View From Nowhere: Languages and Science Fiction

languageAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston


Remember that mandatory scene in almost every science fiction movie, the one where everyone is surprised the aliens speak English? Or makes reference to languages like “Romulan,” “Klingon,” “Minbari,” or even “Barsoomian,” each indicating that an entire sentient species speaks a single tongue? Of course, realism aside, these advance the plot without characters stumbling over memorization of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And there are exceptions. Tolkein and the less well-known games and novels of M.A.R. Barker’s science-fantasy world of Tekumel revel in linguistic complexity. Still, if there’s one area where much science fiction loses me, it’s when language differences are explained away with a wave of one’s hand

Language diversity is, after all, a universal human trait linked to our adaptability. As people form groups they begin to speak differently. The more isolation, the more time, the more societal change, the more these groups’ languages tend to diverge. This results in such interesting facts as Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) being home to more than 100 languages. In China and India, although numbers are in dispute, linguistic complexity is everywhere. In Africa and India, the colonial languages of French, Portuguese and English retain surprising importance largely because of the underlying linguistic diversity of the regions.

Few Americans really appreciate the natural linguistic diversity of mankind. This is probably because the many indigenous languages of the Americas have been largely supplanted by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Commonly, our awareness of European linguistics is low as well. In the United Kingdom, not just English is spoken but also Welsh and Scotch and Irish Gaelic. In the nation of Spain commonly spoken languages include not just Spanish but also Catalan, Galician and the entirely unrelated language of Basque.

A quick look at Beowulf or the writings of Shakespeare demonstrates that the English spoken in the past is not the English spoken today. Language diversity is temporal as well as geographic and cultural, although most time travel stories ignore this.

Some science fiction bypasses the problem by using telepathy for universal communication. Unfortunately, not only is hard evidence for psychic phenomena sorely lacking but humans think largely in language. Even if you could read a person’s thoughts what good would it do if you could not understand the language they were thinking in?

Could an automatic language translator even exist? Something like the universal translator of Star Trek or the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It would be difficult.

Languages consist of words and words are symbols for underlying concepts. These concepts do not line up exactly from one language to another. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese there are eight different words for “first cousin.” These words, which do not sound similar, specify if a cousin is older or younger, maternal or paternal, male or female, three factors that directly influence how one should treat them in Chinese culture. Although the Spanish word “siesta” entered English, it did so because there was no English word for “nap during the hottest time of day when work is impossible.” In his writings, Jim Cummins, a leading authority on bilingualism and bilingual education, refers to these differences as a language’s “conceptual base.”

Languages also vary widely in terms of syntactic variation (word order), tonality (whether or not the pitch of a word affects meaning), and the embedded information and concepts. For instance, although some languages incorporate concepts of gender for nouns into their grammar, they do not do so in a universally consistent manner. In Spanish the sun is a masculine object, while in German it is feminine. Navajo incorporates some incredibly complex grammatical changes to verbs allowing a native speaker to modify a verb depending on things such as the shape of the object that is performing the action. And as for the old myth about multiple Eskimo (Inuit) words for snow, it just isn’t so. In fact, there is just one Inuit word for snow which Inuit grammar allows to be modified multiple ways.

Controversies abound in linguistics and the quasi-mystical field of language acquisition. We are literally assisting people to reprogram the deep coding within their very brains. The implications are unsettling. What would Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary and (the hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda think? Images of John Dee and his announcement that he had learned the Enochian language come to mind as one’s thoughts travel deeper into realms where language, mysticism and psychology intersect. The tower of Babel. The language of the birds. Adam and God strolling through the garden of Eden giving names to everything they see. The study of human language is an intellectual quest of mythic proportions, but science is a tool that can guide us through this quest. Although we are a small and stupid species, condemned to stride through the dirt unnecessarily proud of our upright posture, as we do our brains, our opposable thumbs and our facility for language are the only means by which we (barely) differentiate ourselves from animals.

Although we can and should research and study how people use and learn language, ultimately it will be centuries before the details are really known or understood. Our brains seem to be using language to learn language but it’s probably actually largely using processes that we are nowhere near understanding. The world is much bigger than we are and we are beginning to understand that perhaps both neurophysiology and physics lie completely outside man’s capacity to understand. Therefore we may never completely understand how people learn language. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that linguistic complexity is a universal feature of mankind.


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