The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #8 March / April 2014
Speaking with Aliens
March / April 2014 | 

We study languages so as to communicate with other people, but what about other species? What happens we we go beyond our planet? How do we communicate then? Here we look at some of the linguists and translation devices of science fiction.

Entertainment media which deals with people from other countries often has the problem of different languages. We've all seen movies like "The Hunt for Red October" which has an entire Russian submarine crew as the main object of the story. While it would make sense that the crew would all speak Russian throughout the movie, that would mean that much of the film requires subtitles. Sadly, movies with extensive subtitles are often shunned by the general population, so an excuse has to be made, or we are expected to just "suspend our belief" as the Russians all speak English to each other with proper American accents (except for the captain, of course, who is played by British actor Sean Connery).

In the science fiction genre, this can get even worse, since often completely different alien species are involved. Even if we pretend they are really speaking their own language while talking to each other, there has to be a way to show how Earthlings speaking English can understand beings from other worlds.

So writers come up with ways to at least attempt to ease this confusion without having to create new languages all the time for new races, using subtitles, and having long scenes explaining how the two races learn to communicate. In a few series, they include linguists which can then quickly learn the new language and interpret for the rest of the people. In others, they include a device that does all the work for us, and we just ignore that there is any problem in communications at all.

Of course, we still sometimes laugh when we realize that all aliens somehow speak modern English, using slang and accents which match the homeland of the series.

In this article, I look at a few of the linguists of science fiction as well as some of the devices employed to explain away any language barriers.

Stargate: SG-1

In the American TV series, Stargate: SG-1, we find our first linguist. The series is based around an ancient artifact called a "Stargate" which allows people to travel from one planet to another, thousands of light-years away.

Daniel Jackson of Stargate, examining a book.

The Stargate is a circle of metal, over 6 meters (18 feet) in diameter with a moving inner ring and special symbols, representing star constellations, around the edges. When given a series of seven symbols, which together provide a set of coordinates to determine a course, a wormhole is opened from the first gate to another one. Once a person steps through, they are instantly transported to another planet, where they emerge from the Stargate.

The series follows the adventures of the main group, SG-1. The series was based upon the movie "Stargate", which told the story of how the purpose of the artifact was determined and what happens when it is first used. Daniel Jackson is an archaeologist, Egyptologist, and linguist who is brought in to decode the writings accompanying the Stargate when it was uncovered in Giza, Egypt, in 1928. He is the one that works out that the symbols are star constellations and when he identifies the seventh symbol (which represents the home galaxy and vital in charting a course), they show him the Stargate. They "dial" up another gate and send through a group of soldiers, along with Jackson, to explore. Jackson is required because he is the only one that can find the right symbol combination to get the group back home to Earth.

Once they reach the other side, Jackson finds no writings, leaving everyone in despair. They do find a large, primitive city full of people speaking an unknown language. Through the course of the movie, Jackson figures out that the language is ancient Egyptian, and that he didn't recognize it because he had assumed a different method of pronunciation.

Jackson also manages to find the writings he needs and figures out how to get everyone home, but not before they destroy an alien who has enslaved the people by pretending to be the Egyptian god, Ra.

They are all meant to supposedly remove the need for learning another language, but in reality, they are in place to make it easier on the show writers.

In the TV series, the excuse for most of the planets they explore having English speakers is because long ago, the people from these planets were from Earth and were scattered to other planets via the Stargates. Of course, that would make them human, but not all speaking modern English. The Stargates themselves compose a huge network, originally put in place by a very old alien race, referred to only as "the Ancients". The Ancients have left the galaxy long ago, and the Stargate system was taken over by more of the aliens, called Goa'uld, which are actually small snake-like creatures that live inside human bodies as parasites, taking full control.

Daniel Jackson is utilised to translate any languages that they can't identify. He first has to learn the language of the Jaffa, the soldiers of the Goa'uld.

The Goa'uld language is sometimes described as a constructed language used in the series, much like Klingon was created for Star Trek, although most of it is simply made up randomly for a script. There exists word and phrase lists taken from the series, but there is not a true vocabulary or grammar for it.

