The English language is a constantly evolving thing. Since we thankfully don’t have an equivalent to the Académie française that declares what is and isn’t “officially” part of the English language, our language can grow, adapt, expand and borrow things from other languages freely. This is a great thing and it is also one of the many reasons why English is one of the more widely-spoken languages across the world.
But, if you’re writing science fiction, then this can pose something of a problem. After all, if the English language is constantly evolving, then it’s probably going to look at least slightly different in the future than it does now. Afrter all, the English that people spoke a thousand years ago is very different to the English that I’m using to write this article.
Many writers have attempted to guess what the future of the English language will look like in sci-fi stories, with varying degrees of success. The two most notable attempts I’ve seen at creating a “futuristic” version of English in science fiction can be found in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”.
Unlike in the Stanely Kubrick film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”, where the characters only use the occasional word of futuristic slang, Anthony Burgess’s novel is narrated entirely in this “futuristic” version of English. And, yes, in the UK edition of the book at least, there is no glossary whatsoever.
What this means is that although the book in incredibly short, it will take you about three times longer to read than you might expect because you will have to spend ages working out what each word means.
Russell Hoban’s “Riddely Walker” is set in a post-apocalyptic future and this is reflected by the fact that language has become slightly more primitive in some ways. The whole novel is, of course, narrated in this “post-apocalpytic” version of English.
I tried to read this book in 2010 and unfortunately, the narrative style just ended up being too confusing and obtuse, and I ended up abandoning it after a few pages.
And, this, I think is one of the major problems with trying to create a “realistic” version of what the English language might sound like in the future. It may be a clever linguistic experiment or a fun gimmick, but – more often than not – it gets in the way of the story itself.
If your audience has to spend two minutes figuring out what a single sentence means, then they’re probably either going to stop reading out of sheer frustration or they’re going to lose track of the story that you’re trying to tell.
However, most sci-fi writers realise that practicality is the most important thing in a story and either just use modern English or they add a few new words – whilst making sure that the audience can understand what these words mean from either the context in which they are used or from just looking at the word itself. This approach obviously works best in stories that are set in the near future, where the English language won’t have had time to change too much.
The most notable examples of this far more sensible approach to writing futuristic speech can be seen in many classic cyberpunk novels form the 1980s. Although most of the narration uses “ordinary” English that the audience can understand, the writers aren’t afraid to drop in the occasional futuristic word or expression, to reinforce the fact that the story is set in the future.
So, I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that it’s ok to invent new words and/or expressions to show that your sci-fi story takes place in a more realistic version of the future but remember to do it in a more subtle way. With futuristic language, less is often more.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