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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reader Question: English, the Ultimate Tongue

Bowie from Young Writers Online recently asked the following:
Why do all aliens speak some form of English?
Well, the truth is that aliens exist within a strange temporal distortion in which they are exposed to English before human beings even exist, so when they come knocking, they are not only fluent in the language, but technologically far more advanced than us apes. As strange as that sounds, that's exactly what has happened. You see, scientists propose that Bubble Theory may be the next big thing in physics. It proposes that all sentient beings live in little temporal bubbles that are designed to make sure certain species are younger than others when such species figure out how to enter other bubbles. As you know, there's a quasi temporal node that exists between the subspace platinum barrier of quantum erasure, and other confusing technojargon.

But of course all of the above is a load of horse manure. The reason aliens almost always speak some form of English is due to a need by the writer to engage the reader or viewer. English has, for good and for bad, become the dominant language on this planet, and is the language of the more dominant pop-culture nations (U.S., U.K., and even India). Throw into the mix the fact that most of the world's T.V. and book consumers (and the world's largest markets for such products) happen to communicate almost exclusively in English and you really have no way around the reality that English is a human identifier.

Writers know this, either on a simplistic or complex level, and often use this knowledge to create certain literary or film conditions--namely sympathy. Aliens who speak unknown or even harsh sounding languages have a tendency to be viewed as the enemy and unlikable by most viewing audiences. This stems from early science fiction movies and stories that dealt less with the complex inner workings of alien species and more with the monstrous and evil nature of the inhuman (see Patricia Kerslake's Science Fiction and Empire for more information on that, if memory serves me correctly). Battlestar Galactica is a show that is fully aware of this, hence why it does not deal with aliens or creatures that are incapable of communicating with the humans in the show (and the audience). And there is even a dichotomy within BSG. Take, for example, the centurians, who are somewhat humanoid, but quite clearly not human, and also are incapable of speaking in human language. As such, they must relay all information through their humanoid "superiors" (the flesh-and-blood clones). The result? The centurians are not, until the very end of the movie, given any serious consideration beyond declaring them "the villains." Viewers, however, do feel sympathy for the cloned models, because they are not only human-looking, but emotionally complex. Language plays a big role in that, because while it is true that they are, at times, seemingly monstrous, they still can relay to the characters and to us their deeper emotions. We can feel for them because they can express something to us that doesn't immediately translate to "evil."

The same is true of other instances of English-injected alien encounters. Language plays a remarkable role in creating the conditions of sympathy/empathy/etc. But I could go on for much longer than I think is appropriate for one post on this subject.

If you have a different opinion on this matter, feel free to let me know in the comments. This subject is really one that could do with some serious, critical attention, and I bet my readers could get a


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  1. So why do aliens in Japanese movies speak Japanese?

  2. Because in Japan, Japanese is the dominant language. Same rules apply, just flipped.

  3. Draxzar4:37 PM

    I think District 9 may go against this, at least from what I can make out in the trailer. The aliens speak a very different alien language, and still in the trailer I am rooting for them.

  4. Drax: True, but it's sort of an exception. The question wasn't really about the exceptions, just about the commonalities.