One of the things I find a wee bit annoying about this Slate piece on science fictional languages is that it heavily references Star Trek (not even real Trek but that JJ Abrams thing from 2009) yet keeps talking about all science fiction writers like we all do it this way. Granted, there are some literary examples given, but they are very few and not the focus the way Star Trek is.
First, let’s talk about Trek and alien language and culture. The thing all TV and movie iterations of Trek have done is treat each planet like it has one culture and one language. This is why Uhura’s line about three dialects makes some small sense in the world of Trek because Romulus, Star Empire it may be, metaphorically represents one country. A country that is probably small in comparison to Vulcan or Earth since it’s made up of the descendants of refugees.
It’s the same with every Trek culture. Only the ones we see multiple times ever move away from homogeny. How many years and new series had to go by before we saw a non-white Vulcan? There was once an “albino” Klingon, but otherwise they’re generally dark-skinned in TNG-era Trek. They do have different head ridges as time goes on. Did we ever see a Cardassian that didn’t have the very same coloring, bone structure, and facial markings as the first one we saw?
Even the humanoid species that looked exactly human on the outside lacked variation: with few exceptions they were all white people. If we got wild there might be a green person or a blue person with funny horns, but always the same blue or green or whatever.
To go along with the thing where everyone on the planet looks the same (even the same haircut. Do Romulans even have barbers? They would have the most boring jobs ever) the cultures were always the same across the planet. Everyone would talk about how to deal with the Bajoran people or Trills or whatever as if there was only one way to do so. One culture, one society.
The only time I remember TNG-era addressing this was an episode in season 7 when 2/3rds of a planet applied to join the Federation while the other third wanted nothing to do with it. Still though, that’s just two societies on one planet.
I realize that this is part of the utopian vision of Star Trek. That as people of different planets evolved and mass/instant communication became possible, soon they would all become one global society. That’s certainly the way Earth is presented. In the 24th century we’re all one culture: American culture. You can pretend Picard is French all you like, even with his strangely British accent, but you cannot tell me he acts in any way specifically French or even in any way specifically like a man who grew up three centuries from now.
That’s not the point, of course. Because science fiction is about us, right now, and always has been. And I have no beef with that, theoretically.
However, my story in Federations was written specifically in response to TV science fiction ideas about homogeneous alien cultures. I reject them. And I believe a lot of good science fiction novel and short story writers do as well. Because we’re not constrained the way TV writers are.
As much as I’d love more alien cultural diversity in Star Trek, I recognize that it’s mostly metaphor. I also recognize that if we were going to be super realistic, TV episodes would be boring as hell. Can you imagine the tediousness of having to deal with multiple governments and cultures on every single planet? It’s hard enough to deal with just one.
If Star Trek can’t do more than one culture per planet, how do you expect more than three dialects of Romulan? Even if you adhere to the thinking of a planet = a country, most countries have more than three dialects going on. But in every episode we’d be figuring out how to talk to new aliens or even some the Federation has already met because they’re not in the Federation yet. The universal translator takes care of that for us and we can move on to the story.
For the sake of the narrative and simplicity you have to be willing to put up with some handwave.
That doesn’t mean the same applies to science fiction literature. It shouldn’t, at any rate. I wouldn’t assume that it does.
I’m not as up on my space opera as I probably should be, but I know for my own works I try to be careful about falling into planet = one culture thing. Same as I try not to fall into the Planet With A Universal Climate trope. The SF I’ve read using that is also usually more on the metaphorical side and I’m down as long as the author clearly knows what she’s about. It’s when authors get lazy that this becomes a problem.
It seems like an awful lot of work to have to come up with multiple cultures and societies and mention multiple languages and dialects when you write stories dealing with alien worlds or even colonized ones, right? That’s because it is. This is what makes fiction rich and complex. And no, it doesn’t mean having to work out every single detail, it just means not falling back on what’s easy. That’s okay for TV, not so much for literature.
Even though the Slate article is at pains to try and paint the single language thing as scientifically valid, I don’t see that as the way to go. From an alien perspective all of Earth’s languages might seem, at the core, to be all one. And on a certain level that might be right. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, does it? The way different cultures use language has huge effects on how the people in those cultures think, and dealing with those differences has a huge impact on how we Earthlings deal with each other and how we’d deal with alien cultures.
I’m just sayin': leave the one language, one culture, one planet simplicity to TV. Because it’s TV.