Cutting the Gordian Language Barrier

In the nature-fantasy world of Watership Down the woodland creatures all speak their own languages, as well as one common language called Hedgerow. It’s the lingua franca of the forest. Hedgerow is not very complex or in-depth, but basic communication can still take place.

But it’s not just fantasy. While many regions have an assumed lingua franca, there have also been attempts to create a universal second language. Hedgerow for humans!

The most famous, and successful, of these so-called IALs (International Auxiliary Languages) is Esperanto. It’s a mix of German  French, and Russian vocabulary with Slavic sounds and a Latin alphabet. The language was designed to be easy to learn and culturally neutral.

This is clearly propaganda, I don't think these kids would even know what Esperanto is.

Blatant propaganda, I doubt these kids even know what Esperanto is, much less want to take it at school.

Created in the 1880’s, Esperanto quickly picked up steam but never caught on fully. Possibly in part due to when, In 1921, the League of Nations voted on whether it would become their official language and the motion was vetoed by the French representative, who wanted to preserve his own language’s prominence. Esperanto also faced great opposition from the fascist dictators of the 30’s and 40’s, who saw it a dangerous form of anti-nationalism.

The Esperanto flag. I guess they were going for neutral, but it comes across as bland to me.

The Esperanto flag. I guess they were going for neutral, but to me it comes across as bland and lifeless.

Currently there are around 2 million Esperanto speakers worldwide. A decent number, but nowhere near big enough to be the “universal second language”. Other interesting attempts at an IAL include Lojban – a logic-based language designed to parse into computer code which combines Mandarin, English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and Arabic – and Dutton Speedwords, AKA Rapmotz, a language designed to be a universal common tongue as well as the ultimate shorthand.

The Lojban flag. Which is also sort of lifeless, and way too busy. These Linguist-types need to make friends with more graphic designers.

An unofficial Lojban flag – also sort of lifeless, and way too busy. These Linguist-types need to make friends with some graphic designers.

But where is a lingua franca needed more than ever? Where are there millions of people from various cultures with various languages meeting everyday? Why, online! And in the fabulous world of online gaming! And quite rightly, many game companies have tried to tackle such barriers.

The easy solution is to have separate servers for separate languages. Easy, but unsatisfying. This is supposed to be the global era. We should be playing with whoever we want, with whoever is game, not be segregated artificially.

Some games, such as FFXI, have included a built-in archive of translated phrases, so that players can communicate simply in the languages of others. This sounds good, but is less effective in practice. The phrases are limited, and you’re out of luck if you speak something uncommon, like Icelandic. But technological advances may see this method refined to perfection. Auto-translate programs are likely the norm of the future.

That is, until we discover the Babelfish.

That is, until we discover the Babel fish.

Other games, however, have found a perfect solution to this problem which has vexed mankind since the Tower of Babel. Simply put, if people can’t understand each other’s tongues, then cut them out!

Yes, games like Journey and Dark Souls have provided satisfying multiplayer experiences simply by limiting players ability to communicate. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. Instead of attempting to bridge the various languages together artificially, the games themselves provide a structure to communicate with.

You don’t speak English or French during Dark Souls, you speak Dark Souls. You can lead, follow, sheath and unsheath weapons, drop items, and perform a few basic gestures, like bowing, waving or pointing. What else do you need? Anything you could want to do in the game can be said or shown within the constraints of the game’s ‘language’.

Quick, what's Dark Soulese for "I want my mommy"?

Quick, what’s Dark Soulese for “I want my mommy”?

Not only is this solution simple, it also has its own worth. It fosters the suspension of disbelief. Nothing breaks your immersion quicker than a fellow player shrieking about wicked loot in full leetspeak. But a solemn, gesturing phantom? Well! Bring on this ‘wicked loot’, friend!

Journey uses this same solution to an even further degree. Rather than a few optional multiplayer features, the entire game revolves around co-operating with another player. But you can’t talk or type to communicate. Instead you must work within the game’s systems to get through challenges.

When you finish Journey, you get to find out who you were playing with. Many people are pleasantly surprised to find they were on their journey with a Japanese or Russian person, and couldn’t have communicated anyway!

Massive, nebulous problems like a lack of global communication are Gordian knots – impossible to untangle, but easily cut. All it takes is someone bold enough to approach the problem with sword in hand.

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7 thoughts on “Cutting the Gordian Language Barrier

  1. Chase

    That Esperanto poster is hilarious. I wonder what year that’s from — if it’s really old, it’s quite surprising, considering there are black AND white kids together being merry.

    As for a universal language, I’m going to step up to the plate and suggest Klingon, which is rather clearly the optimal choice. Qapla!

    Reply

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