If you're here chasing the search-string
, then I'm afraid you've probably come
to the wrong place. This article is a companion to my guides
to SF Chronophysics and
Exobiology, dealing with another random feature
of fictional world design. It is written in the same spirit
as the chronophysics guide: I'm willing to tolerate any level of
implausibility in the quasiscience as long as these flaws are
irrelevant to the linguistic issues! (For a definition of
quasiscience, see my Star
Trek Rant.) And I'll try to avoid jargon, since there's
no reason a pedantic distinction between (e.g.) inflectional and
derivational morphology should be relevant for nonterrestrial
languages. So for instance the Universal
Translators section is not intended as an assessment
of how close we are to building natural-language interpreter
machines in real life – it's just a somewhat
idiosyncratic survey of the excuses available for SF writers who
want to avoid dealing with irritating language barriers.
By the way, when I say
SF I don't mean to exclude
Fantasy. This is one of the reasons I avoid the word
sci-fi: I can claim where convenient that the abbreviation
SF stands for something nice and inclusive like
Speculative Fabulation or
Ever wondered how all those traditional space-opera and epic-fantasy races – the pig-faced warriors, the smug bumheads, and all the rest – came up with their wonderfully clichéd alien vocabularies? It's not difficult; once you've mastered these basic rules, you'll be able to produce names and phrases just as stereotypical as theirs!
High, like High Martian, Old High Vulcan, or indeed High Draconic, aren't from upland regions (as is the case for, e.g., High German) – they're ancient and complicated prestige dialects preserved from the days when the Empire was much bigger and better and more sophisticated. Speaking them requires considerable effort, dramatic gestures, and often a special capital-T Talent.
'stands for an obscure vowel (F'lar, T'pau, Sp'thra), or a silent consonant (Dra'Azon, Ka'a Orto'o), but in reality it's purely decorative. It's not clear why they choose to use apostrophes rather than, say, umlauts (à la Mötley Crüe) – or peculiar alien squiggles, come to that. Maybe they just want to keep things convenient for ASCII.
If you're the kind of person who read the Silmarillion just for
the linguistic appendices (No? Oh, well, it's only me
then), you'd probably prefer your SF languages not to be quite
like the ones lampooned above. So what's the
alternative? Well, I suppose you could use the Simpsons
Manoeuvre – to quote Kang:
No, actually I'm speaking
Rigellian. By an astonishing coincidence our two languages
are exactly the same! But to the best of my knowledge,
only Star Trek has ever had the nerve to offer this excuse with a
straight face (see e.g.
Bread and Circuses)… so if
that's out, you're left having to imagine a real alien
language. What could that be like?
Well, there are plenty of ways in which alien languages could be extremely unearthly. The most basic variables are those of FORMAT:
L) but in the sequences of sounds they permit (English uses
h‑a‑ngand yet rejects the equally pronounceable sequence
abort programand NIKTO is
hurry), or rely on rhythms and harmonies calibrated for alien aural equipment.
K'thooh looph'dægh-n; you'll be lucky if you can identify any of the sounds involved (
Erm, was that Rroahrgh! or Wroarrgh?).
listenersto keep quiet until the
speakerstops talking, and others make utterances accessible from anywhere forever after (by HTTP!).
Understandably, writers (including screenwriters) tend to shy away from untransliteratable dialogue – but no such problems arise from variations in GRAMMAR:
plural ending, but no; that's less alien than Japanese! Not all languages use the same toolkit of elements (adverb, adjective, infinitive, etc.), or signpost the same things (number, case, person, etc.); see the
Codingsection below. And even familiar categories like
plural nouncan be indicated in a dizzying array of ways – with freestanding
plural-markerparticles; with additions, changes, or even reshuffles at the beginning, middle, or end of the noun; with changes in accompanying articles, or adjectives, or verbs, or other words that just happen to be around.
gowon't necessarily help you recognise the phrase
I wentin ET-speak (any more than it would in English); if the direction was to windward rather than leeward it may take a completely different motion-prefix!
tree-structurescheme, replacing it with some bizarre kind of
hash, but I feel no urge to attempt to describe such horrors.
And on the traditional third hand, it's commonplace for languages to make some things more and others less convenient to communicate about by means of alternative styles of CODING:
snow… so it's a pity that factoid's not true! They only have about as many basic words for it as we do, though Eskimo does have a lot of specialised seal-hunting vocabulary items (and
igluis their general-purpose word for house).
