One Thing That Sci-fi Writers Can Easily Get Wrong….

2014 Artwork Sci-fi languages sketch

Although I’m terrible at learning other languages (I understand some French, a small amount of German, a few random words in various other languages, how to use online translation sites and that’s about it) and even the technical details of grammar leave me somewhere between bored and mystified, I occasionally become fascinated by languages. The only exception to this is probably programming languages for some weird reason.

Don’t ask me why, but a couple of weeks ago, I briefly became fascinated by the Icelandic language for some reason and I ended up reading lots of articles about it on Wikipedia.

First of all, I now know how to pronounce two cool-looking Icelandic letters that aren’t in the modern Latin alphabet ( “þ” and “ð” – pronounced “th” and “eth”. Plus, apparently, both of these letters also used to be used in English quite a few centuries ago too.)

I also love the fact that Icelandic has a similar linguistic origin to English, which means that there are a few words that sound surprisingly similar in both languages and the sentence structures in both languages are apparently similar.

However, Icelandic apparently doesn’t really have all of the various French, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Indian etc.. words that are also part of the English language.

Plus, the structure of Icelandic names is really interesting, since Icleandic surnames consist of their father’s (or, occasionally, their mother’s) first name with “son” or “dóttir” (daughter) added to the end of it.

I’m probably not going to visit Iceland (since I’m not really interested in travelling at the moment) and, when I heard spoken examples of Icelandic on Youtube, it sounded completely different to what I expected it to sound like (although I learnt that “hi” is spelt “hæ” in Icelandic- which sounds about ten times cooler).

But, nonetheless, I was absolutely fascinated by the history and structure of this language.

I suppose, as someone who writes every day (unfortunately just non-fiction at the moment) and as someone who enjoys stories about interesting places, language is a big part of my life. In fact, like the air around us, languages are a big part of everyone’s lives. Not only that, languages almost all have fascinating histories too.

Despite William Burroughs’ cynical idea that language is a virus of some kind, it’s a virus that has turned us into the most sophisticated and intelligent organism in the world. Without languages, we probably wouldn’t be able to think or communicate in any complex or deeply meaningful way. Still, the fact that there are literally hundreds of different languages on the same planet absolutely fascinates me.

You see, I’m a sci-fi fan and the one thing that has always puzzled me in many of the sci-fi shows I’ve seen on TV (and in some sci-fi novels that I’ve read) is the fact that, whenever the main characters visit another planet, everyone who lives there almost always speaks the same language.

Even if, for the sake of convenience, this language is either subtitled in English or instantly translated into English (via futuristic technology) it’s still odd that literally everyone on another planet speaks exactly the same language.

To use an example from “Star Trek” – literally all of the Vulcans speak Vulcan, literally all of the Klingons speak Klingon etc… The only people who speak a variety of different languages in “Star Trek” are the humans.

And, as linguistic development goes, this is just unrealistic.

I mean, if life on another planet has evolved in a similar way to how life evolved on Earth, then people in different parts of the planet are going to develop different linguistic traditions independently from each other. They’re going to have different ways of referring to the same thing, different sentence structures and possibly even different ways of naming themselves.

And, no, you don’t have to develop several entire fictional languages for your sci-fi story if you don’t want to (usually just coming up with a few new words, to give the impression of different languages being spoken, can work quite well).

But, if you’re showing your characters travelling to other planets, then it might be a good idea to at least acknowledge the fact that several alien languages will probably be spoken there, rather than just one.

Yes, this is a really small detail – but, even if you just mention this fact briefly in your story, then it will add a lot more realism to the world of your story and help to immerse your readers further into the fictional world that you have created.

Come on! If fantasy writers can get this sort of thing right, then so can sci-fi writers….


Sorry for such a rambling article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

One comment on “One Thing That Sci-fi Writers Can Easily Get Wrong….

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