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.


  1. Well, that's the point. They keep saying in the series that history is cyclical. "All this has happened before, all this will happen again."

    Also, the Number 7 model is never visually shown in Battlestar or the Caprica spin off. You can continue to hypothesize that model's appearance.

    As for the accents, you aren't taking it far enough. It implies that the different races of humanity come from different planets, similar to what South Park did in the "Cancelled" episode. Black people come from the black planet. Kiwis come from the Kiwi planet.

  2. LOVE that you've caught up with the show, but I thought you were going to address another, more nerdy language issue based on your post's title, one that's bothered me quite a bit...
    Frak. I'm totally down with it. But: When we make it present progressive--fraking--it just looks wrong, or, rather, looks like it would be pronounced with a long a. I thought of the word as "Frack" in my head until that one moment (around where you are) where we see that someone has spraypainted "Frak Earth" (or something) on one of Galactica's walls. I get that they wanted a 4-letter word since, y'know, 4-letter words and all, but that spelling has been eating away at me. Had to vent.
    Re: the accents. Yeah... a bit bothersome, but Mark: I don't think there was a real continuity among the accents/appearances. For example, Dee was... from Saggitaron? (It's been awhile) And when those Saggitaron (or whatever Dee's planet is) refugees show up on Galactica, they were reading more Eastern European to me. So... meh.

  3. I just started watching it this weekend. I was so tired of everyone pushing it on me, and I had sort of reserved the series for the next time I was really sick or something. But BBC started showing it, and goddamn its exactly as good as they told me it was.

    But what bothers me is that I was already in love with Jamie Bamber from Law and Order UK, where he speaks with a normal British accent. Then in BSG he has this horrible nasal fake "american" accent? He sounds like a terrible high school math geek.

  4. Batalla: See, I just can't buy the accents -- the notion that these ways of speaking that only started existing in the last 200 years or so would land on Earth, disappear into new language and then reform again. I know that 's the point of the show (time cycles) and I know I'm overthinking this, but it still bugs me.

    Bri: You're right. It should be fracking, not fraking. And re: the accents, I could lay it to rest as just part of an inconsequential conceit of the show, but the show actually showcases the accents -- by having actors speak in a voice other than their natural way of speaking (like Bamber) of having the accent be a crucial character trait (like Balthar, who traded in his hicksville accent for the more refined one he has today.)

    Bridget: Agreed, Bamber sounds much better with his British accent.

  5. Damn this post. Now it's bugging me too! Also, because of this post, when the President made a comment saying that she "didn't want a witch hunt" and I was like -- how would they know what a witch hunt was? That's a saying to US because of the Salem Witch Trials. Did something EXACTLY LIKE THAT happen to in their past as well? And all because of this damn post.

  6. why not "frakking"?

  7. Megan: See? Exactly. Like, I can't really fault them for not constructing a whole new universe, per se, but it still bugs me.

    Goofy: Yes, "frakking" would also be acceptable.

  8. Anonymous7:01 AM

    "Frak's" a callback to the original series, which had contrived several slang terms that sometimes get repeated in the reboot. You're right, though, it does seems out of place. It's something that bothered me too when I found out they were Earth's ancestors, a discovery I accidentally made partway through season 3 that lead to nitpicking and pedantry. They use a latin phrase in one episode, for example.