The Alien F-Word, and other twists of science-fictional linguistics

(Note: In this post, I mention several alien words from episodes of science fiction programs. The shows in question do not always display these words onscreen in written form. Therefore, I may not have spelled all of them in the way the scriptwriters intended. However, since the aliens who supposedly made up the words did not even use the same alphabet I use, my spellings cannot be said to be “incorrect.” So bear with me.)

The science-fiction show “Farscape” is not one of the most well-known shows out there, but it has one detail that is familiar to a wide circle of sci-fi fans, even those who have not seen any episodes of it.

That is, of course, the curse word “frell.”

In the far corner of the universe where astronaut John Crichton finds himself, this word is used by aliens of all species. “Translator microbes” native to this area make most speech understandable to Crichton, but not certain words. These untranslatables include measures of time, like “arn” and “microt,” and measures of distance, like “metra,” but also swear words, like “frell.”

Which is strange, since “frell” appears to be an exact synonym of the F-word in English. It can be used as an interjection (“Oh, frell!”) and as a verb meaning “to copulate with” (“You frelled her?”). It is used in the phrases “Frell you!” (a generic insult), “We’re frelled” (we’re in big trouble), and “Don’t frell it up” (don’t make a mistake). It acts as an otherwise meaningless expression of anger or shock, in phrases like “What the frell are you doing?” and “That’s frelling stupid.”

I cannot think of a single use of “frell” in all of Farscape where our own F-word could not have been substituted. That already strains my suspension of disbelief– just to suggest that any alien language (let alone all of them!) would have a swear word so close in meaning to ours. But even if they did, then by all logic, the translator microbes should have rendered it as its closest– really, identical– English equivalent.

Of course, to keep Farscape an acceptable TV show, they couldn’t. But they could have found ways around it. They could have made the usage of “frell” so different from the usage of any English curse that the microbes could reasonably consider it untranslatable. They could have had different alien species use different untranslatable curses, which would have made perfect sense, since their words are presumably being translated from different languages.

And for that matter, make different species use different units of measurement, too! The translator microbes offered the terms “arn” and “microt” for whatever alien measures of time were closest to an hour and a second, respectively. It’s possible that these were words they simply left untranslated. But for a unit of time close to a day, they gave the translation “solar day,” which suggested that they were trying to convert the aliens’ statements of time into terms Crichton could understand. For an approximately year-length period, they said “cycle,” which suggests a similar idea.

Unless there was an interplanetary time standard, these measures should have been different from species to species. If aliens, like humans, have one measure of time based on their planet’s rotation and another one based on their planet’s travel around their sun, then those words would indicate different amounts of time depending on the planet and star system. Any translation method with the goal of making this comprehensible to Crichton should have converted these measures into Earth days and Earth years. If it couldn’t do that, then it should have just left them untranslated, giving him different words from each alien species he spoke with, leaving him to ask the aliens for clarification on how much time they meant.

Maybe “arn,” “microt,” and whatever words were translated as “cycle” and “solar day” actually were part of an interplanetary system of time, agreed upon by all the species in this area of the universe. But that seems improbable; Crichton met groups of aliens that had gone many years with little or no contact with the surrounding planets, and they still used those words.

This is the sort of thing that always keeps me from getting fully sucked into any work of sci-fi, no matter how much I love it. Being a language geek has its downsides when it comes to appreciating fiction.

The “universal translator” in Star Trek drove me crazy. Okay, I’ll buy the idea of a machine that can learn to translate languages through exposure to them. It would have to be exposed to a lot of words, in context, along with visual or other physical cues, before it could reliably translate a language. And it wouldn’t be able to translate a word it had never heard before, unless there was significant contextual and etymological evidence to suggest a likely meaning for the word.

But a machine that can voice-over the entire first conversation of your first contact with an alien species, right from the first word? Forget it. It’s like the science-fiction and crime-drama trope of “enhancing” a blurry photograph. You can use technology to gather all manner of information, but not from a place where that information isn’t there to begin with.

It’s been suggested that the universal translator actually reads brain activity to figure out languages. But that presupposes that all, or nearly all, intelligent species in the Star Trek universe have brains similar enough that the same brainwave-reading equipment would work on them. It’s bad enough that they all look similar enough to be played by human actors, but near-identical brain structure as well? No way! Not when they’ve canonically got different internal organs everywhere else. It’s as unrealistic as the Vulcan mind-meld working on every species. As far as I remember, Picard’s Enterprise only encountered two species on whom the translator did not immediately work. That is too high a success rate.

And you may recall that one of those species was met in the episode “Darmok and Jalad.” These aliens communicated only through historical and/or literary references, used as metaphors for all the day-to-day situations they encountered. For example, when they were met with a situation of failure, they said, “Shaka, when the walls fell.” To express the idea of realization, they said “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Picard spends most of the episode trying to figure out what they mean by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The thing is, if a species really did communicate this way, their speech would have to have evolved (devolved?) from a more typical language. If you say “Shaka, when the walls fell” to indicate failure, that quotation must have originated in a time when words like “walls” and “fell” actually had individual meanings of their own.

If words no longer have individual meanings, and exist only as parts of metaphorical phrases, then modern people who speak that language have no way of reading the stories from which the metaphors came. So when they use the reference “Shaka, when the walls fell,” they can’t actually have the image of Shaka’s falling walls in their minds. To them, that series of syllables means nothing but “failure.”

