The LANGUAGE PROBLEM

by PHILIP BARKER

Languages of the future have always been a hurdle for science-fiction authors to conquer. Readers just will not wait six months while the hero or the lovable old Doctor sits down and patiently learns all the difficult phonetics and grammar of an alien language. The story must move on, and, for best results, it must move fast. Frequently the characters encounter a good many alien races in their travels, each speaking a completely different tongue and having different reference points for all their concepts.

In order to evade this long, slow process of learning all of these peculiar dialects, authors have resorted to innumerable devices that simplify the language problem and allow the action to continue. The commonest of these evasions is telepathy. Either the aliens or the Earthmen are telepathic. Or else one of the two groups has a machine that permits thoughts to flow freely back and forth. However telepathy presents certain difficulties in itself. For one thing, it might not be to an Earthman's advantage if his mind could be read at will. It would expose all the plots and intrigues that frequently cross our minds. Psychiatrists say that we really would not be such nice people if our thoughts could be read. Ideas of brutal murder, sex, petty hatred, revulsion and other unpleasant thoughts cross our minds at all times without our being too aware of them. For such thoughts to reach an alien race, not knowing anything about us, would be disastrous for good relations.

Beamed thoughts, too, would have their difficulties. Go ahead, think of a house. Here sits an alien, his mind receptive to your thoughts. All you have to do is ask for shelter. Of course, his reference points are completely different. A house to him is a thing with purple spires and pink doorposts. Or maybe he is based on a metabolism different from yours, and feels quite comfortable in the midst of icy cold or glaring heat. Perhaps he is in symbiosis with another living organism that provides shelter for him in return for food. His shelter might do you more harm than good. He would completely misunderstand your mentle picture of a simple, Earthly house with gabled roof and glass windows.

Now ask for food .... !

Or perhaps our struggling author had better use another means -- say a spatial lingua franca. Once upon a far off time, another mighty empire conquered space and left behind a lot of ancient ruins and a linguistic stock that persevered through the centuries so that our hero, Martin Kragg, could speak to the Antarians over by Sagittarius. Of course, Martin may have trouble pronouncing the language. If it has consonants anything like some of the widely differing ones on Earth, Martin had better go home. The Hindus have a whole set of consonants which are pronounced with the tongue turned back and touching the roof of the mouth. Try to say "T" with the very tip of your tongue touching your hard palate. The Arabs, too, have their share of difficult sounds not appearing in English. They have a cerebral "S", pronounced with the tongue just touching the back of the upper teeth. The Chinese have an "SZ" sound, appearing in words like Szechuan, szu, etc., which can only be learned by practice. And the Bushmen of Africa use a whole set of clicks, made by drawing in the breath and touching the tongue to the teeth, hard palate, or the lips! Now imagine sounds produced by extra-terrestrial mouths!

All right, all right, our author introduces an intermediate being, one who can pronounce both English and Antarian lingua franca. This critter, coincidentally enough, is friendly to our hero. There, that should solve the mess. But does it? Our new character should be able to get around the difficulties in grammar and semantics that impede the communication. Grammar is a real problem. Some terrestrial tongues are almost impossible to learn without long experience. Chinese, Egyptian hieroglyphic, etc. have certain grammatical nuances that indicate mood, accent, or even tense; and these nuances can only be learned with difficulty, even for professional linguists. Chinese, for instance, lacks any past, present or future tenses. Past tense is expressed by certain particles added to the verb. In some cases these particles express accent on the thought, and in other places they do not even express past tense. In hieroglyphic, many things necessary to English are left out. Verbs are not expressed in some places, subjects are unexpressed in others. In many languages there is no definite article (Hindi, Egyptian, Chinese) and some tongues even lack a means of making the plural (Chinese pluralizes only the personal pronouns). So our interpreter would have to be very intelligent, and a great student of languages. The hero of the tale would have lots of time to grow old before the friendly interpreter struggled thru the intricacies of our own English language. Perhaps we'd better make the interpreter our hero and save the bother.

Another nice way of solving the problem would have the future world entirely Americanized and neatly packaged into humanoid cultures who all spoke perfect English. That not only solves the problem; but destroys the thrill of adventure among alien races. It still might be interesting, but not near as adventurous. Furthermore, our own English is changing so rapidly that we can understand such writers as Chaucer only with great trouble. Now let another four or five hundred years pass, and see what the language sounds like.

One appalling possibility that seems repugnant to our minds is that our own Anglo-American culture may not survive as the dominant civilization in the future. This may well be something to think on; for every large nation in the world has risen, had its period of superiority, and finally has decayed and fallen. And every single one of those fallen empires went down to dust with the cry, "We will live forever!" That is not to say that our culture will fall; but the probability is there. At any rate, our futuristic heroes or time travelers may well find that the future nations are using Tibetan as the scientific language of the world, while English is a tongue only found in ancient tomes.

Realism and authenticity in a story are necessary to make it convincing to the readers. For the more scientific pulp magazines a complete plausible explanation must accompany every new concept. Thus, our suffering author is driven to but one conclusion.

With trembling fingers he typed the following:

"By some curious coincidence, Martin could understand them!"


Data entry by Judy Bemis

Updated May 16, 2001. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.