Language must be a big thorn in the side for science fiction writers, no? It’s tough enough to grasp the way human languages behave, let alone attempt to create alien languages, even if they are just for fiction.
In this post, we take a look at how language has been used or portrayed in science fiction, what purpose it serves, and how that in turn shapes the popular perception of translation.
The need for language exists
Most science fiction that depicts alien life also showcases some sort of language as a vehicle of communication between the characters. And their languages, too, are made of words. To that extent, they are similar to human languages. It’s not as if the characters could simply divine things—though in some cases, such super-intelligent creatures do exist. But mostly, the need for communication exists, and hence, so does language.
Arrival forms a category of its own
In Arrival, the aliens mainly communicate through logograms—which serve as their script—and grunts and groans. But it’s the written medium that is interesting from the linguist’s point of view.
This communication method is completely different from that of humans, getting it closer to the concept of “alien.” And, unlike other languages made for sci-fi, Arrival’s linguistics team is made of not just a linguist but also a designer and a science consultant.
Then there is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the movie bases itself on, which states that the language you speak determines the way you think and perceive reality. Though this view may not be shared by many linguists, that a mainstream movie puts Sapir-Whorf at its center is a milestone indeed for languages in movies, sci-fi or not.
Also, by getting a linguist to lead the first contact team to meet the aliens, the movie highlights the importance of translators and interpreters who bridge worlds daily and make human languages seem less alien to us.
Not all constructed languages are equal
Among the made-up languages in science fiction, very few are fully developed. The Star Wars films’ languages have been criticized as being fake—they are not “real” alien languages, whatever that means. Such languages usually have just enough vocabulary as the script demands, so they don’t really exist outside of the fiction piece.
Klingon towers in the constructed language category, replete with a dedicated language institute, certified language learning programs, an attempt to raise a child speaking it as a first language, Bing Translator’s nod to it by including it in its repertoire, and even a legal battle over its copyright-ability. It seems to have everything going for it, as far as “real” sci-fi languages are concerned.
Creator of the Klingon language and linguist Marc Okrand recounts how his work started with Star Trek II, and not III, in this video. The first words that Okrand created for the movie were for a scene already shot in English. Hence, the words had to be phonetically similar or look the same on screen when the characters mouthed them.
Okrand says he broke some human language rules in Klingon to make it sound more alien. For example, it follows the object-verb-subject word order, which is unlike most human languages, which follow a subject-verb-object order. Okrand also built in pairs of sounds that don’t normally coexist in a human language and unpaired those that do. For instance, if a language has a “v” sound, there is also an “f” sound, but not in Klingon, he says.
Another original language constructed for film is Na’vi-ish from James Cameron’s Avatar. This language also started out with a limited purpose, but Paul Frommer, its creator, went on to grow it and include songs, syntax, and material for fans to use.
Some have made their mark, even with just one word
Other languages that may not have the celebrity status that Klingon enjoys have nevertheless found eternal glory through inclusion in human languages.
The book Stranger in a Strange Land introduced the word grok that not only evolved into an actual living word independent of the fiction that birthed it, but also defines the concept of deep semantic understanding. It translates into English as simultaneously “comprehend,” “love,” “drink,” and “be one with.” (The word is borrowed from the Martian language, which the protagonist grew up learning.)
Douglas Adams mixed genuine scientific terms with coinages of his own in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, creating a unique blend of science and pseudoscience. These include some of the earliest uses of the cyber– prefix that’s so prevalent today. Adams is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as an early user of cyborg to refer to a robot, and of cybercubicle. The name of Adams’s fictional Sirius Cybernetics Corporation appears in the OED entry for cybernetics.
Polyglotism is a given in the science fiction domain
Be it Babelfish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, C3PO from Star Wars, or Cypher from Marvel Comics, the characters who remain stamped in our memory never really stop at one or even a couple of languages. C3PO knows 6,000,000 languages. With Babelfish in your ear, you can understand all the languages in the universe.
This obsession with polyglotism seems to reflect the universal human desire for knowledge unobstructed and unhindered by languages. It also perhaps explains why the idea of universal and instant translation captures the public’s imagination. Translation is something that must be achieved instantly and efficiently with the click of a button. Anything more tedious doesn’t appeal.
Lastly, they shine a light on the challenges of interpretation and translation
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the character Arthur Dent’s innocuous comment, “I seem to be having difficulty with my lifestyle” translates into the most dreadful insult imaginable to the Vl’Hurg. Then there’s the tragically hilarious mistranslation when the dolphins try to communicate to humans about the Earth’s planned destruction, but it is misinterpreted as “amusing attempts to punch football or whistle for tidbits.” Another message is misinterpreted as a sophisticated attempt to do a double-backward somersault through a hoop while whistling the “Star Spangled Banner,” but it is, in fact, a message: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
Arrival, of course, singlehandedly did more for the linguist community than all of the other movies mentioned here. Hopefully, at least some of the viewers have begun to think of translation and interpretation as exciting careers.