Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.
I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:
(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.
(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.
(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.
No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.
Note that “End Game” is a section of Haldeman’s 1974 war novel The Forever War.
Here are some excerpts from L. Sprague de Camp’s classic 1938 essay “Language for Time Travelers”, in which he demonstrates how sound-change might affect comprehension:
De Camp points out that realistically French and German would have changed too, but that would be too hard for the monolingual reader to decipher. Here’s another mini-story from a different future, where there has been a general vowel shift rather than general reduction:
More of the same story, but set in yet another universe with massive assimilations leading to morphological restructuring:
In the next universe, our poor hero is exposed to the results of extreme holophrastic tendencies or, not to put too fine a point on it, headlinese:
And finally, yet another universe where the problems are with syntax and lexis, despite the aid of a local who thinks he knows 20th-century English:
The joke about hanging reminds me of a bit from one of Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock novels, in which the hero has fallen into the hands of some Early Modern English-speaking elves, who are going to deal with the threat he represents by magically putting him to sleep for all eternity. He says, “You’re going to put me into suspended animation?” The chief elf, shocked, replies, “Nay, nay, thou’lt not be suspended!”
Re etymology as a house of cards — yes, though it looks good for as long as it stands there.
Re Voltaire: he wouldn’t have known William (Proto-Indo-European) Jones, fl. 1780s onward.
“I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction” – Anne McCaffrey used it as a minor feature of one of the books in her Pern series, fwiw.
Given that we can still understand a lot of Middle English without a dictionary, and occasionally, even some Old English, I imagine we might be able to figure out more than a bit of the lingo five centuries hence.
I heard lately (so this is second-hand) that a Newfoundland student found phrases and sayings in Chaucer that were still current in her home town or outport. If so, she ought to record them before mainstream English washes them away. Dialects everywhere are endangered, going or gone. Newfoundland speech used to be amazingly distinctive. Less so now, and it’s not just me. A Wiki article refers to the de-Newfing of the speech of Newfoundland’s urban youth. For my ear, their voices used to tell all, now they have to self-identify.
No spexting? For shame. :D
John: Marvellous! Thanks very much for typing up (or, I hope, copy-pasting) these passages. It’s exactly the sort of thing I was wondering about, but my reading in sf is very patchy and I didn’t know about L. Sprague de Camp’s essay at all. The headlinese exchange is very funny, but each episode is interesting in its own way. Thanks also for the clarification on The Forever War.
Roger: That’s true about William Jones: his philologically famed lecture wasn’t published until a few years after Voltaire’s death. You may already be aware of the online Dictionary of Newfoundland English, but I’m always glad of an excuse to share the link.
Stuart: Thanks for letting me know; I’ve never read her.
Marc: Yes, I think so too (again, assuming we’re still here then). But some of our slang might be a source of puzzlement!
WWW: I’m going to pretend spexting means texting in space.
A couple of much older examples:
HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes has a scene where the sleeper finds a cylinder with ” “oi Man huwdbi Kin” written on it – the future dialect form of the Kipling story “The Man who would be King”.
And there’s Lord Dunsany’s “The Avenger of Perdondaris”, where the hero goes through a time-portal into a future semi-wilderness and is baffled when a man at a stall says “Everkike” to him. He eventually realises he’s in the far-future remains of London, and the man’s saying “Have a cake” is some worn-down Cockney dialect.
Thanks for those references, Ray. I read the Wells novel years ago but had forgotten all about that part. The other story is new to me, and is a very nice example of future-dialect.
An unavoidable, although dated, reference is Meyers, Walter E. (1976). “The Future History and Development of the English Language”. Science Fiction Studies 3(2) [http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/9/meyers9art.htm].
Two prior issues have reviews of Barnes, Myra Edward (1975). Linguistics and Language in Science Fiction-Fantasy. New York: Arno. I’ve never managed to find a copy of this book, though, which is also mentioned in a footnote to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on linguistics [http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/linguistics]
Alon: Thanks a lot – Meyers’s article looks good, and I’ve saved it for later.
Have you read _The Book of Dave_ by Will Self? The central conceit is that a misogynist taxi driver with anger management issues writes a diary as a form of therapy in our day; centuries later, after some apocalyptic calamity, the diary is dug up by the survivors and treated as scripture. The dialect that the post-apocalyptic Dave-worshippers speak has gone through a lot of realistic changes from the English we know, both in syntax and vocabulary. I also think you’d appreciate the fact that there is both a higher and lower register for this future language — I think the higher is called “arpee” (i.e., RP) and is more conservative, thus much easier for the real-world reader to follow than the vernacular, whose name I forget.
I won’t unreservedly recommend the novel, which has some serious flaws. But as a linguistic experiment it’s really really ambitious and interesting.
That reminds me of an obvious article I forgot – Russell Hoban’s brilliant “Riddley Walker” – written almost entirely in an imagined future dialect that’s a sort of Mummerset peppered with creative coinages and plausible garblings – for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury has become “the Ardship of Cambry”.
They have just one sample of 20th century English – a scrap of a guide to a wall painting in Canterbury Cathedral – and they come to amusing mistaken conclusions about it. A section says “this XVth-century wall painting depicts with fidelity the several episodes in his life. The setting is a wooded landscape with many small hamlets” … and they think “fidelity” is a kind of paint, and “hamlets” are little pigs. But this joke ultimately becomes horrifying when they ultimately manage, through accidental reading of muddled metaphor, to arrive at the formula for gunpowder.
ASG: I haven’t read Self’s book, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest. I find it a lot easier to forgive flaws in a work when the writer (or other artist) is doing something bold and experimental. Thanks for the recommendation.
Ray: Riddley Walker is amazing, and succeeds completely in what it sets out to do. I hope to return to it properly here one day, maybe after I’ve re-read it. I’ve quoted a passage or two on my Tumblr blog, if anyone is reading this and curious about Hoban’s style in the book.
Sorry: article -> example.
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“Say Again, Tower”* is a filk** song about language change and relativistic differential aging resulting from high-speed interstellar travel.
Very interesting, thank you!