but there seems to be a global language so that the cast can easily speak to everyone they meet. Even isolated people living in a swamp that no one knew about at most get stereotypical ‘redneck’ accents and slang. And this is a world that, with the exception of steamboats and war machines, seems to be in the human/animal powered mode for transportation and communication.)

  3. Fade Manley says:

    Oo. This is a big and fascinating post on one of my favorite topics. But before I get enough of my thoughts on it to comment at greater length… Could you unpack “kitchen tongue” for me a bit? Googling is mostly turning up culinary sites (or porn), and while I have a rough idea of what’s meant–something like the Hispanic families in Austin who speak Spanish mostly at home, and English when out and about, maybe?–I’m not sure I’m parsing it right.

  4. Fade @3:

    “Kitchen tongue” is a pejorative term for the language the servants speak among themselves. I first encountered it, as one does all the really vicious linguistic slurs, when reading about contemporary Belgian politics.

    There’s actually a nuance here. One can have the aristocracy bilingual, as the Romans were (Caesar’s last words were more likely in Greek than Latin), or the British nobility (think of all the Lord Peter Wimsey books, where his family regularly lapse into French). In that case, it’s questionable whether the lower-status language is really a kitchen tongue.

    Alternatively, the servants and workers can be the bilingual ones, with a truly deprecated language for their peers and a more official language for dealing with their “betters”. That was the context in which I heard it, in that most Flemish Belgians speak French, while few Walloons speak Flemish. Combine that with the Flemish feeling that they’re the under-appreciated workhorses of the Belgian economy, and terms like “kitchen tongue” start to surface.

  5. Marc Mielke says:

    My first thought was that 97 was an improbable number because it isn’t divisible by 3! (My guess is 32 for each caste and one for the outcast)

    The Minbari are already a monoculture (or rather…triniculture?) and absurdly unified even for TV science fiction! I’d actually imagine the Centauri more likely to have linguistic differentiation.

    And yeah, the absence of such really is kind of non-fun in traditional space opera. The problems that arise are themselves interesting and fun, but would really require the work to focus on that to some extent, and most authors have other stories to tell.

    If one actually tries pulling a Tolkien and composing their own language for a race, it would be sort of a pain in the neck to introduce variants as well (though kinda cool) unless there was a specific story reason to do so.

  6. TexAnne says:

    Doin It Rong: Enterprise, where the linguist learns a language perfectly after hearing two sentences. Gaaah, no. Split decision: Darmok and Jelal at Tanagra. The learning process was spot on, but the language itself was purest bullshit. If your whole language is metaphorical, how the hell do you have words like “and” and “at”? I ask you. (But I’ll always love that episode for Jean-Luc Picard, BAMF.)

    I have the vague impression that “langue de cuisine” is even more insulting in French, because of an equally vague impression that “cuisinier” isn’t a terribly high-status job, rather like “ditch-digger” in the US. Honest work, but nothing you’d want your kid to do. I don’t know if that’s still true; where is Pendrift when we need her?

  7. Richard Edgar says:

    I’ve been impressed by the languages and linguistic problems and their solutions presented in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Her main character is in fact a linguist, brought along for the purpose of learning the local language. Singular, to be sure, but they only interact with a small subset of the natives.

  8. Nix says:

    Another example of doing it right: Ted Chiang’s _Story of Your Life_. I’m reasonably sure that the ultrastrong Whorfian interpretation he posits there is nonsense, but he gets the process of learning just right.

  9. Q. Pheevr says:

    I think there’s a third big reason that realistic depictions of linguistic diversity have traditionally been rare in SF&F. A lot of the time, linguistic difference even of the most basic sort (such as between peoples from different worlds making first contact with each other) would simply get in the way of the kind of story the author wants to tell, or the kinds of interactions the author wants the characters to be able to have. So a lot of the time, one just throws in a Babel fish or a batch of translator microbes and stops worrying about it. In cases like that, revealing much about the linguistic nuances of an alien civilization might only draw unwanted attention to the flimsiness of the plot device.

    As for someone who gets it right, though in a rather discouraging sort of way, I’d nominate Stanisław Lem, in works like Fiasco and Solaris. We don’t exactly get to see alien linguistic diversity here, but that’s because Lem is grappling with just how alien alien life might be, and with the possibility that communication between species from different worlds might be completely intractable.

  10. Dammit, Becca already beat me to posting about the “single origin” theory!

    But I just wanted to say I really appreciate this post. As a grad student in Linguistics, this is naturally my Number One Pet Peeve about science fiction.

