Thursday, March 22, 2007

Watching Language

Recently I read a vampire novel set in England of the 1820s. Although it was pretty entertaining, I noticed a couple of anachronisms that made me wince. "Alpha" in the sense of "dominant," not a popular term in common use until the late twentieth century. (And though I don't know when biologists first started using it that way, I doubt it was pre-1900.) A complimentary "nice save," a phrase I never heard in conversation until a few years ago. Likewise, "sadism" and "masochism" shouldn't be used in dialogue, first person, or tight third person POV in periods before Sade and Sacher-Masoch published their respective works. It's not that hard to look up which words and phrases were in the English vocabulary in a given era.

More subtle is the issue of avoiding fossilized metaphors we unthinkingly use that are based on modern technology. Probably nobody would have a character in 1890 say, "You sound like a broken record" (a reference that may have outlived its meaning, at least for members of Gen X and Y who have seldom listened to music on anything but CDs and iPods). However, what about extricating oneself from a circular discussion with, "Stop, this is where I came in"? That metaphor comes from the cinema-viewing experience. Nobody would use it in an era before movies became an important form of popular entertainment. Another turn of speech that has lost its live context for people too young to remember the golden past when, for the price of one ticket, you could sit in the theater as long as you wished and watch the same show over and over, but as a "dead" metaphor it's still heard in conversation.

In SF set in some future decade or century, what words and phrases common now would have become obsolete? And what new slang and metaphors would adorn your futuristic characters' speech, based on social and technological developments we can only imagine? How likely is it that future American English may incorporate slang from other languages to the extent found, for example, in the linguistic tour-de-force of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? I've read that young people in some parts of the Southwest already speak “Spanglish,” a blend of English and Spanish. Less blatantly, the process of adopting loan words from other cultures continues as vibrantly as ever. For instance, how many Americans had heard of anime and manga 20 years ago? English is the most eclectic language in the world, known for (to paraphrase a source I can't quite remember) not just borrowing from other languages, but knocking them down in dark alleys and rummaging through their pockets for stray bits of vocabulary.


  1. Anonymous1:29 AM EDT

    In one of Steven Saylor's ancient Roman novels he describes a galley going at 'full throttle'.


  2. Language is indeed a dynamic part of our culture and something to watch out for when we write -- especially modern young adult focused work. But ... must say that "Spanglish" isn't new.

    Scholars may have discovered it in the last 20 years. However, we spoke it over 50 years ago much to our Anglo teachers' disgust. Only it was called "Pachuco" then.

  3. Who can forget Scotty snarling "Up your shaft" in one of the Star Trek movies?

    I love playing with languages. Yiddish in is my favorite for mixing with alien slang.

  4. Anonymous2:51 PM EDT

    for some possible attributions:
    "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary. -- James D. Nicoll"