Monday, June 20, 2011

A Fraking Language Problem

So I did something, and I’m not ashamed to admit it: I finally watched Battlestar Galactica. Or most of it, actually. I’m three episodes away from the finale, and the series has just this weekend grabbed me in the way I hoped it would — I just found out who the final Cylon is and Caprica is pregnant and Hera is missing and I’m geekily, eagerly awaiting the resolution of it all.

All of my respected, TV-savvy friends told me Battlestar has the goods, but I was hesitant because I have a bias against sci-fi. To me, it’s usually not good. As a kid, I was always confused by shows like the Star Treks and Babylon 5, and — this is the real confession, I guess — I never really loved Star Wars the way other guys did. But now that I have sat down at watched the show, I realize it’s as well-written as it was purported to be: Amidst all the space opera is some striking characterization, and it’s telling that I now care about characters who exist in a genre that I genre I tend to avoid. I’d compare it to Buffy in the way it manages to get to the core of what it means to be human even when a summary of any one episode’s plot would lead the uninitiated to assume that it’s too far-flung to have a soul. But it does.

However, a different facet of my geekiness has prevented me from fully enjoying the show. It’s my inner word nerd.

So far as I can see, I’m guessing that the show will end with the characters becoming the ancestors to the Earth that you and I live on. But the setting of the show is decidedly extraterrestrial. The characters live on different planets than the ones in our solar system, they have a different history and they have a different culture. But it’s not that different. For one, the characters speak English. It’s not English, in the context of the show; It’s Caprican. But when the characters speak, what they say is readily understood by any English-speaker who might be watching. This I can accept: It’s like when you’re watching a movie and there’s a scene with Russian people speaking to each other privately, and they do so with Russian-inflected English. In reality, it would be unlikely that they’d not speak their native language around each other, but it’s for the convenience of the subtitle-averse viewer that they chat in the easily understood language. Same case here: Technically, the characters should be speaking in a language that people watching the show had never heard. But the logistics of creating a fictional language make such a feat difficult to pull off, not to mention pointless. (Remember Passion of the Christ and its Aramaic?)

Then there’s frak, the show’s stand-in for the all-purpose English word fuck. Why don’t they just say fuck? Because the show aired on basic cable, and presumably the creators didn’t want bleeps marring the dialogue of the crude, stressed-out military folks who, yes, would likely be saying fuck a lot. But frak isn’t the standard English that we’ve come to accept as Caprican. In the context of the show, we viewers are supposed to accept that the characters are speaking a language that almost exactly mirrors contemporary American English with the exception of this single word freak. To me, this requires a more extensive suspension of disbelief, but I can deal with it.

What bothers me most, however, are the accents and names.

First, the accents: Among other characters who speak English with an accent other than American are Gaius Baltar and D’Anna Biers, who talk like a Brit and a New Zealander, respectively. For whatever reason, whenever I hear these characters’ speak, it takes me out of the fictional Battlestar universe for a moment while I wonder, “Why do Englishmen and Kiwis exist in deep space?”

And the names: If these characters are existing in a universe that began separately from our own, why would most of their names sound like typical Western names like Laura and Lee and Kara and Ellen and Saul? Shouldn’t their names sound like they came from a culture that has no relation to our own culture? Would making up names seem so strange? If the show does end, as I suspect, with the Battlestar crew becoming our progenitors, wouldn’t it seem strange that the names they had when they landed would fade out of culture only to return eons later?

As usual, I’m overthinking everything, but know that these quibbles didn’t prevent me from getting something out of the show. And that’s not to say that the show doesn’t make the occasional verbal modification to English to suit the Battlestar setting. The humans, for example, are polytheistic, and so they often will say “Gods damn it” instead of the standard version.

If anything, I’m happy that a fictional universe could be so richly designed that I’d bother to ask these questions. “So say we all,” say the language geeks.

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