Author: Nils Hjortnaes

Universally Translating in Space

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The anatomy of a Babel fish

In other words, the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy translates the subconscious of the speaker into language the listener understands. It’s just one example of a universal translator in science fiction, where they’re often used by writers to get around the languages and dialect part of world building, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Unlike a mysterious box, device, or computer program, such as those used in Star Trek or Men in Black, which translates from speech to speech, the Babel fish doesn’t try to be realistic by today’s standards and thereby avoids many of the problems that make real time translators so difficult, if not impossible.

It didn’t take long after computers came into existence that researchers began trying to use them for machine translation. “This will be easy!”, they thought, conceptualizing simple word to word translation systems, and not realizing the maze of a problem they were getting themselves into. We have made a lot of progress in the decades since then, and some machine translators, such as google’s, can produce some passable translations between certain languages. (To the students reading this, they still won’t trick your language teacher, so don’t try.) Even so, there is a long way to go between where we are and universal translators, especially real time ones. Besides the typical major problems in MT such as idioms, word order, sparsity of data, and dealing with morphology in general, real time translators will have to process information they don’t have yet. Differences in sentence structure and word order between languages mean that a delay in speech to speech translation is inevitable, which makes realistic translators in movies/tv feel a bit too clunky.

This is why I’m such a fan of the Babel fish, and the Tardis’ translation matrix from Doctor Who for that matter, which also uses a type of telepathic field. They get around a lot of the issues we run into in MT simply by taking advantage of worldbuilding. Does it take some suspension of disbelief to accept a telepathic fish you stick in your ear which excretes translated speech? Sure, but it fits right in with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s universe and style, and instead of being just close enough to the truth to be irritating, it’s just crazy enough to think, hey, that just might work!

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Sociolinguistics in Space: Firefly

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s time for more Linguistics in pop culture! Today I’ll be talking a bit about the show Firefly and the language used in it. Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, when humanity has colonized another star system with hundreds of planets and moons, many terraformed for human habitation. The show follows a mixed crew from several walks of life in a small smuggling ship as they take whatever jobs they can get to keep flying. It’s a fantastic, unique blend of western and sci-fi which does a great job of focusing on the characters and world instead of just being another flashy fight scene riddled action show. If you like flashy fight scenes, don’t worry, it does have them. Firefly is a beloved cult classic for sci-fi enthusiasts and it is well worth your time (and your linguistic interest!)

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The crew of the firefly class ship Serenity

Spoiler Alert: While I won’t be talking about main plot points, there will be some spoilers

 

There are a couple linguistic things I want to talk about in Firefly. First up is the use of Mandarin Chinese in the show. Over the course of the series we often see the characters using Chinese to swear or insult others. While these are the most common uses, others do come up, such as pet names or terms of endearment. In the context of this airing on TV, it’s pretty obvious that Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, used this as a way to get around censorship. Other nonsense words, such as gorram, were also added for the same purpose. Within the universe, however, there is a bit more to dig into. Firefly establishes that the two superpowers which sent colony ships to the new star system from “Earth that was” were the US and China. In addition, most people are bilingual in English and Chinese as a consequence, though everyone still use English the vast majority of the time on the planets visited in the show.

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Jayne with his favorite hat

What I find really interesting about this setting is how Whedon actually pays some attention to the impacts culture and history have on language. It is, of course, too much to expect that a show emulates 500 years of language change in its speech, especially considering that it would be almost unintelligible by that point anyway. But I appreciate that Firefly does more than just have a bunch of sci-fi sounding tool names and phrases. The inclusion of small Chinese phrases, whether insults, swears, or pet names, indicates thought given to the linguistic aspect of the universe beyond giving another species their own language.

 

The other major aspect of the language in Firefly I want to talk about is the dialectical difference between Core world speakers and border planet and Rim speakers. People from the Core world tend to speak very grammatically and formally. Dr. Simon Tam, Inara, and Shepherd Book are good examples of this, all being raised on Core worlds. Inara, being born on a primarily Chinese planet, would be a second language speaker of English, but taught by other Core world speakers. Speakers from the Rim and the border planets, however, use a stigmatized dialect similar to that of stereotypical American Frontier speech. The entire culture of the frontier worlds is based on the wild west, and this less formal dialect is where Chinese and slang terms for spaceflight invented for the show tend to be used. Some notable features of this dialect are -ly dropping, g dropping, double negatives, and ain’t. Several examples taken from the show can be found here

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Kaylee, the mechanic: “Machines just got workings, and they talk to me.”

While the costuming and set design make a very clear distinction between the richer Core worlds and the poorer border planets, the differences in language add a lot of authenticity to the universe. Dialectical differences are used all the time to make judgments about people, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the addition of the elaborate dialects, phrases, and jargon to Firefly enabled us to relate to and understand the characters much better. It was, in my opinion, an absolutely crucial element of world building. Were everyone speaking the same dialect, the characters would have felt much more flat and uninteresting. Anecdotally, Firefly serves as a great example of how important linguistics is to the development of a show which cannot be left out, especially in sci-fi or fantasy worlds.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings on one of my favorite shows. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, despite it having been cut far too short by Fox.

The LINGUIST List staff is passionate about investigating the ways that linguistics interacts with human culture and media. We rely on funding from readers like you to continue hosting a wide range of academic tools and resources useful to linguists like you. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive to support not only the continuation of these resources, but also the students who maintain them, and the mission of the global linguistics community.

Thanks once again!

Nils Hjortnaes

Featured Staff: Meet Nils Hjortnaes

Dear LINGUIST List subscribers,

Nils Hjortnaes, LINGUIST List programmer

My name is Nils Hjortnaes and I’m a web developer here at LINGUIST List. I’m currently working on the new website fixing any issues that may come up, making it as user friendly as possible, and getting everything running smoothly and cleanly with all the functionality of our old website. If you’re curious how much progress we’ve made, you can check the new site out here.

I am currently an M.A. student in Computational Linguistics here at Indiana University, and I am extremely fortunate to have a job at Linguist List which can support me while I continue down this road to finish my Master’s and into a PhD. It is an honor to be able to support the community through such an important resource as the LINGUIST List.

When I first started my graduate program here, I thought the LINGUIST List was just a site to find jobs and conferences. I have since learned that it does so much more, hosting blogs, forums, various resources, and bringing the linguistic community together, among other things. All of this, including updating the website to be easier, faster, and more friendly to use, is only possible through your donations.

Through your support, we are able to continue hosting and providing so many resources to the linguistic community, as well as support students such as myself who are the backbone of maintaining, improving, and running these valuable resources. We therefore ask that you consider supporting us and the entire community by donating to our fund drive.

From all of us here at the LINGUIST List, thank you very much!

Best,
Nils Hjortnaes
Web Developer