    That said, I don’t mind too much if Minbar only has 97 dialects. First, given how language is normally handled in science fiction, it’s a minor miracle that there’s more than one. Anyone know what dialect of Klingon Worf speaks, for example? Sad to say, but by having more than one, B5 is already ahead of the curve. Second, we don’t know too much about Minbari history, but we do know that it’s a highly disciplined an united place. Given how we see them behave toward one another, it isn’t too hard for me to stretch my imagination and assume that at some point in their history an official standard language was formally adopted (or imposed), and that there might be 97 or so approved variants of it (no doubt associated with social status more than region of origin by this point).

    Of course, that said, it makes all the other races seem that much more cartoonish by reminding us that we’ve never heard of a Narn or Centauri dialect.

    My vote for worst language scene in all B5: Ivanova talks to her dying father over a pirated GoldChannel connection. The conversation between this Russian father on his deathbed and his Russian daughter should presumably be in Russian, but Garibaldi eavesdrops and follows the whole thing, so nope. But just in case anyone failed to notice this gaffe, the writers make sure we notice that father’s pet names for his daughter are in Russian by having Ivanova TRANSLATE the SINGLE RUSSIAN PHRASE in the whole conversation OUT LOUD. Unforgivable.

    If anyone’s interested, me and a co-blogger argue about the use of alien languages in Star Wars here:

  11. Lenora Rose says:

    Stargate (The TV series – I have little recollection how the movie handled it) does a particularly bad job of coping with languages specifically BECAUSE they mention the problem, and show enough scenes of Daniel figuring out the local language to highlight their defects (especially with the concept of dialects or language alteration). On the one hand, it means, in early seasons at least, one can read an implied “Daniel talked to them a while to figure out the language” and/or “Daniel is translating for the team the whole time, but that would be boring to film so they’re filming it as if they understand one another” or even “By now the team has learned some of this language because they’ve faced it before” in several of the new encounters. (After a while it seems they forgot about this entirely, though).

    On the other, it totally messes up suspension of disbelief where it is addressed in a way that might actually be worse than doing what they did later on and just having everyone speak Magical English.

    I’m finding it sad that right now, I can’t think of many examples of seeing language done right.

  12. Sylvia Sotomayor says:

    I’m rereading Cherryh’s Foreigner books. There’s a lot of language learning, misunderstanding, translation issues, and even the realization that the two groups of humans who share a common language probably don’t mean the same thing when they use the same words.

    I, too, adore Hellspark.

    As for the recent scientific paper, Language Log has some interesting commentary:

  13. In re the Centauri, there was a bit of a Marina Sirtis problem: Londo’s actor went to great lengths to come up with a really colorful ‘Centauri’ accent to use when speaking Terran Standard or whatever it is they speak on-screen … and then a bunch of the other Centauri actors ignored it and spoke in their native accents, which were mostly British.

    I fanwanked this into at least two continents/cultural subgroups, maintaining their accents against each other for internal reasons. It’s especially interesting to note that most of the British-sounding Centauri were high court toadies (though not all). Some of the fighter pilots and other nobodies have American accents, leading to a potential third ‘caste’ tongue. :->

  14. TexAnne says:

    Lenora Rose, 11: Oh yes, the Stargate movie! Where Daniel couldn’t understand anything they said until his new wife showed him the super-sekrit hidden hieroglyphs–he read them aloud in Egyptian and she told him what they were in Abydonian. Gosh it was almost like a…oh, what’s that big rock….

  15. Nightsky says:

    A Canticle for Leibowitz has a couple of cool linguistic details: in the third part of the book, one character casually mentions to another that neither of them can speak to a third, and that’s when we learned that American English fractured after the Flame Deluge (as you’d expect it to, really) and is now some number of mutually unintelligible languages. (Appalacian and Southwest are mentioned; I forget what the others are.) “Ancient English”, meanwhile, has become a classical old language like Latin.

    Ted Chiang’s short story “The Time of Your Life” has a really excellent idea of what an alien language might look like, sound like, and be good and bad at describing. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck. In a good way.

    Finally, regarding kitchen languages: something similar happens in Paraguay, where practically everyone speaks both Spanish and Guarani. (Trufax: highest rate of bilingualism in the world!) They speak Spanish in public life, and Guarani at home.

  16. Essi says:

    I can imagine a time in Earth’s future when everybody will speak just one language.

