The Poetry of the 'Verse

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First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 5
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton
That sounds like something out of science fiction.

Creating a distinctive yet believable linguistic situation in science fiction can be tricky. If there are non-human life forms, for example, what language will they speak and how will it be understood? It is curious to me how many “alien” languages sound rather familiar, with sounds that are pronounceable by humans and often recognisably Indo-European in nature. The communication problem can be solved in a variety of ways, with some form of Universal Translator technology, for example, or by aliens who pick up English remarkably quickly.

As there are no aliens in Firefly, many potential linguistic traps are avoided entirely, but, happily, this does not mean that the Firefly ‘verse is boringly monolingual. We learn that five hundred years into the future, America and China are the only remaining superpowers and as a consequence, English and Chinese are the two dominant languages of the ‘verse. More specifically, American English and Mandarin Chinese are the dominant languages, but there is room in the ‘verse for other forms of both English and Chinese, and for other languages too.

Our understanding that English and Chinese are co-dominant languages in the ‘verse does not come from watching Firefly or Serenity themselves, but from comments Joss Whedon has made about the linguistic situation of the ‘verse. In “Here’s How It Was”, one of the special features found on the Firefly DVDs, he states that “the last person you’d expect speaks Chinese off the bat” and in the Serenity special feature “Future History”, he comments that “everyone who’s American speaks Chinese”. If we were to make our judgment from what we actually see of the ‘verse, Chinese would come a very poor second to English. Perhaps this is because we happen to be following a group of people who, though able to speak both languages, heavily favour English. Maybe we would have a different view if the focus of Firefly were a group of characters based on Sihnon, for example. Or perhaps we are simply getting a skewed impression of the linguistic balance of the ‘verse for the convenience of a mainly English-speaking intended audience.

With that caveat out of the way, I’d like to consider how Chinese is used to add colour to the language of the ‘verse:

I didn't mean petty.
What did you mean?
That's Chinese for petty.
No, that's a narrow... there are nuances of meaning that...
Maybe you shoulda stuck with your wiles.

As anyone who speaks more than one language knows, it is sometimes useful to be able to switch to a second language in order to convey a particular meaning that just can’t be expressed as well in the first language. This is not, however, how Chinese tends to be used in Firefly. If it were used this way, many of us in the audience could end up alienated and frustrated as we would not be able to follow the dialogue properly. Instead, Chinese is only used when the context makes it clear what is meant, at least roughly. Those of us who don’t speak Chinese (or do, but can’t understand the actors’ pronunciations of the lines) don’t need to look up the translations of the Chinese to understand what is going on. The meaning is usually perfectly clear from the way the lines are delivered, the reactions of the other characters, or the English frame into which the Chinese is slotted:

The Captain's <an absolute genius> when it comes to plans.
This is <a knot of self indulgent lunacy> but I don't have time to unwind it. Wash, get her started.
They're operating without core containment, that's <nuts>, that's suicide...

All of the regular occupants of Serenity are heard speaking Chinese, although River and Book each have only one line of Chinese in the whole series. Since these nine characters are quite diverse in their backgrounds and professions, this suggests that Chinese is used by all in the ‘verse. Those who are considered cultured and educated, such as Inara, use it, and those who are not, such as Jayne, do as well. Similarly, those with wealth, like Simon and River’s parents or Inara’s clients, speak Chinese, as do those without, like the barman in Jaynestown.

Exactly how Chinese is used certainly does vary from character to character though. Mal tends to use Chinese for angry outbursts, whereas Inara uses it mainly to express concern and affection. Wash and Jayne both swear in Chinese, but Wash favours a highly creative, and amusing, kind of cursing, whereas Jayne opts for a simpler and more direct kind. In all these cases, the use of Chinese mirrors the characters’ personalities, and matches their use of English too. In this way, it doesn’t matter if we as viewers don’t understand the Chinese, as it is not telling us anything we don’t already know about the characters.

Some of the most memorable Chinese lines in Firefly are the insults and curses, but it would be wrong to say that Chinese is used simply to avoid the problems of censorship. There are plenty of examples of Chinese used for compliments and terms of affection:

<You're looking wonderful, old friend.>
<Blessing on you, dear sister.> You too.
Don't go working too hard on that crush, <little sister>.

So when exactly do characters switch from English to Chinese? Is their use of the two languages what sociolinguists would call code switching? The answer to that depends largely on how code switching is defined, but in the main, I think the answer is no. Code switching tends to be socially-motivated. A person chooses (either consciously or subconsciously) to use a particular language in a certain situation in order to show solidarity, for example, or to assert authority. It is not clear that this is what is happening in the ‘verse, but perhaps this is an artefact of Firefly and Serenity being intended for an audience not necessarily able to understand Chinese. Having Chinese and English clearly portrayed as being in a code switching relationship would involve a far higher percentage of the dialogue being in Chinese and this might well alienate an audience unable to understand this language.

Mal and Inara’s exchange regarding the meaning of the word “petty” is the only time Chinese is mentioned explicitly in Firefly. Switching between the two languages is perfectly normal for the characters and does not need to be remarked upon. For us as viewers, it is initially very marked behaviour indeed, but with time and rewatching, it becomes a natural part of the language of the ‘verse.

The Chinese used in Firefly is mostly Mandarin, but with some Cantonese and some Taiwanese pronunciation. There are other languages used in the ‘verse besides varieties of Chinese and English. We hear Niska speak Czech and, of course, Simon speak Russian. River knows at least a little Latin and there are also glimpses of other languages in written form. Jayne has a jacket patch with the German word “Polizei” on it and a banner at Durran Haymer’s party in Trash is written in Japanese. And a close look at the paper currency used in Serenity the film reveals some Hebrew and Arabic lettering.

Further variety is added to the language of the ‘verse by the different accents and dialects of English that we hear:

I am Adelai Niska, you have seen Crow, he loves to stand at the door to say “Boo!”
He's a quality gent. Nose in the air like he never <smelled a fart>.
Do we look “reasonable” to you?
Now there's the smile made of sunlight.
That way we can pass the savings directly on to you - the customer.

River identifies Badger’s accent as coming from Dyton Colony, but beyond that we don’t know which areas of the ‘verse are associated with the various accents and dialects of English we hear. Perhaps further linguistic diversity is waiting to be uncovered elsewhere in the ‘verse.

The mixing of English and Chinese, combined with glimpses of other languages, and delivered in a variety of accents, is just one ingredient in the dialogue of Firefly. But it is an important one, which gives a multilingual flavour to the distinctive blend we recognise as the language of the ‘verse. And all without an alien in sight.

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