Monday, October 12, 2009

The Language Problem

If you were to meet a sentient being on another planet, it's not very likely that they would be speaking English. Even on this planet it's not the language with the most native speakers. (According to Wikipedia it comes third.)

In science fiction there are a few well-tried ways to get around this problem, most of them involving hand waving.
  1. Have some sort of universal translation device e.g. the Babel Fish

  2. Have the traveller live in the alien culture and learn the language over an extended period of time e.g. Out of the Silent Planet

  3. Have a reason why the language is like a dead earth language and take along an expert in that language e.g. Stargate

  4. Have the aliens intercept our radio and tv signals and decode them, despite the fact that they aren't even compatible worldwide e.g. The Simpsons

  5. Use maths and chemistry to start the communication. I'm not sure if you can get to war and peace like this.

  6. Ignore the problem, have everyone speak English and hope that no one notices e.g. Star Trek

I have to admit that this last one is tempting although I find it unsatisfying.

If you were writing about someone meeting a totally new group of sentient beings, how would you get them to communicate?

21 COMMENTS:

Adam Heine said...

For me, I'd have to figure out the backstory first. If I were going for a first contact sort of thing, I'd probably go with #2 or (if far enough in the future) some combination of #'s 1, 3, and 4.

But I've never tried aliens, so I don't know for sure. Oh! Telepathy would also be a possibility.

And I thought Star Trek had a universal translator? I don't know about the original series, but I'm pretty sure they referenced that in NextGen at some point.

Bevie said...

The universal translator was part of the original series. What the shows (both original and next generation and spin-offs) never accounted for was the delay, nor the problems when crew and ship were separated from each other.

Basically, even though there was a universal translator the Star Trek series all did #6.

If one is to be realistic then #2 is really the best way to go. The other solutions require an extended suspension of disbelief.

NOTE: Have you ever tried to construct a language? I have. Very, very complex. I'm still working on mine. Off and on.

MattDel said...

My hand-waving thing is to have one person understand the language and translate, if needed story-wise, for the rest of the characters.

I considered building my own language for a fantasy MS, but then discovered I was too lazy to put in the effort. My shortcut is translate the phrase I need into the actual language and then make anagrams of the translated words. It's quick and dirty, but it works.

Richard N said...

Just speak American English.

Even if you think you're the first contact, just find your way to their equivalent to a canteen, and you'll almost certainly find a Coca-Cola machine standing in the corner... their sales reps will have been there first.

I'm only half joking... it was not unknown for missionaries (as late as the 1970s) to find 'lost' tribes in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, only to discover them drinking Coke... we had one of them telling about it in the Church when I was a child - it tickled me then and it still tickles me now. :-)

Sarah Laurenson said...

Language is very difficult when there are no dictionaries or phrase books. There are languages here - like the click languages - that I would not even know where to begin.

It was actually an episode of Star Trek: NG that pointed out this issue. Picard held a glass cup of earl grey tea (his fave) and said some made up word. He asked whoever was sitting with him to guess the meaning. Then he proceeded to say he could mean drink, cup, hot, tea, liquid, container, etc.

And we use body language, facial expressions, tone, to convey different meanings as well.

Whew! I'll go with #6.

JaneyV said...

Yes Star Trek's universal translator always felt like a con to me too. Just speak in your normal language and the computer does the rest.

I think that Farscape's answer was the best. When Cricton first boarded Moya they injected him with nanobots. These essentially did the translating for him. So whatever language was spoken - he heard English. Initially we saw him confused and not understanding and after a short while words and phrases broke through as the nanobots began to understand his language - vocabulary, grammar, syntax etc - and became more adept at translating. We saw the technology learning.

I loved Farscape.

fairyhedgehog said...

Adam, I'm being unfair to Star Trek then. I really thought they'd just ignored the problem completely.

Bevie, I've never tried to construct a language. I really ought to codify my colour/gesture language for my alien race but I haven't done that.

Hi Matt! I'm not sure what actual language you translate into before making anagrams. It sounds complicated.

Richard, that's very funny. It's almost true of Star Trek: in theory they might "go where no man has gone before" but in practice someone had usually beaten them to it.

Sarah, those are just some of the difficulties, aren't they? I can't help thinking about the Rosetta stone. Even if you have live subjects to interact with, it's just not straightforward.

Jane, I didn't know that about Farscape. I do wonder how the nanobots did it though. Maybe they were programmed but that wouldn't work for an unknown language.

The.Effing.Librarian said...

It's fiction, so make up whatever you want. Take a pill; jam a chip in your head; suspend time and learn the language; communicate through farts. The decisions you make are part of your skills as a writer. Understanding or not understanding the language is either essential to the plot or not. Again, it's your world. I would have someone just say, "what the fuck" over and over until he/she solved whatever the plot required and went home.

fairyhedgehog said...

Effing, that's true up to a point. The trick is to come up with something that will pull your readers along with you and not jolt them out of the story.

Scarlet-Blue said...

off topic [or maybe on topic?]...give them chocolate, it's a universal language.
Thank you so much for the card and chocolate, it was a really lovely surprise. I have also sent an email.
Sx

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm glad you got it, Scarlet :)

I'm afraid your email must have got eaten by my spam filter. I've added you to trusted senders now.

Kevin Musgrove said...

The almost-universal translator in the Gernsback era of Science Fiction was "mental telepathy." I always wondered what other type was available then got paranoid about various parts of my body talking to each other...

fairyhedgehog said...

I wonder what they'd say!

Kevin Musgrove said...

I shudder to think!

pjd said...

There are three other possibilities that I think you missed, though two of them really are corollary to what you've already got.

5.a) Music. e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

6.a) Create a separate universal language (the "common tongue") and assume everyone knows it. For some reason, people seem more willing to believe this than universal English, even if the "common tongue" manifests as English for the reader/viewer.

And #7, the one most likely to be used by Humans when they meet an alien species: bombs.

fairyhedgehog said...

Kevin, it might make an interesting story.

Pjd, I'd forgotten about the "common tongue". As handwaving goes, that works quite well.

Robin S. said...

I like the common tongue idea.

But, I used to love watching Star Trek, and I never cared why or how they could speak to one another, moving planet to planet. In other words, the univeral translator might have seemed gimmicky if I was paying attention, but I mentally skipped that part, and enjoyed the story.

Sarah Laurenson said...

You could just do what we Americans do - talk slow and loud as if the other person is deaf and stupid for not speaking English.

pjd said...

Sarah, that's right. Then, if talking slow and loud does not work, it's frequently helpful to affect a fake local accent as well, or perhaps stick useless vowels onto the end of words. Even better, combine the two: "Vare iz zee hotel-o?"

fairyhedgehog said...

Robin, maybe a good story trumps all?

Sarah, not just Americans!

pjd, Pratchett takes this off beautifully in Witches Abroad.

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi Brian,

Welcome to my blog! I'm interested to meet an Esperanto speaker but I always remove first comments that advertise a website and don't add to the discussion - in this case the difficulties in understanding extraterrestrials.

I hope you'll pop by again and join in the discussion.

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