    I imagine it’d happen in some way how immigrants’ children adopt a new language. Lets say like a German couple moves to England and they have children. The children will still speak german a bit, with their parents, but the children’s children very likely will not. The grandchildren become fully english.

    In some similar fashion I can imagine a time (may take a few hundred years) where the parents will still speak their original language, but the children will speak the new universal language, and as the parents die away the original language dies with them.

    It is one of my petpeeves in a lot of sf&fantasy that the entire planet is just one thing (all of Tatooine is just a desert… right), but looking at the Minbari culture, it does seem plausible that there has been a time when they’ve all made a unified effort to bring just one culture and one language (and one government to rule the entire planet). The Minbari seem to think this is what makes them so great (while Delenn points out that it’s actually the humans with the variety who are stronger and the Minbari have lost that).

  17. OtterB says:

    I’m another huge Hellspark fan.

    Suppose the planet was colonized rather thank having intelligent life arise independently. The initial colony could easily have a common language (though you could also design plausible scenarios where they did not). If they began with a common language, and retained electronic communication as they spread across the planet, then I could see them having variations but no truly different languages.

    And I think I’ll side with Q. Pheevr @9 that many stories don’t want to sidetrack on this issue, any more than they want to wander too far down the details of FTL travel. But dropping in an FTL ship at least acknowledges understanding that there IS an issue. If your intergalactic civilization operates on Saturn-style rockets, there’s a problem.

    And, down a different track altogether, how about H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” ?

  18. Marc @5:
    Interesting thought, the divisibility by 3. The remaining language is, of course the common one that everyone speaks.

  19. A good example of a kitchen language, that I thought of just after going to bed last night:

    About five years ago, we were staying in a hotel in Aviemore, Scotland. I walked past the housekeeper’s office, whose door happened to be standing open right then. And taped to the inside of it was a sign saying, “NO POLISH TO BE SPOKEN IN THE OFFICE”.

    In Western Europe right now, Polish is frequently a kitchen tongue. It’s the language of builders and hotel cleaners, wait- and bar staff, nannies and nurse’s aides. (OK, it’s more complicated than that in reality. There are lots of other Poles about, in more professional and well-paid roles. Not everyone who speaks Polish is in a low-status job, nor vice versa.)

  20. Abi @19: Similarly, having worked in restaurant and food-service jobs, in Chicago, 90% of all restaurants are owned by Greeks, and 90% of all personnel collectively in all restaurants’ kitchens, are Mexican.

    Now, the Greeks in question are mostly 3rd or 4th-generation Chicago-born assimilated English-speakers; some of them (like my semi-aunt Vicki and her brothers) learned Greek in afterschool programs as a kid and visit distant cousins in ‘the old country’ a couple of times a year. The Mexicans in the kitchens are usually recent immigrants, some of whom have very good English skills and some almost none.

    It was useful to me (and got me treated more positively by said coworkers) to learn the Spanish terms for a range of foods served in my first fast-food job (owned by Vicki), so I could lean my head over the passthrough and say, “Uno pappas mas, Miguel, por favor,” quickly while getting together a customer’s order.

    In the hotel restaurant I worked in rather later, some of the (anglo) upper staff were contemptuous of the fact that when everyone trooped down into the kitchen to pick up the assembly-line-made staff lunch and dinner platters, there was a surrounding babble in Spanish as the maids, dishwashers, janitors, etc, socialized over their food. Most transactions IN the actual kitchen during the day were in English; the head chefs were always fluent in English, though not always native speakers, and even the busboys and dishwashers knew enough to get by with task-specific instructions in their fields.

  21. Then there was my airport job (disability assistance), where the two languages with the most (native or non-) speakers were English and Russian. About 55% of the employees were relatively-recent Eastern-European immigrants (up to 10-15 years in the US, though some a lot less than that), with another 10% or so similar vintage from elsewhere in the world, and the remainder US-born.

    There were some amusing translation-chains of relatively complex instructions from the primarily-monoglot-English management through one or more other employees (usually English to Russian to something, though sometimes English straight to Bulgarian, Hindi, Spanish, etc). Also, I got a lot of coworkers using me to referee usage questions or verify actual idiomatic usage of certain words. My favorite of those was the time he came up to me and asked, “I saw this word in a novel I am reading, and I looked it up, but I am not sure. How would you use ‘tumescent’ in a sentence normally?” and I got to reply, “Um, you don’t, really. You see it in books, but nobody’s going to use it to you in conversation.” I also had to explain to him delicately that the most COMMON usage of that root word in fiction is to refer to swellings that males have and females generally don’t. That was exciting, given the cultural gap and his own innate modesty. :->

  22. From a friend on Twitter, here is an interesting article on the mass extinction of languages. It starts with the premise:

    It is estimated that most of the world’s languages – of which there are approximately 7,000 – will be “dead” within the next three generations. That is an extinction rate greater than the one faced by our planet’s flora and fauna under the worst predictions for global warming.

