Language Barrier in Stargate

Language Barrier in Stargate


Stargate SG-1, a show about traveling to other planets via a Gate, has been criticized by many fans for the way it handled the language barrier. In their view, the show took the easy way out on this matter by creating a vast number of alien races that, rather conveniently, spoke English. Thus, unlike Star Trek which had a linguist and a universal translator and, in most cases, an indignant-looking Worf, SG teams never really fretted about such details. Or so they say. How true is this argument?

Admittedly, Star Trek took more effort to cover the language aspect of an alien species almost as much as they stressed about their cultural aspects. As an example, think of the time the dear delectable Picard (yes, I am a fan, how did you know?) struggled to learn the Tamarian language in season 5. The language aspect was crucial to the plot and everything was smooth sailing (sort of) once Picard cracks the code.

Alright. So Stargate is not as detailed as that. But it would still be unfair to say that the show didn't tackle the language issue. Remember, Daniel Jackson was the language and culture expert and he spent quite a number of episodes being fascinated by an alien language. For that matter, there were quite a few alien languages that were introduced in the show. Thus, both Goa'uld and Asgard have their own languages. I must confess, the latter is rather simplistic and poor disguised version of English so that doesn't fare well for Stargate's stance on language.

In addition to introducing new languages (to a small degree), the show creators took time to approach it from a different angle. Again this take probably annoyed more people than appeased them. It was basically the way alien races became confused with certain context specific terms and idioms and such. As you can imagine, this was mostly used to create humor in an episode. Think about the time SG-1 was fighting off a Jaffa attack in an episode called Thor's Chariot. Daniel Jackson urges everyone to calm down and not panic. Teal'c, attempting to be realistic, points out that matters will not “calm down”, that everything will now “calm up”. Cheesy as that sounds, that is a fun jab at the English language rules about the use of adverbs, isn't it? In that same regard, we can't really say “settle up” instead of “settle down”.

I'm going to add in a few more of his quotes. Remember the time someone says “Don't sweat it” to Teal'c? And he replies, albeit a bit confusedly, that he can't stop that from happening? Or the time the same person said he should not be a “sitting duck” and Teal'c wondered if “ducks were bad”? Ok, so I am going on a bit about this but my point was to highlight the way the show used English language's quirky phrases. It may not seem so strange to us and, in fact, a lot of people probably cringe at them as cheesy jokes. However, you have to admit, from a linguistic point of view, the way they poked fun at those phrases were delightful.

Finally, I will also point out that the show does have its flaws, at least where language is concerned. There might be some feasible explanation why so many alien races (well humanoid ones) can speak English. Granted. But that still does not explain how they end up using modern English, throwing in terms like 'Okay', 'I get it' and whatnot. I can deal with alien races like the Goa'uld learning English and then teaching them to others. Maybe that's how it happened. But there is no explanation as to why folks sound like they are well-versed in modern versions of the language.