The series ran for ten years on American television and made Daniel Jackson perhaps the most known linguists in a science fiction series.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Hoshi Sato, on board the Enterprise.

Arguably the most popular science fiction series in the world is Star Trek. It is actually a combination of several series, all placed within the same universe. The first series aired in 1966, and is now referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series, or in shorthand as "ST:TOS".

This American series follows the adventures of a crew of explorers in the 23rd century aboard the starship USS Enterprise, which is the flagship for Starfleet, a deep-space exploratory and military service under the United Federation of Planets. It typically had the problem of having most aliens speaking English, and since these were supposed to also not be related to humans, they needed to come up with a way to explain how the crew didn't have a problem conversing with the alien races they encountered. So, the Universal Translator was used as an excuse. But before that, there was Ensign Hoshi Sato.

The final TV series, Star Trek: Enterprise, is actually a prequel to all the others, meant to show how humans first developed interstellar space flight and how many of the future inventions were first created. Since they were first time exploring and meeting aliens, there was no way to communicate with them. A linguist is required. Ensign Hoshi Sato is an Asian American linguist and the communications officer on the ship Enterprise. She speaks over 40 languages and taught linguistics in Brazil before joining the crew. It his her job to figure out the languages of new alien species the crew of the Enterprise encounter during their travels and communicate with them.

Sato was a major figure behind creating the Universal Translator, so that other crews and future ships would be able to converse easily with any species they encountered, not needing to first learn the language. In a way, she essentially ends the career of all linguists and polyglots, making learning languages an extinct pursuit in the future.

Babylon 5: Crusade

Babylon 5, another American TV series, is about a space station in the year 2258 which acts as a diplomatic outpost and port-of-call for various alien races. Diplomats from various alien worlds live there to help maintain peace between the planets. However, wars do happen, and the major one is between two ancient races, the Vorlons and the Shadows. After the war, some of the allies of the Shadows retaliate against the Earth and release a plague which will kill everyone on the planet in 5 years.

This is where the spin-off series Crusade begins. Earth is quarantined, and an exploratory ship, the largest Earth vessel ever, called the Excalibur, is tasked with searching the galaxy for a cure.

The crew of the Excalibur from Crusade. Max Eilerson is second from the left.

The Babylon universe has no kind of universal translator, and a few languages are used during the show, but since most of the main characters are diplomats, they have learned English. Some aliens have personal translator devices to convert what they say into English.

Without such a device, and not knowing who they might encounter during the travels, the captain of the Excalibur, Matthew Gideon brings on a linguist and archaeologist, Max Eilerson.

Eilerson works for Interplanetary Expeditions, a large organization which deals with artifacts from other worlds. He was a child prodigy with a natural gift for understanding alien languages, a fact which he never hesitates to boast about. Eilerson is normally arrogant, greedy and sarcastic, making him a direct contrast to both Daniel Jackson and Hoshi Sato, who are normally humble and a bit shy.

During his time with the crew of the Excalibur, Eilerson worked not only to interpret the languages of some living aliens but also to translate writings, ancient and current, of aliens. His skills even alert the crew to a parasitic life force when he identifies that the aliens they have infected are using two different languages: one of the hosts and one of the parasites.

Among the three linguists in this article, he is probably the least known, since Crusade didn't even last one season before being cancelled and was only aired once.

12All pages
Speaking with Aliens
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Tardis
• "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Douglas Adams; London 1979
• This website \ magazine is not endorsed, sponsored or affiliated with any of these companies:
• The STAR TREK and ENTERPRISE trademarks, images and logos are owned by CBS Studios Inc.
• The STARGATE and STARGATE:SG-1 trademarks, images and logos are owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios
• The BABYLON 5 and CRUSADE trademarks, images and logos are owned by Warner Bros. Television
• The DOCTOR WHO trademarks, images and logos are owned by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
• The FARSCAPE trademarks, images and logos are owned by Jim Henson Productions and Nine Film & Television Pty. Ltd.
• The HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY image is owned by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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