    If this is true — if we really are looking at a linguistic mass extinction — that argues in favor of, for instance, Essi @16’s suggestion that it’s possible to have a small and limited number of languages, or even just one.

    I tend to doubt we’d get quite that far, because there are so many political aspects to language. It’s a cultural and national identifier; can one really picture the death of French?

  23. Elliott @21:

    You remind me of a game I learned to play in Britain*: the translation game.

    Get a circle of people, all of whom are at least competent in at least two languages. Each person takes a piece of paper, and writes down a common English phrase. They then hand it to the person next to them.

    The next person translates the phrase into their second language, folds the paper down so that only the translation shows, and passes it to the person next to them.

    That person then translates it into English, folds it down, passes it on. The paper gets retranslated and folded until it’s back at its originator, who then unfolds it and compares output to input. It’s usually very funny, even sober.

    It’s a game for speakers of the same language family, really. One wants to be handed things that one can’t quite read, but whose meaning one can get into the neighborhood of. At the time, my usual second language was Spanish, though I used Latin a lot as well. One memorable game had me taking sheets from a Dutch speaker† and handing them to a German speaker. We were a filter through which meaning only passed after it had been mashed quite fine indeed. But yet meaning did get through, because the languages are more similar than we generally admit.

    * For all I said about the Brits and languages
    † Long before I realized I was going to marry him

  24. Slybrarian says:

    I agree completely about the lack of languages in most sci-fi. While I can easily see the number of (currently used) languages dropping after the invention of mass media and particularly after a planet unifies, I can’t see them all disappearing. Sure, having one common language is easy enough, English seems to be heading that way right now, but that just means that almost everyone who’s not from space-America will be bilingual. One thing I love about the Vorkosigan novels is that even without a single alien around there’s still immense linguistic diversity. Everyone speaks English, but on Barrayar there’s still the Russian, French, and Greek speakers, with language being a major sign of class.

    Now, I can see that sometimes there’s going to be single languages. Colonies, for example, might come from a single linguistic source. In other cases, there could be a good reason for a single language to exist. The Klingons probably speak the language of the group that conquered the planet and killed anyone who didn’t want to speak the language, and it could easily be the case for others like the kzinti or Goa’uld. The Minbari or Puppeteers are extremely unified, and the Vulcans would find multiple languages illogical. But there’s no excuse for the vast majority of aliens.

    Of course, humans are the worst offenders of all. Even with the excuse of practicality in video media, it’s silly that everyone apparently grew up in a west-derived McCulture. Unless of course the ARM comes along and enforces it, that is.

  25. Joaquin Murrieta says:

    Most sci-fi writers are trying to tell a story. As we international travelers will attest, language difficulties often slow the story line WAY down. (In the interior of China it would probably take me an hour to purchase a bag of rice!)

    The story the writers are trying to tell would so often be impeded if we had to deal with the reality of language differences. For example, how convenient that all the aliens in Star Trek speak English (not to mention the entire crew)! This is not, I assume, because serious people assume that aliens on the planet Wherever really would speak English, but because the writers only had 45 minutes to tell their story, and in that amount of time, in real space, the characters would be lucky to be able to say “hello.”

    One sees the same thing in the modern CSI shows. Every once in a while there is an acknowledgment that forensics is quite a bit more boring (!) and complicated than the show would suggest. But to advance the story, how convenient that the gum wrapper the CSI’s find in Central Park just happens to be relevant to the dead body that’s right there (instead of having been on that piece of grass for six months)!

  26. Fade Manley says:

    I always liked the way the Vorkosigan series handled languages. Apparently “everyone” speaks some future-variation-of-English, but Barrayar has four recognized languages, and political conflicts involving the way various of them are stigmatized, and even with the earbugs for convenient translation there are occasional breakdowns. (See: the diplomatic dinner on Earth, where Miles is reduced to smiling and broad hand gestures to communicate with the people he’s seated near.)