Martians have no word for war, forgetting that a lexical gap this easy to fill with a paraphrase or loanword is unlikely to tell us much about their familiarity with the idea. After all, until the twentieth century Terrans had no word for genocide. It's unlikely that any concept that's understandable could ever be totally inexpressible; nonetheless, an alien language might make an idea formidably awkward to conceptualise or communicate, and the closest translation may have any manner of strange built-in associations. Even if the word
pityis in a Dalek's vocabulary banks, it may be listed as a synonym for
errorcode 7 (failure to exterminate caused by temporary targeting impairment or neural dysfunction).
proper namesto things is quite limited in English, it could be common for (say) Elves: if you live for centuries, you have time to learn the nicknames of individual oak trees… but who'd bother naming something as shortlived as a cat?
So, is there anything that can't vary? Well, there's no surplus of hard evidence, but I'd say that all true languages (see footnote) must have in common the following characteristic properties, necessary for any general-purpose communicative mechanism:
primitively, as some sort of pidgin (cf. Pleistocenese), but a
holistic, impressionistic grammarwith no such structure won't get them far.
giraffeisn't particularly giraffelike,
bigis a small word, and dogs don't really say
bark. Even in sign-languages and pictographic writing systems, few meanings are guessable from their signs – aliens may use sonar onomatopoeia, but it won't make their grammar any more comprehensible.
literal-mindedlanguages of many space-opera Ancients are impossible; all linguistic categories and rules are formed via analogies, explicit or implicit. The definition of the word
dancepresupposes a resemblance between waltzes and raves – and pluralising
daysis a fossilised metaphor too: when did you last see a stack of them? On the other extreme, the
Darmok(see Star Trek Rant) is unworkable because it's all metaphor and no grammar.
saying the thing that is not.
you were behind them. Aliens with no way of expressing the first person (even as
this person now speaking) are unlikely – they'd need unique absolute identifiers for every person, place, moment, and event!
What do you mean,
true languages? I hear you cry.
Well, the category includes sign languages like ASL, pilloried
vernaculars like Jamaican creole, and inventions like Klingon,
since you could translate the information on this page into a
Klingon version that a non-anglophone Klingon-speaker would
understand. But it excludes the things occasionally called
languages which you couldn't do that with, such as
Braille, or music, or bee-dances, or Perl. You might think
translation, but a Polish monoglot Perl-hacker wouldn't
agree… counter-arguments welcome at the
Then again, while I'm sure about xenolinguistics being a branch
of linguistics, can I entirely rule out the idea of intelligent
lifeforms who simply don't have language? The usual
suggestion is that instead they have some sort of (telepathic or
hive mind. Well, maybe. But
unless they've got some standardised way of encoding concepts for
portability from brain to brain, it's not going to be enough to
distinguish them from animals – and if they have, that's
essentially a language by another name.
Okay, so you walk into the spaceport bar and discover that nobody
within a kiloparsec speaks English (or
whatever it's become by the year 3000
AD). You may think you'll be able to tell what that Kzin is
saying just by the tone of his voice; you may think you can
signal your friendly intentions by showing your teeth a lot; you
may even hope he'll speak your favourite interlanguage (cf. [the
late] Don Harlow's notes on Esperanto
and Science-Fiction). But no, take my advice: it's time
to invest in a Universal Translator system (henceforth
UT)! And beware of dodgy characters trying to flog
second-hand 3PO units or fishy-looking implants; here are some
guidelines to help you avoid wasting your credits on something
likely to get you lynched or brainwashed.
For the convenience of any alien readers (especially Gubru, Ramans, and the like), all the points made come in sets of three.
cannedlanguages, which you can upload into the UT or your own brain. Note the social implications if you can learn Xemahoa on a whim, Gothic as a fashion statement, or Nonesuch to baffle eavesdroppers. Just be careful with black-market language tapes; don't buy any that claim to be
handshakingcomputers that swap lexicons on contact (do you really want to give away security-risk terms such as
hypnosisto unknown aliens?), and psychic
language chamaeleonsthat can reply in any dialect they encounter (be careful not to use
royal weback to God-Emperors).
That's a dog!you can't be sure they mean
dog = Canis familiaris; it could be
dawg = barkingor
tsäd = Fido!
three levels of translationit's worth being clear about your requirements:
Literalor word-by-word translation is less useful than monoglots tend to imagine; the intelligibility of the results is proportional to the relatedness of the source-language to the target-language. This is hopeless for Syrians, let alone Sirians – if you pass that first line through an online translator a couple of times, you get:
literalor the word for the translation of the word is little use, of that monoglots if inclines to present itself.
Officialor phrase-by-phrase translation is organised by legal conventions about equivalences, and restricted to subjects with narrow, codified jargons. If you're an interplanetary lawyer or civil engineer, this might be adequate; but don't expect it to convey subtexts. Actually, unless your UT device is ridiculously good it's always wise to steer clear of fancy figures of speech, such as jokes or irony (
do I look stupid?) – be literal and tolerant of apparent threats, insults, and the like.
