I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.
On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.
The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.
Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’
Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’
Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’
Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’
Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’
Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’
Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’
Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’
Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.
I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.
Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.
Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?
At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.