    Backtracking somewhat, I find the whole “kitchen tongue” thing especially interesting because I like chewing over the ideas of settings (where by “setting” I mean “the place a story happens” rather than, say, the entire theoretical universe in which the story is located) with dominant and non-dominant languages both being widely spoken. And it’s really interesting to me to ponder how you can end up with a lot of bilingual/trilingual people without everyone, mutually intelligible in multiple languages, letting whichever of the languages is slightly less popular slowly die away.

    A constant stream of immigrants from another location is certainly one way; another is to have the local preferred and from-birth language be supplemented with a language that’s dominant in nearby/surrounding places. But in one setting I have a fairly static and isolated culture that’s still speaking two languages, and why in the world would they still have both after all this time? …but it does seem to work, apparently, if caste-divided languages are likely to be retained and maintained, even if “everyone” speaks the dominant language fluently and has for generations.

  27. Fade Manley: A friend of mine’s extended kin-group is being nudged into not losing their (exceedingly minority) heritage language because her grandmother utterly refuses to respond when spoken to in any other. They’re all fairly certain she understands English just fine, but for at least my friend’s whole lifetime, nope, nada, no comprendo until you say it in Romany (with a good accent, mind).

    My friend and her cousins used to be recruited to go to the movies with Grandma and keep a running whispered translation going in her ear, or to go to the doctor or city offices with her and intercede. It’s an interesting method, though it takes an iron will (possessed by the Grandma in spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs, AND notrump, apparently) to implement consistently.\

    This is also how one raises functionally bilingual children in an overwhelmingly monolingual society, when the children have biliingual (or one mono, one more-than) parents. If Daddy always speaks French and Mommy always speaks English, the child will pick up both languages from early on, and know who to speak which to.

    In the case of one child in my extended acquaintanceship, it was an uncle (visiting for whole weekends every month or two) who was delegated to be the ‘non-English-speaker’ (both parents are receptively fluent in the tongue he was using). They managed it for nearly six years before Uncle slipped up and spoke in English in front of the child, who had a distinctly UR DOIN IT RONG-type tantrum until Uncle went back to talking ‘right’. :->

    The kids will speak at school whatever is spoken at school (in my brother-in-law’s case, he went to a French immersion school in Toronto, so the school language was the minority tongue), and at home whatever their parents will respond to, and watch TV in any language available.

  28. Joaquin Murrieta @25:

    I think there’s a difference between trying to show all of the complexity of alien languages and ignoring the idea that they would exist at all. Slybrarian @24 mentions Bujold, and I think her work is a good example of using the existence of multiple languages in a realistic way to build a world without letting it get in the way of the plot.

    I’m thinking, in particular, of a scene where a bunch of characters are being ordered to go into a lethally toxic situation. That’s bad enough, but the situation takes on an explosive political aspect because all of the people being so ordered are from the Greek-speaking minority of a majority-Russian world. It takes only a few sentences to outline this situation (none of them in Greek or Russian), but from that you get a lot more depth and complexity about the society that the characters exist in. It also escalates the situation nicely for the main character, who is the son of a politician and has to defuse the conflict.

    (It occurs to me that you may not have read Bujold. I would suggest that we remedy that situation.)

  29. Note to self: must do that post on worldbuilding in the abstract. I have the perfect photos for it already…

  30. Singing Wren says:

    Another thing that happens when languages are thrown together, and one ends up dominant over the other: You get odd idioms. They made sense in the original (now non-dominant) language, but are highly non-standard in the dominant language.

    Real life example: Up until World War I, Cincinnati (Ohio) had a thriving German-language culture. Not just recent immigrants, but their descendants as well. War came, and everyone switched to English – but some ticks remain. I say gesundheit when someone sneezes. So do half the people I know, and this makes up a large chunk of our German vocabulary. One expression stayed in its original language, when everything around it switched.

    The odder quirk is “Please?” In Cincinnati, used on its own, it means “Could you repeat that?” As I understand it, it’s a literal translation of a German idiom common among a significant number of immigrants who settled in Cincinnati. I never picked it up, but my younger brother did. It’s become an easy linguistic marker for Cincinnatians in other cities, because no one else uses that idiom.

    I see know reason why these things won’t happen in even odder combinations when we add aliens to the mix.

  31. Kaleberg says:

    Judging from everything else we are told about the Minbari, I had sort of assumed that they basically had one language, and most likely something like the Academie Francaise to regulate it. Minbar seemed to be full of rules and traditions. I remember watching an old Pagnol movie, and the Marseille accent sounded nothing at all like French. (Marius’s best friend was Pa-nese-eh, not Pan-eese. The Berkeley restaurant may hav borrowed the spelling, but not the pronunciation.) Of course, French squeezed out dozens of languages before that, partly by force, but also by being the language of commerce and jurisprudence. As with English in modern India, there were lots of good reasons for learning Parisian French in 18th century France.

