It’s another day aboard the Enterprise, and somehow Captain Kirk and the gang stumble across a species no one has ever heard of. Hailing frequencies open, and the leader of the aliens greets them—in perfect English. The day is saved by the Universal Translator!
When I was an exchange student in Germany, I often wished I had something like the Universal Translator. I went over there confident that my three years of high school German had prepared me, only to find out the shocking depths of what I didn’t know. I sat in classes mutely staring at the teacher, or doodling on the graph paper the German kids used like Americans use white lined paper. I was bitterly lonely.
But over time, I started picking it up. I learned enough to get by. Kind people taught me, as did a week over holidays when I was left alone in a drafty castle with only a few Russian boys for company. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Russian, so the only way we could communicate was through broken German. My mind started working in the ways German grammar demands, and I grew.
I read a great post about language in fantasy by the astonishingly prolific Kameron Hurley (who is the entire internet this month, I swear) and it got me thinking about how science fiction deals with language. The universal translator is a handy tool, sure, but Trek often used it as a crutch to ignore the real differences between peoples. One of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that sticks with me is “Darmok,” where the translator can’t cope with a people who essentially speak in memes, so Picard actually has to learn how they think.
Too much science fiction paints us a future where everyone speaks the same language, like Galactic Basic or Standard or something along those lines—or employs a translation device like a Babel Fish that essentially does the same thing. This completely ignores the incredible linguistic diversity of humankind, and erases very real differences. I have trouble believing in a future where everyone speaks the same language.
In the Extrahumans series, most people speak the same language because the fascist Confederation has essentially imposed English (the Confederation is based in Australia) as the sole official language. It’s all part of the Reformists’ “All Humanity Under One Roof” policy, which I’d really like to actually include in a book someday. It’s intended to flatten out a lot of differences that they believe needlessly divide people. Speaking another language then becomes an act of defiance.
In the Grayline Sisters books, I wanted to show some of the linguistic diversity of humankind. The Graylines speak a variant of English because they grew up in Gideon, an isolated country whose language is a relic of its New Zealander and American founders. But the rest of Nea is far more diverse. Ventanan Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language because of the economic and political clout of the city of La Ventana and the country of Ventana Plains. Marta and her sisters all know a good amount of Ventanan Spanish, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function anywhere else on Nea. Novans speak hundreds of other languages, including Neustaater German (which by the time of the story is much more like a mix of Portuguese and several other South American languages with a German flavor than anything else) and the Turkish of Kütüryë that Nihal curses in.
People on Nea’s sister planet Adastre speak many languages as well, but Adastran English dominates there even more than Ventanan Spanish does on Nea. Gideon English and Adastran English are mutually intelligible, but are very different dialects. 300 years of linguistic drift have done their work.
Haven is another mix; many people there speak either Ventanan Spanish or Adastran English because Novans and Adastrans colonized Haven, but most people on Haven speak a form of Mandarin Chinese as their first language.
I really wanted to show this kind of linguistic diversity in the Grayline Sisters series, and I love it when science fiction in general takes language into account instead of papering it over. It’s just one more way we can make sure that our future worlds are as varied and interesting as our present one.