Why Do Characters in Star Trek Discovery's Distant Future Talk Like It's 2021?
A nerdy nitpick with a point
[I swear one day I will get back to reviewing movies like this newsletter is supposed to do, but it is not this day.]
THIS POST WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK DISCOVERY, BEGINNING WITH THE END OF SEASON 2. IF YOU HAVEN’T GOTTEN THERE YET, HERE THAR BE SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
One warning, yes, but what about Second Warning?
STILL WARNING YOU.
Okay, you have been sufficiently warned; I can’t really do anything more.
So if you’re here, you should be aware of the major twist at the end of Discovery Season 2 — The crew saves the world by traveling about 900 years into the future, and stays there.
It’s a fantastic twist (even if the plotline leading up to it was a tad convoluted) and the extremely distant future we get to see is incredibly cool, visually and technologically. Programmable matter! Personal transporter gizmos! Floaty warp nacelles attached only by magnetic fields!
Pretty cunning, huh?
And that’s why this niggling detail stood out to me — the lack of evolution of language in this future, a lack of what I believe is more fancily called “linguistic drift.”
(Please note: I am not a linguist; I have done exactly zero research on this beyond one screenshot that I’ll get to in a moment. This is just a layperson’s opinion on something that has been bugging her nerdy brain since the premiere of Season 4.)
Yes, Trek has always played a bit fast and loose with language, what with the universal translator and everyone speaking English except sometimes when they speak Klingon or Vulcan and it isn’t translated by the universal translator for…reasons? And there’s something called “Federation Standard” that may be just English but also, who knows?? And yes, I’m aware that this is farrrr from the most unrealistic thing about this show that I’m watching.
Simply put, the characters in Discovery’s future, 900 years ahead of our own, use language that is so exactly like our own that it’s distracting. They use not only our language of English, but our extremely modern English slang terms and phrases. It’s as though while tech has progressed exponentially, language, and the culture that language is constantly evolving from, has completely stagnated.
What do I mean by “culture that language is constantly evolving from”? Well, just take a look back up this column. You probably noticed that in the intro, I made two linguistic references to the Lord of the Rings movies (“it is not this day” and “what about Second Warning?”), one to pirate-speak (“here thar be spoilers”) and below the picture, I made one with Firefly language (“cunning”). In no case did I mention what I was referencing, and you as a reader probably either: a) understood the reference or b) understood that I was referencing something or using some language that you were unfamiliar with, even though the words themselves are plain English, with the sole exception of “thar.”
And I’m sure I use words and phrases here that even I don’t know the origins of, but they’ve been absorbed into my lexicon via cultural osmosis. For instance: “exactly zero” and “for…reasons?” are both phrases that I never would have used 10 years ago, but the language in our current culture has drifted from what it was 10 years ago, and these phrases are now commonplace. And the thing is, they are perfectly comprehensible English words that any translator would have no trouble with, but it’s the way they are combined that makes them so tied to our modern-day language and indicative of its current speech patterns. A translator would not simply filter out phrases like these. We would likely sound to Future Folks like Tamarians sounded to us — “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” — words that are comprehensible individually, but carrying cultural context and combined in ways that mean nothing or need to be puzzled out. And vice versa.
In past Trek, there has always been occasional use of idiomatic language, figures of speech — most often so that the Spock or the Data of the show could provide some comic relief with an overly literal interpretation (“Guess we’ll be burning the midnight oil” “Why would you ignite the midnight petroleum, sir?”) But these were rarely very modern idioms, and it seems to me that the writers were generally careful to avoid slang terms of their time, which is why you can watch it decades later and while societal attitudes depicted in the shows may have changed (as well as the effects, acting styles, and cinematography), the language used by the characters doesn’t feel dated or stuck in a particular moment in time. It can sometimes sound a bit stilted and formal, but acceptable in a professional environment, and at most it feels linked to a particular century, not a particular year or decade.
Not so with Discovery. The fact that characters from Discovery’s imagined future use words and phrases like “No pressure, right?” and “everyone has their thing” and “shitshow” and “yikes” makes it feel like, linguistically, they are in our present moment. That no time has passed at all, no new phrases have entered the lexicon. They are still using 900-year-old slang because nothing has come along to supplant it.
(Similarly with other cultural concepts, like methods of self-care — Adira mentions that their ideal relaxation involves tea and a bubble bath, which is cute but also very much speaks to the Tumblr Generation (TM) habits of our current time that Adira is clearly meant to represent, rather than someone who was actually born almost 1000 years into our future, when there will surely be dozens of self-care and relaxation habits that we haven’t even imagined.)
In that way, even though it just aired, the show already feels dated.
By the way, the “shitshow” remark was played for laughs, but explained in the context of “it’s an Earth term for bad” and not “it’s an old Earth term,” which would have at least placed some temporal distance between us and them.
In my one instance of research for this post, I searched for the use of “shitshow” over time, to confirm or refute my suspicion that it is a very recently adopted term, and thus anchoring them to our time (that wasn’t intended as a reference to the Red Angel but apparently I can’t help myself).
And it truly seems strange to me to think that a slang term that wasn’t even in circulation twenty years ago will still be around in nine hundred years. Language just doesn’t WORK like that! We are but a blip in time! Memes erupt and vanish in the blink of an eye! It’s possible, sure, but the idea that in 900 years, our recent swearwords will still be the swearwords of choice, is, to linguistically reference Star Trek: Picard, “sheer fucking hubris.”
I acknowledge, again, that this is nitpicky, and that it doesn’t make or break the show. I have plenty of appreciation and critique of much more significant aspects of the show. But instead of trying to be “hip with the kids” linguistically (which works fine in things like Lower Decks, where the tone is entirely different), I do wish the show’s writers would put some more effort into the linguistic world-building.
It has been done in other shows, and they’re richer for it. I don’t just mean shows like Farscape and Battlestar Galactica that use “frell” and “frak” respectively because they can’t use the actual f-word. There is also the aforementioned Firefly, where not only did the writers select alternate curse words, but also alternate slang for good stuff too: “shiny” and “cunning,” for example, not to mention having characters frequently switching in and out of languages, which is much less dated than saying “rad” or “ratchet” or any of our other current slang terms. (Some of the words were borrowed from Old West terminology, since Firefly is a Space Western, but it’s the mashup of old and new and multilingualism that makes it immediately clear that we are in another time.)
I’m not pretending that this would be easy for Trek creators to do — coming up with believable slang terms and/or syntactical differences and/or 900 years of culture from which they evolved is a lot of work. But you know what else is a lot of work? Design and special effects shots for spaceships with floaty warp nacelles, and they seem to have no problem doing that. Heck, I just saw a behind-the-scenes featurette on Wil Wheaton’s “Ready Room” show about the two-month process of building the brand new Augmented Reality wall that’s being used this season instead of green screen (to spectacular effect, I might add).
Next to that, a few brainstorming sessions coming up with alternative slang, some cultural touchstones to fill in that 900-year gap, and language/phrases/references derived from them, seems like a relatively small task.
You can do it, Trek writers. I believe in you.
Thanks for reading this edition of SM’s Movie Cramming Project, where I generally watch all the movies so that you don’t have to, but apparently sometimes nerdily vent about other things. I blame linguistic drift. Who knows what “movie cramming” will mean in 900 years, anyway? Feel free to share or subscribe for more!