    I had forgotten Lennier’s remark. Apparently the Minbar retained 97 varieties of their language. He doesn’t say whether they are all still in use or not or whether they went in and out of use. Hebrew was a liturgical language for centuries, but was revived in the 19th century. If nothing else, having such a definite number of variants makes Minbar seem even more exotic.

    My favorite language scene was in a Jacky Chan movie with English subtitles. He left Hong Kong for mainland China, and suddenly we had two sets of subtitles, one in English and one in Chinese. This went on until after the prison break and he arrived back in Hong Kong. The explanatory subtitle, “You can speak Chinese now.” We all had a good laugh. We had assumed that’s what he had been speaking, but obviously they meant Cantonese, as opposed to Mandarin. There you have one written language, but two spoken languages. In the 1930s, the custom in China, when someone couldn’t understand what you were saying was to write the words on your hand with your finger. Chinese stroke order has been stylized for centuries, so you could probably do this across a room. That’s the kind of thing a science fiction writer would be unlikely to invent.

  32. lee says:

    I think Cherryh has such a firm grasp of ways communications can go wrong in so many different situations; languages and assumptions are one small corner of what she’s explored. I was struck by the Chanur books – Tully is our (extremely clouded) window into human contact with this corner of space, and every single alien we meet is part of a faction fighting an internal war, or jockeying for position, within their own species. The most mysterious species are seen as monolithic, but even they have opinions on who should be where, and factions with different opinions, and these change the course of the narrative pretty abruptly.

    A large part of the books is the translation tape Tully makes and who he makes it for. Reading these in the middle of her work is the shock that they refer to Union and Alliance, and some third human coalition, when Tully tries to explain his origins.

  33. albatross says:

    I keep thinking of ways this could be lampshaded–like mentioning offhand that there were dozens of languages back home, but that all advanced instruction took place in the planetary common language.

    I think Vinge does language really well. In _A Deepness In The Sky_, the Spiders’ language is probably very hard for non-Focused humans to learn, and there’s a discussion of automated translation not working too well in general (absent Focus). There’s also reference made to the advantages of the Qeng Ho radio network spreading a standard version of Nese through the stars; the Emergents speak a variant of that. In _A Fire Upon the Deep_ it’s kind-of glossed over–there’s a reference to Pham being unreasonably good at learning a new language–though I loved the notion of translating messages down to middle-beyond trade languages as a way of blocking attacks. In _The Peace War_, we’re on Earth, but different of the main characters speak at English plus other languages (most of the main characters speak English and Spanish), and even within the US, Spanish has mutated substantially between Aztlán and Middle California. (Spanish-speakers in Middle California comment on the weird phrasings used by Wili.) He also makes reference to a verbal “code” (really a kind of human steganography) that uses rising/falling tones as the information channel, with a sideline comment that folks who don’t speak tonal languages more-or-less never catch it[1]. There’s also at least one conversation that’s in English, but it’s phrased more like Spanish, and in a thought bubble, Wili says he wants to use Spanish because he wants to make sure he says exactly what he means.

    David Brin’s Uplift books feature Anglic speakers (presumably what English evolved into when it became the universal human language). There is little reference to any other human language surviving on Earth, and I think he fell down there. But he also deals with languages spoken by aliens quite a bit (the presumption is that educated people and chims speak Anglic plus at least some of one or more galactic languages.) And he makes reference to Trinary, the language in which uplifted dolphins think. Aliens usually speak only one or two of a small set of galactic languages, but that’s internally consistent–they’re all the product of uplift, so their languages didn’t evolve with the people.

    [1] As an aside, Vinge also does crypto better than any other SF author I’ve seen. I don’t recall ever noticing a howler w.r.t. crypto in his stories.

  34. Stefan Jones says:

    @albatross: I wrote the RPG adaptation of the Uplift books. Brin established that there were still a lot of “living” languages on Earth (e.g., “Nihonic” and “Rossic,” the 25th century versions of Japanese and Russian, which are supposedly near peers of “Anglic” but never appear in a story) and lots of carefully preserved traditional languages.

