Thursday, December 31, 2015

Time Travel and Language

The season finale of THE LIBRARIANS (on the TNT network) illustrated this problem. Two members of the team jump back to early seventeenth-century England and meet Shakespeare. Flynn, the genius polymath head librarian, priding himself on his mastery of dialects, addresses the locals in sentences randomly peppered with thees, thous, and forsooths. His strange speech patterns convince them he's a foreign spy. His partner salvages the mission by claiming they talk oddly because they're from Flanders.

One of my "pet peeves" is reading a tale of travel into the distant past that doesn't confront the language issue.The Librarians manage okay in Shakespeare's era because that falls into the early modern period. Although their vocabularies might include words strange to each other, basic understanding is no problem. When an author sends a character any further back without explaining how he or she can communicate, my suspension of disbelief is (as Marion Zimmer Bradley would have said) hanged by the neck until dead. Oddly, the TV series SLEEPY HOLLOW goofs badly in the opposite direction in one early episode. Ichabod and Abigail encounter descendants of the "lost colony" of Roanoke, sealed into a pocket dimension for the past four centuries. Their dialect is unintelligible to the modern heroes until Ichabod figures out that they're speaking Middle English! No!! That's at least a hundred years off. The earliest English colonists arrived in North America in the late sixteenth century, contemporary with Shakespeare and not long before the King James Bible, which many ordinary laymen still read today. I didn't give up on the series after that critical research failure, but it was close.

One time travel romance I've read that sent the heroine back to the medieval Scottish Highlands completely flubbed the language issue by having the Highlanders speak broad Scots, as if they lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. In the unlikely event they spoke any English at all, in this case it WOULD be Middle English, and most likely the northern dialect, not the London version in which Chaucer wrote—therefore incomprehensible to a twentieth-century American with no background in that subject. Since this novel was a fantasy rather than science fiction, all the author had to do would have been to drop in a sentence stating or hinting that the heroine understands the local language by magic. But she didn't. In E. Nesbit's classic THE STORY OF THE AMULET, the children travel to many different places at various points in the distant past. They understand and speak the local languages in every case—but they have a magic amulet, so the reader can easily accept this ability.

Connie Willis's series about time-traveling Oxford historians (DOOMSDAY BOOK, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, BLACKOUT, and ALL CLEAR) features the well-known SF trope of a device that packs needed information into the subject's brain in a few hours of intensive treatment, languages included. SF stories can use technology similar to this or a variation on the familiar "universal translator." Or they can have their protagonists learn languages the old-fashioned way, as Hugh and his family have to do when a nuclear blast throws them from about 1960 to the far-distant future in Heinlein's FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD. Heinlein also considers this issue in DOOR INTO SUMMER (whose narrator skips thirty years ahead by "cold sleep") and TIME FOR THE STARS (whose narrator ages only a few years during a near-lightspeed interstellar voyage while about eighty years pass on Earth); both protagonists are puzzled by later generations' slang and other newly coined words. In fantasy time travel fiction, as in THE STORY OF THE AMULET (or stories such as the Narnia series, where travel to other dimensional planes is no barrier to mutual intelligibility), magic can always be invoked. I just want authors to recognize there IS a potential problem and address it somehow. They should also keep in mind that linguistic change doesn't apply only to English. An American heroine who speaks modern French wouldn't necessarily get along any better in twelfth-century France than she would in England of the same period. A character fluent in Hebrew, if transported back to first-century Palestine, should manage fine in synagogue and Temple services, but conversing with people on the street would require Aramaic or ancient Greek. An author could also have fun with a character who prepares in advance for travel to the first-century Mediterranean world (for example) by studying classical Latin and Greek—only to be tripped up by colloquialisms and slang not taught by the standard textbooks.

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series shows awareness of linguistic issues even though Claire travels back only two centuries. Although she has no trouble talking to the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlanders—those that speak English, anyway—language change does cause a few small misunderstandings. When she tells the men who capture her on arrival that she's a nurse, they think she means a wet-nurse; the profession of "nurse" in the medical sense didn't yet exist by that name (or, if it did, wasn't well-known as such). She has to explain to Jamie what a sadist is, quite accurately, because the Marquis de Sade didn't write his notorious books until near the end of the century. When at one point she jokingly tells Jamie, "Go directly to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars," he's naturally baffled (though of course this is more of a cultural than a linguistic lapse of communication).

Jumping back to the present, Happy 2016 to all!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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