The future of languages?

blue_sun_400Do not adjust your browser – I’m veering clear of the usual academia to post about something I’ve always found a little interesting… I read recently that around 6% of all the languages on our planet are spoken by around 94% of the world’s population. This seemed like a crazy statistic to me, but when you think about the prevalence of English, Chinese and Spanish in a world with such a wide variety of spoken languages, the proportion becomes a little more realistic.

This also made me think of one of my all-time favourite sci-fi TV shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly – a show that burned bright, but for a very short time due to the network’s inability to display the episodes in order. Its 15 episodes have since enjoyed fantastic DVD sales, and there was even a movie made, Serenity.

Firefly was different from most sci-fi shows of its kind, in that it was more like a sci-fi western than your Star Trek/Star Wars kinds of stories. There were no alien races and very few laser guns; just a very stylised and specific vision of the human race some 500 years from now, depicted in great detail. Earth was no longer habitable, and so we moved on, colonizing other planets and solar systems. If it sounds like something you think you’d like, buy the DVDs or check out the Firefly Wiki for more information on the show. You won’t regret it!

Being a bit of a language nerd, I always found Whedon’s take on languages in the future to be very interesting and well-conceived. In the Firefly universe, everybody speaks both English and Chinese – though with the way Chinese words are inserted into otherwise English statements, it’s more like a mash-up of the two. There were no subtitles in the show, but it was generally very easy to tell from context what the actors were saying when they broke into Chinese. Given the crazed fan following the show generated, there are even sites where you can find out for sure what the characters were saying. Another advantage was that it gave Whedon an opportunity to put swear words into the show to emphasise the characters’ frustrations, without having to bleep or soften the language.

Even the English in Firefly has its own modified syntax – context is often dropped (for example, one of the characters sees a shop with a lot of pretty dresses, and says “Look at the pretties!”), and there is plenty of ‘future vocabulary’, such as the oft-used “shiny!”, which means something along the lines of “good/great”.

Can anybody think of any other TV shows that have gone to this length to create such an immersive universe?

It’s an interesting concept to think about, though. When you think in universal terms, where countries and cultures are spread across worlds rather than continents, ways of communication would have to merge and be made easier and clearer, rather than diverge. The choice of English and Chinese as the two languages makes a certain kind of sense, since they are the two most spoken languages in the world today.

Still, that’s all a long way away right now…