  35. heresiarch says:

    The nature of language is very historical: it’s radically different to talk about dialect versus language in feudal societies than in modern societies. Really, the very idea of there being a singular language that everyone speaks is quite new: historically, the only even semi-standardized languages were liturgical/written languages, and everything else was just network of dialects, each relatively similar to the ones near it, fading to unintelligibility over distance. It’s only with industrialization and its attendant increases in mobility, formalized education, cultural homogeneity, and so forth that standardized popular tongues even emerged as an ideal, much less a reality.

    What this implies is that [time since feudalism] is a very important variable in determining linguistic diversity: as Esse @ 16 and abi @ 22 suggest, there are trends ongoing in the modern world that might, if they continue, lead to a future of very low linguistic diversity. On the other hand, as abi @ 22 and Elliot Mason @ 27 note, there’s a growing pushback against the loss of minority tongues, which also seems likely to strengthen in the future. Which leads me to:

    “Then there’s the number: 97 is very precise. Are there, then, distinct borders around each of the dialects and subtongues?”

    One of the very common ways that minority language groups organize to defend their tongue is by formalizing it: making dictionaries, writing books in it, teaching classes in it. etc. But the outcome of this process, just like with standardization of national languages, is a singular language, not a disparate web of dialects. I can imagine that a thousand years from now only 97 languages were able to formalize their tongues sufficiently to gain official recognition and survive the external competition and internal disuse.

  36. Serge Broom says:

    Evolving languages… My native language was French, but in some ways, it was quaint, compared to France’s. While France’s language changed, Quebec’s didn’t as much because it was part of the British Empire. Oh, and the accent… If TexAnne heard me speak to my mom, she’d go “Say what?”

  37. Serge @36:

    That’s another interesting feature of languages: there is no set rate of linguistic change. One gets the same with Flemish (in Belgium) vs Dutch (in the Netherlands). The two populations are right next to each other, but Flemish retains many linguistic features that Dutch has abandoned.

    (Both populations go kind of cross-eyed when they contemplate Dutch’s daughter language, Afrikaans. It’s comprehensible to a Dutch speaker, but it sounds like it comes from a universe where Spock has a beard.)

  38. Serge Broom says:

    Abi @ 37… it sounds like it comes from a universe where Spock has a beard

    Speaking of whom… If I remember cirrectly, in episode “The Other Side of Paradise” Spock says to his girlfriend that ‘Spock’ isn’t his real name, but rather the closest rendition of his real name that could be spoken by humans.

  39. ‘correctly’ was spelled incorrectly.

  40. albatross says:


    Did you see this recent XKCD?

  41. thomas says:

    The new ‘Motie’ novel Outies by J.R. Pournelle handles this well, with the Empire-wide kitchen language being a creole formed back on Earth by refugees from global warming who were then transported as indentured labor. Where the language is explicitly represented in the book it’s modern Tok Pisin, but presumably that’s just translation.

    It’s also neat how the multi-language substructure is slid in under the universe from the original books.

  42. Serge Broom says:

    Am I wrong in thinking that “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is the first time that an alien is heard speaking an actual alien language?

  43. Theophylact says:

    I’m pretty sure A.J. Budrys was fluent in Lithuanian as well as English Counting Anthony Burgess as an SF writer (and I would, on the basis of The Wanting Seed and Earthly Powers, as well as A Clockwork Orange), he spoke Persian and Malay fluently, as well as Russian; he translated Cyrano de Bergerac and Oedipus the King; he taught German and Spanish as well as French when stationed at Gibraltar; and he debriefed Dutch refugees, so I assume he at least could manage that language as well. I take it as a given that he knew Latin.

  44. Singing Wren @30:
    Another thing that happens when languages are thrown together, and one ends up dominant over the other: You get odd idioms. They made sense in the original (now non-dominant) language, but are highly non-standard in the dominant language.

    My favorite example of that is in Spanish, dating from the Moorish occupation: ojalá, which is cognate with Inshalla.

    Kaleberg @31:
    The fact that the mutually unintelligible languages of China share a written language is so SFnial that I’m sorry it exists in the real world; that means I’ll never be fantasted by it in a novel. Just sayin’.

    albatross @33:
    I wasn’t really bowled over by Brin’s treatment of human or alien languages, but Trinary really worked for me. It seemed to form the dolphins’ thought patterns (hello, Sapir-Whorf!), and conveyed a genuine feeling of nonhuman identity. When Creideiki is brain-damaged, the primal thought patterns he has left were just the right mix of strange and recognizable to fit the language he spoke.

