Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

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.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

20 thoughts on “Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

  1. Back to the Future has a few moments where slang and cultural references trip up Marty. Even funnier is that at least one of those references might confuse first time watchers today, since the references have changed even further…

    1. Oh yes! The Calvin Klein underpants is one I remember, now that you mention it. That 30 years later, there’s now an added layer of confusion? That hadn’t occurred to me.

    2. Of course! I think the majority of viewers (old and young) will not get the “Pepsi Free” joke, which still makes me chuckle. Hey bud, if you want a Pepsi, you’re gonna have to pay for it.

  2. I have known hilarity ensure when a certain generation learns that there was once a warship (with a service record to be proud of, including a part in sinking the Bismarck) called HMS Rodney.

    Fun fact: All the variations save “Nimrod” are named after friends of Elgar’s but known only by their initials. “Nimrod” is the only exception because it’s named after his friend August Jaegar – which of course means mighty hunter.

  3. “Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?”

    Ooh, ooh, me again. Goodbye Sweetheart was full of this kind of thing. My favourite is when Nicholas Lyndhurst (Rodney again …) has been arrested for being suspiciously well informed about war secrets that are common knowledge in the 1990s. At one point he says: “so what? That’s not a hanging offence, is it?” Whereupon the MI5 men just smile and nod …

  4. I know the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series (and therefore hopefully also the new TV series) has this. Claire (from 1940s) uses language that 17th Century Jamie doesn’t understand. Wouldn’t be suprised if stuff like that continued in the series.

    Also the Quantum Leap episode where Sam looks like Bogart (but isn’t) has a lot of slang confusion, and somehow involves Sam invents the term ‘main squeeze’.

    Whenever anyone from Star Trek goes back to the late 20th century (they’re obsessed with that time period for some reason) there’s.

    Farscape does it, but with aliens. I do not know how much of Crichton’s idiomatic speech is understandable to anyone else.

    IRL a guy I used to work with who was in his early 60s once called films ‘flicks’ in front of a work experience kid, who had no clue what he meant. I usually manage OK with older terms, but I suspect it comes of being well read.

    1. Diana Gabaldon’s an interesting example, as clearly there’s an awful lot of serious research gone into those books. But even a single error can snap suspension of disbelief beyond repair. In one of the later volumes, she has someone drive from Oxford to north of Inverness in a Morris Minor in the 1960s (I think), in an impossibly tight time scale. If I recall correctly, it takes something like five or six hours. Er, no. So much no. Though of course, for readers unlike me, who don’t live near Oxford and have had occasion to drive to Scotland, that’s presumably not a problem.

      It will be interesting to see how they handle the language issue in the TV series. The way Starz used dialogue in the Spartacus series was very inventive, actually taking a lot from Latin.

  5. In Superman (the first with C. Reeve), when Clark Kent and Lois Lane are walking out of the Daily Planet building together right after they first met. He says “Gee, that would be swell, Lois” and she looks at him and says derisively, “Swell?” to note it’s utterly dated slang.

  6. I once typeset a romance novel where the Regency-era, British heroine used “pissed” to mean “angry.”

    It was a bad book in all other respects, too.

  7. In the usually-lovely series Angel (Buffy spin-off), they had a horrible moment where a Victorian-era young woman uses the term “bloody.” Er, no. That would be the equivalent of “fucking” and very much not something a proper young lady would say. (Those series had several bonehead moments, such as “bezoar” (with two syllables, yet), calling something a scythe that in no way resembles the agricultural implement, and carefully “sharpening” a knife in a manner designed to give it a flat edge.)

    1. Yes, I remember…
      There’s a very interesting interview I saw somewhere or other with the script writers for the TV series Deadwood. They were talking about going for historical accuracy as opposed to emotional verisimilitude.
      Apparently those Wild West communities were notorious for their utterly vile and obscene language. Contemporary accounts say these men couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’.
      Which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow these days, hence their use of ‘cocksucker’ – ahistorical but loaded with the appropriate shock value.

    1. oh, yes, good one. And swearing is an interesting challenge, both for time travellers – because most of our current obscenities go back such a long way linguistically. Though what is and is not acceptable is going to vary, even if the vocabulary stays the same, as per previous observations.

      current usage in secondary worlds can also be tricky – if it sounds too contemporary, it threatens suspension of disbelief. If it sounds too contrived, it undermines the whole atmosphere!

  8. Interested in Croatian examples? Growing up in former Yugoslavia, meant a big market so books for kids and YA books (and yes, they were actually called books for “young people”, meaning not so much children anymore) were plentiful. Some were even genre and very good. “Ništa bez Božene” (Nothing without Božena /female name/) was a novel that was one of the first Sf stories I fell in love with as a child and it was a time travel story. The main character discovers a time travel machine in an attic and acciddentaly ends up waaay in the past. When that part of Croatia was where the Romans lived. And at the beginning of the story he was struggling with Latin which he had to do over summer as he was not doing so well in schools. 🙂

    1. Interested in all examples! 🙂

      I do think portal/time travel fantasy/SF has a special appeal for children – not just the Narnia books but other English classics like Tom’s Midnight Garden and EE Nesbit’s books. Then there’s Edward Eager in the US. I shall think some more on this…

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