Language depiction has always been something of an issue in media, especially when said media was intended for entertainment purposes. Given that the major entertainment material exporters across the globe speak only one (albeit very popular) language, we’ve become so used to hearing it every time we watch a movie or a TV show, that we no longer think about how ridiculous it is for a perfectly structured English to be spoken across all galaxies, by all species, throughout all of history, etc. And yet there are those producers who decided to tackle this challenge head on and do something about it.
Some gave it a shot, but eventually failed (every Stargate series), some simply copped out (Farscape, for inventing a microbe that rewires the brain’s language function so that it would instantly understand others infected with the same microbe), some toyed the issue and turned it into a trope (Firefly and their maybe-not-so-appropriate use of the Chinese language), while others did it so well that the viewer requires proper subtitles in order to understand what is being discussed on-screen (most Tolkien adaptations, given that the author himself was so immersed in his own world that he invented a plethora of Elvish dialects, alongside an entire backstory regarding their history and evolution).
Inventing languages (or at least exotic-sounding phrases) in science-fiction and fantasy works is not exactly something new. Nearly every medieval-themed book ever written just has to include some incantations that want to pass off as some druidic language or other and many SF authors like to coin new words for their newly invented principles that do not yet (and might never) exist in our culture. And the transition of the written word to the cinema and TV screen only exacerbated this phenomenon.
The first production to go the entire way and actually consider the language problem was probably the Star Trek franchise. The Original Series was not only the first TV show to include a “linguist” in the main crew, who was also played by the first ever African American actress to star in a prominent role in a major TV series, but when producer Harve Bennett wanted two “foreign” languages used in the show (Klingon and Vulcan) to transition from gibberish to actual structured forms, Marc Okrand was brought in to create dialogue in these two languages and to train the actors in speaking these newly-created languages, thus making history. The language barrier issue was also discussed in a TNG episode which presented a world with a language similar to English, but in which ideas and facts were expressed exclusively through highly referential metaphors. This emphasized the fact that proper grammar is not enough and that cultural references are just as important. And last but not least, in the early 2000s, the crew of Enterprise included yet another linguist and successfully showed just how gruelling it can be to try and communicate with completely alien cultures (whose languages were correctly depicted as completely devoid of any of the basic traits that almost all languages spoken on Earth share), in situations in which not even the fanciest CAT tools could be of any help.
A more recent and even better example is, obviously, Game of Thrones. Despite some shortcomings in the language department (such as an entire continent speaking the same language, with only slightly different accents, when, in reality, a kingdom the size of Spain should have at least 4 official dialects), the producers have gone to surprising lengths in order to accommodate their fanbase by creating not one, but two languages. And they’ve also brought to our screens one character that may seem an oddity, but that as far as we are concerned plays a very important role: an interpreter.
But beyond all that, perhaps the most realistic depiction of the process through which a language changes under certain conditions, even in a relatively short time span, is delivered by the Canadian SF show “The Expanse”. The production team behind this show seems to have understood that a bridge language, to be spoken across a planet or even a solar system, cannot be plain old English and nothing more. Therefore, the kind of English spoken in the universe they established is one pertaining to people originating from all over the world and enriched by countless loanwords from their original mother tongues. It’s a kind of English that sounds so strange that, at times, even a native speaker would require subtitles.
But that’s how languages evolve: they trade words, principles and sounds among themselves; sometimes they sound different when spoken by people raised on different sides of the same city; they are mouldable and constantly changing and they evolve at the same time as the people speaking them.
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