A. Walker Scott

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Alien Languages, part 1

Posted on January 17, 2018 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Alien languages have shown up in sci-fi for a very long time. The 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, includes the famous line Klaatu barada nikto, which has become a part of popular culture. Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya, Black Speech, Dothraki...sci-fi and fantasy movies, TV and books abound with brief examples, or sometimes just hints about, alien or non-human languages.

Tolkien's languages are not, technically, alien languages, since they are spoken by non-human denizens of Earth. But elves, dwarves and orcs are not human, so they kind of fit here. And for the last 60 years, they have continued to be the most visible of conlangs. Though more people are said to speak Esperanto, I have no doubt that far more people know of Sindarin and Quenya, though maybe only as "Elvish." After all, more than 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings having sold, and millions more, world wide, have seen the films.

Many of the languages in fiction are the merest sketches of languages, not even worthy of an appendix, or a glossary. Some reach that level, but no more. A few, here and there, support elaborate appendices, or even the publication of dictionaries and grammars for those who want to dig in and learn more. 

And then there is Esperanto. This one is a special case, indeed. Esperanto started out as (and still is) what's called an international auxillary language (or auxlang), a language intended for use by real-world men and women in real-world communication across language barriers. Esperanto has beeen used in science fiction, for a very long time, as a language used in Earth of the future to hint that we are in a world that has a single government and one language for international use. It appears in Babylon 5 as one of the languages heard on the PA system announcing arrivals and departures, etc. It's used much the same way in Gattaca, voices on the PA system. In Blade: Trinity, all the signage is bilingual in English and Esperanto, and an Esperanto movie is on TV in one scene. Red Dwarf used Esperanto on all bilingual sings in its early seasons, declaring it the international language of the future. Harry Harrison, in his Stainless Steel Rat, and Philip José Farmer, in his Riverworld, both present Esperanto as the language of the future and occasionally present Esperanto in dialog. In all of these cases, Esperanto is depicted, in story, as a human language, perhaps even as a natural language, but there are other uses to which Esperanto has been put.

In the Nickelodion cartoon Danny Phantom, one of the ghosts, Wulf, speaks in grammatically incorrect Esperanto. So here we have a supernatural character speaking Esperanto. Superman/Batman: Apocolypse takes it even further. This film uses a pastiche of Esperanto and gibberish as a standin for actually making a Kryptonian language, so here Esperanto is presented as an alien language. This use is less than ideal, but it is something that has happened in speculative fiction.

I'll come back to this topic later, and look at other kinds of "alien" languages in speculative fiction.