Psychologicalor concept-by-concept translation is the ideal, producing exactly the same effect on a speaker of the target-language as the original would on a speaker of the source-language. This objective is next to impossible for anything less expensive than a trained human-equivalent brain. When you're talking about your family life to a Sontaran warrior-clone, syntax, idiom, and social background knowledge blur into one another as things that need to be translated; so how much are you willing to pay for? A
Pat owns an orange peltwith
Pat has red hair; better models can deal with slang, xenoethnological trivia, and allusions to Oolon Colluphid.
What is it? How does it work? Where is it?(to quote someone else's (ex-)rant); all that matters is that there are three broad categories of UTs, each of which has its own pros and cons.
Why was that funny?), and if there's any truth whatsoever to Whorfian Relativism, exotic languages may influence the decisions you make thinking in them! The effects of human tongues such as Hopi are arguable, but UTs capable of making you take as natural the conversational instincts of a radar-using methane-shark shaman are another thing entirely.
language of thoughtfor the Psi-Dubbing to work in (a very Chomskyan thing to imagine). Unfortunately, if it works it may outflank all efforts at diplomacy – at any rate, it sounds like a monstrous breach of privacy – and it requires improbable technology such as psionics or neurotelemetry. Farscape's playful suggestion of
translator microbesis about the most plausible version I've heard of!
expert systemtranslators, with robot bodies. Audio-only
Pocket UTswouldn't be able to handle situations as simple as a trip to a Spanish grocer's: the correct rendering of
I'll have that one!depends on whether it's nearby and feminine (¡ ésa !), distant and masculine (¡ aquél !), or whatever. The body needn't be humanoid, but any decent Machine Translator would have to be such a flexible and intelligent AI that it deserves civil rights (I pity C‑3PO, kept as a slave translator for biochauvinist rebels in a society where everything understands English anyway). Nonetheless, you may have to slow down to allow your interpreter to keep up – a good one may start translating your sentences
incrementallybefore you finish, but anything approaching a
simultaneoustranslation takes an awful lot of processing power. So if your UTAI starts speaking at the same moment as you do, shut up and let it do the talking.
he contracted blue fever from a jabberwock bite). More problematic are partial matches: we say
cousin (parent's sibling's child), they say
cousin (relation of the same moiety and age-grade); they say
water (dihydrogen monoxide), we say
water (salt or fresh, but always liquid). The classic example of this problem is the inventory of basic colour-terms: Russian discriminates between
dark blue, while Hanunóo uses a single term to cover the entire green/blue end of the spectrum. And as for Jovians…
you. Then when you in reply address the Betelgeusian as
youthe UT has to somehow come up with the extra details the alien agreement system involves. This kind of routine trimming and padding takes a good deal of creative fudging – especially if there's a risk the Betelgeusian might later turn out to have intended you to pay attention to some of the discarded
trivialdetails. The UT could play safe and insist on conveying every last ambiguity and nuance explicitly, but this is excruciatingly difficult, not to mention distracting (exercise: try paraphrasing the precise differences between
he ate the biscuitand
she has eaten a cookie).
conversational maxims. They shouldn't say things that are either uninformative or self-evident; that are inaccurate; that are irrelevant; or that are either otiose or ambiguous. Of course, people aren't always apposite, reliable, etc., but the interesting point is that infractions are often themselves communicative: if I say something blatantly inappropriate, it usually means there's a subtext to be found. The trouble is, aliens are likely to have different conventions about such things, and inhuman intuitions about what needs to be pointed out (
You're very tall…), what level of hyperbole is acceptable (
Nobody ever comes this way), what's relevant (
Are you hungry?–
It's daytime!), and what's concise (Ents and Vorlons never get along).
Is that and/or or either/or?,
You realise that's not answering the question?), but it's the best way of dealing with errors when they do occur. Internalised UT systems don't pose these problems, but external ones make great scapegoats…
spoo) or recast everything patronisingly into familiar analogies (
apple pie)? And what style of analogy does it use – does 144 baph-ʾl-ghab equate to
a hundred leagues? Does gobl-digûk become
several of your Earth years? Or does the UT just convert everything into Galactic Standard hexadecimal Planck units?
You may or may not be surprised to learn that some extremely serious attempts have been made to specify in detail the best ways of opening up communications with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, either in radio broadcasts or on the White House lawn. To start with the classic example:
And here are some other TEFLETI projects:
Personally, I say if they can't be bothered to work out in
advance how to say
Take me to your leader then they can't
be trusted to drive unlicenced starships around in our
atmosphere… Blast them out of the sky before
somebody gets hurt!