Thursday, June 30, 2011

Boldly to Go

My husband has been watching a lot of Star Trek: Enterprise reruns lately, and one of them today had a scene in which the Enterprise crew was for some reason ordering from a drive-through restaurant on what seemed to be modern day Earth. It brought to mind episodes of the original Star Trek and Star Trek, the Next Generation in  which characters somehow time travelled back to 20th century Earth. Thinking about this, I realized that in all these episodes, the characters were able to speak 20th century American English. There didn't seem to have been any change of accent, idiom, or grammar in the intervening three or so centuries that would have caused the problems in communication you might have if, say, an early 18th century speaker turned up on your doorstep one morning. It's not just that they could make themselves understood, as I'm sure our hypothetical 18th century time traveler could, but that they sounded like everyone else around them, except for one TNG episode in which our time travelers wound up in the Old West. One hundred years backward in time, big difference in language patterns, 300 years forward, no change. 

I brought this up to hubby. "Well, you can't have everyone on the show speaking some unknown language, " he said reasonably. "You have to do the show in English."

"I know that," I replied. "It's just odd that they never have a problem communicating in these time travel episodes."

What's even odder is that in three hundred years the world of the Enterprise crew doesn't seem to have developed any new idioms. Oh, true, they have jargon related to the craft itself, like "warp speed" and "dilithium crystals", but not any figures of speech that we don't use today. Even expressions that have become catch phrases for us, like "Beam me up, Scotty" and "Resistance is futile", are only used literally on the Enterprise. Consider how quickly something like "Resistance is futile" became a catch phrase for viewers of the show. Unless human nature changed drastically in 300 years, why wouldn't it have become a catch phrase for Star Fleet members and the wider society they were part of? 

Besides, I don't think today's English would turn completely unrecognizable in three hundred years, just that it would change. For one thing, it's possible that grammar would simplify even more, and that grammar forms like "she busy", "hisself" or "theirselfs" would become standard. Also, more foreign language words, particularly Spanish, could make their way into the language in 300 years time. Of course, back in the late 1960's when the original Star Trek made its debut, these trends may have been difficult to foresee. It's not surprising we didn't see episodes with dialog like the following:

Kirk:  ¡Hola, Spock. Have you seen Uhuru?
Spock: She busy, Captain. I can he'p you?

Okay, maybe that wouldn't work. I can understand the writers not wanting to tackle the problem of depicting linguistic changes when they were already trying to depict plausible changes in technology, social mores and fashion. I just wish they gave an occasional indication that such changes will occur.

Because they will.

(For those wondering about the title, in the mid-1900's, English teachers were strict about split infinitives.)

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