These aliens’ culture has apparently changed until they say “Shaka, when the walls fell” when the thought in their mind is just “I’ve failed” or “We are going to fail.”  So why doesn’t the brainwave-reading universal translator render their words as an expression of the thought they’re actually having?  I mean, English speakers say the word “goodbye,” which is actually a shortened version of the phrase “God be with you,” but most of us don’t know that, and when we say that word, we’re not always thinking about God actually accompanying the person we’re saying it to. I’m pretty sure a universal translator aimed at an English speaker would not give a translation of “God be with you” for every instance of “goodbye.”

I try to spackle the plothole by assuming that this species actually had two languages: an informal language for use at home, with individual word meanings and everything, and a formal language for polite company, composed entirely of metaphors. But it’s still weird that they wouldn’t try using the informal language, when their attempts at talking to Picard in the formal language kept falling flat like Shaka’s walls.

Even in my favorite novels, this language thing can ruin pieces of the story. Charles Sheffield is wildly creative when it comes to making up aliens, but his names for them are inexplicable. A member of a species that communicated only through smell was somehow named Atvar H’sial, a sound-based name that she could obviously neither say nor hear. A team exploring an unfamiliar planet found two heretofore unknown species, which communicated through high-pitched shrieking. Upon learning to communicate with them, the language expert reported that they were called the Coromar and the Maricore. I can only assume the linguist was making that part up, because their language did not contain the sounds necessary to form those names, and there was no other species around to name them.

It’s like Spock and his mind-meld in “The Devil in the Dark.” How could that blobby creature tell him telepathically that it was called a Horta? How could it be called a Horta? Did it have a spoken language with human-pronounceable words, and did it, for some reason, just never attempt using that language with the humans? Did it have a sound-based language that wasn’t human-pronounceable, and was “Horta” just as close as Spock could get to saying its word for its species?

Or was “Horta” a translation of some word in its non-sound-based language– a language based on smells or touches or ground vibrations or electromagnetic waves? That wouldn’t make sense either. How could a non-sound-based message translate into a particular series of meaningless syllables? (My pet theory is that it’s not meaningless: perhaps the creature’s name for itself literally means “garden” or “cultivation” in its language, so Spock translated it into the root of the English word “horticulture.” But that doesn’t make much sense either; why would a subterranean rock-being associate itself with gardens?)

It’s not just the aliens who speak unrealistically in science fiction. Star Trek is set about 200 years from now, but the people use pretty much modern English. (Or rather, English that changes depending on the year of filming. In episodes of The Original Series, I catch the occasional phrase that I suspect is 1960’s slang, like when a minor character in “The Enemy Within” reports to Scotty that he has fallen down, using the words “I took a flop.”)

This is, of course, a flaw of nearly all science fiction. It’s fair to assume that people two centuries from now will be speaking something as different from present-day speech as present-day speech is from what people were speaking two centuries before now. (When I was a kid, I thought the changing of language might stop with the current generation, because we’ve gotten so good at writing things down and documenting what the correct spelling, grammar and usage is. But as I grew up, I realized our technology was speeding the changing of speech more than it was slowing it down. Centuries ago, it took newly coined words a long time to spread. Now, a new word or phrase can span the globe in a matter of days, when a few influential people use it on social media.)

Of course, I can give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt and assume that people in this future really are speaking drastically evolved languages, and it’s just being translated for the benefit of the listener (in the same way I can read a novel set in France and understand that the characters really are speaking French, even if their words show up in English on the pages).

But still, when I’m engrossed in a foreign or futuristic story, the spell can be broken for me by something as minor as a character making a bunch of puns. I have to stretch my suspenders of disbelief to imagine that all the puns work in both modern English and their language! But at least I can try and pretend that the puns they actually used were translated into somewhat similar puns in English for my benefit. It’s worse when a major plot point hinges on a character misunderstanding another’s words in a particular way; then I can’t pretend that it was just a similar thing, I have to accept that the words have that same double meaning in both my language and the characters.’

There is no perfect solution to this. Misunderstandings, and puns as well, are part of life. A story without them wouldn’t be realistic. And you pretty much have to write your dialogue in such a way that readers will understand it. Few audiences are willing to learn a new language, or even a drastically altered version of an old language, just so they can read a story.

Authors just have to do their best, and learn from their mistakes. In “Kea’s Flight,” I had the characters speak pretty much present-day English, suggesting that the natural development of language had been stunted by the control of a totalitarian government. Looking back on it now, I feel that wasn’t quite enough reason for the language to remain as unaltered as it did.

I think I did a better job with “Furnace,” my short story in the anthology “This is How You Die.” In it, I described a future so distant that our descendants have evolved not just linguistically but physically, and their concept of wordplay has been shaped by the heightened abilities of their minds and bodies. They are explicitly stated to be speaking a future language, not English, and their puns are left somewhat to the reader’s imagination:

In the Pnn-kiai language, the sentence she had just spoken was an aural palindrome: recorded and played backward, it would sound the same. Skeeiao had always been a lover of wordplay.

I’m not saying that was a perfect solution either. There are very few works of fiction that have handled this sort of thing in a way that truly impresses me. The “Ender’s Game” series tried to have young characters using an occasional future slang word, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. “1984” came up with the innovative idea of Newspeak, but, for the sake of readability, had to relegate it to the status of a work in progress, a language-in-the-making that nobody actually spoke yet.

For an example of future speech that’s different enough to be believable, but familiar enough to understand, I have to recommend the movie “Demolition Man”: a futuristic vision that’s a comedy on the surface, but has much deeper and more well-thought-out worldbuilding than most viewers realize.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.