    Serge @38:
    If I remember correctly, in episode “The Other Side of Paradise” Spock says to his girlfriend that ‘Spock’ isn’t his real name, but rather the closest rendition of his real name that could be spoken by humans.

    Well, to be pedantic, he says that Leila couldn’t pronounce it. Maybe other humans could.

    There are human-language words I can’t pronounce. I can’t make the southern Dutch R that my husband uses (a uvular trill); I use a northern equivalent (the alveolar trill). I can only approximate the Dutch pronunciation of “oe”, and I can’t distinguish between my incorrect version and the right one.

    albatross @40:
    I had not seen that XKCD. Wonderful. How come I didn’t notice that problem before?

    Theophylact @43:
    Oh, now, don’t make me go all No True Scotsman on you. (Srsly, I was thinking of a very small pool: Clarke, Asmiov, Heinlein, Smith, Bester, Zelazny, Kuttner, Moore, Blish, Dick. That lot.)

  45. By the way, looking at the good & the bad in the table I’ve been updating, I notice that every notably terrible use of language is in a film or TV show, while only books make the good list.

    Interesting. Plausible, unfortunately.

  46. Abi… I assumed that Spock’s comment was a shortcut where Leila stood for most humans. That being saidf, I’m not sure how well I’ve finally grasped the pronunciation of the English ‘th’.

  47. Serge Broom says:

    Argh… I forgot to remove the ‘pedantic’ from my ID. Zat eez zee truth.

  48. Paul A. says:

    The one that came to mind that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the Barsoom novels: Burroughs makes things easier on his hero by specifying that everybody on the entire planet speaks exactly the same language, even the remote tribes who live up mountains and never talk to strangers; but he does at least have the narrator remark on this and offer an explanation. I don’t at this distance recall what the explanation was. (In fact, I recall two explanations, but not which one is from the Barsoom novels. One is that everyone on the planet is slightly telepathic, and continually receives subconscious updates on the state of the language. The other is that the language is so highly evolved that whenever one encounters an unfamiliar word it is obvious what it must mean – and whenever one encounters an unfamiliar thing it is obvious what the word for it must be.)

    Singing Wren’s comment at #30 about odd idioms that don’t make sense outside their original language reminds me that one of the things I like about a well-thought-out SFnal language is that it contains idioms that are not English idioms, and not lazy “hold your hippogriffs” variations on English idioms. There’s some good ones in Hellspark, and it’s one of the worldbuilding things I particularly love in Cherry Wilder’s Torin trilogy.

    Elliott Mason at #27 mentions raising children bilingually by having each parent speaking a different language. This link has more information on that topic.

  49. OtterB says:

    Not exactly what was originally being talked about, but SFnal language

    Robots develop language to describe locations to each other

    Note that at this point they are programmed for this language development process. They’re not independently developing language. Yet.

  50. Terry Karney says:

    Stargate the movie did it horribly. The slaves all spoke letter perfect Egyptian, so that the Egyptologist was able to understand them, after 3,000 years of no way to record anything.

    I liked the way (to leave SF, sort of) The 13th Warrior did it. We, as the audience, can’t understand a thing the group is saying; because the POV character doesn’t. But he soaks it up (he’s a diplomat, we can assume he is good with language), and starts to talk to them.

    Then we can understand it. He also doesn’t completely get their culture.

    I am raeding a book right now, “The last lingua franca” and his argument is interesting. Most interesting is how lingua franca develop, and how they were used. Persian, frex, only became one after Persia lost it’s regional dominance, but it survived, from Iran to Ottoman Turkey, and affected the languages it was in contact with.

    I’ve not gotten into his detailed reason for saying English will be the last, though it seems to mirror a bit of the details of his first example.

    Persia, when it was a power player, had it’s own lingua franca, Elamite. Scribes in Persia would hear a message, put it into Elamite, and it would be read out in the target language when it arrived. It might not be Persian that the far recipient spoke.

    The same thing, actually, happened with Persian. People in India would be translated from whatever they spoke into Persian, and it would become some flavor of Turkish, or “Arabic” at the other end, in much the same way that Latin served in Europe.

    So, his argument seems to be that local language will remain, but computational translation will do away with the middle ground, and English (as she is spoke) will become the last Lingua Franca.

    I’ve not finished it yet, so I don’t know quite what he argues, nor how I feel about the conclusions.

  51. Just FYI: almost everybody in Basque country speaks Spanish. If you meet somebody from Basque country, he may not even be ethnic Basque. But Spanish is still the dominant language. It’s kind of like Ireland and Irish Gaelic.

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