Thursday, March 23, 2017

Talking Through Time Travel

If you are a sci-fi or fantasy fan, you are probably familiar with time travel and all its inherent and potential problems. You could change history dramatically. You could run into yourself. You could end up in all sorts of strange and paradoxical situations that could have profound effects on the future or the past. In short, it's fraught with all sorts of dangerous things.

One thing that fiction does not address as an issue with time travel is the ability to communicate in a different time. Okay, Star Trek solves that wee problem with Universal Translators that magically make everyone able to understand each other. But what if there were no Universal Translators and you ended up, say back in Shakespearean England. (late 16th and early 17th century) Could you understand people? Could they understand you?

Well, there's good news and bad news. It is unlikely that the general population spoke like the characters in Shakespeare's plays all the time. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. The dialogue in his plays had to a) keep the audience engaged; and b) be easy for the players to memorize. He wrote in iambic pentameter, the rhythm of which made it easier for the actors to learn the lines. Because of the specificity of the structure, he often had to manipulate the language to make it work. Some words were made up and other were adapted to fit the verse. The result was eloquent, but, in today's world, difficult to understand language.

William Shakespeare Apr. 23, 1564 to Apr. 23, 1616.

Ninty-five percent of the words that Shakespeare used are the still in use today, but some of those same words have altered significantly in meaning over the years. It was a time of great linguistic change and so dear William had the luxury of being able to employ creative license in his work. On the whole, though, his dialogue was representative of the way people really spoke in Elizabethan England.

So, with a bit of concentration, you could probably manage to get through to people to convey your needs as well as  understand directions to the nearest pub.

Now let's go back a bit further in time. The following is an example of The Lord's Prayer from different eras

Here is an example of Old English (c. 1000)

Fæder ure þuþe eart on heofonum 
si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum 
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg 
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum 
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

Move up to Middle English (c. 1384) and most people can sort it out.

Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name; 
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred. 
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us. 
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.

By 1611, it becomes essentially modern English.

Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name. 
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen
Giue us this day our daily bread. 
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters. 
And lead us not into temptation, but deliuer us from euill. Amen.

The above is from the History of English page at

(Notice the u's being used in place of v's even in the "modern" English version?)

I highlighted the words heaven and evil in each example for your consideration and amusement. Pretty strange, isn't it? And no matter how you say it, you are probably pronouncing many of the words incorrectly. Inflection, pronounciation, accent... each of these would add another layer of difficulty to communication efforts. 

If you were to land in King Arthur's court, you'd essentially be unable to communicate at all. (Not even a Connecticut Yankee from the late 19th would be able to manage very well, in spite of Mr. Twain's imaginative assertion to the contrary.) If you think that English is complicated now, imagine what it would have been like back then.

Here's a link to a short YouTube video that you may find both entertaining and enlightening:

How Far Back in Time Could You Go and Still Understand English? 

Going forward in time would be no different. Languages are getting combined throughout the world. English words are creeping into other languages like a virus. Spanglish is a real word meaning a combination of Spanish and English that is spoken by a growing number of people (particularly in the USA).

Another trend that is influencing our language is text emoji pictograms that allow people to communicate without words at all. While acronyms (scuba), blends (smog) and clipped forms (bus from omnibus) have been contributing new words to English for a long time, this trend is picking up with the texting revolution that has added things like BRB to both the spoken and written communication forums.

(I h8 that!)

With the rapidity of the changes that are taking place, you likely wouldn't have to go forward in time very far to notice a big difference. 

The thing to keep in mind is that, even now, regional dialects exert immense differences within the English language. A West Coast Canadian and an East Coast Canadian can have trouble understanding each other. The English dialects that are spoken in India are hardly recognizable to an American as being the same language - and yet they are. The fact is that English is both one and many languages at the same time. And all of it/them is/are changing. By the time Star Trek is more reality than fiction, those Universal Translators are going to be a necessity!

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