A Linguistic Trip through Time

Without going into the boring details, it’s been a rough month. Not that I’m complaining. After all, unlike pretty much everyone else in the country, I planned to be stuck at home for all of March. So, no gripes there. And while everyone else has been going stir-crazy, I’ve been going passive. Lacking the energy and concentration to do anything worthwhile, I’ve mostly been lying around like a damp rag, listening to audiobooks. Mostly to various German tutorials, because unlike novels, they don’t have a plot which requires my attention. Well, not much of one anyway.

Wandering among different tutorials produced at different times has given me a mild case of temporal whiplash.

Try as I might to ignore the world, I have perforce been somewhat aware of the social and political changes in American culture over the last fifty years. But German culture? My mental landscape was formed between 1960 and 1975 and I had never revisited it.

Now I’ve been plunged into a world in which nobody ever mentions die sogenannte DDR (the so-called Deutsche Demokratische Republik) because they don’t have the DDR to kick around any more. Instead they talk about the Wiedervereinigung (reunification) or, if they’re in a hurry, simply die Wende (the turning point). Oh, and Leipzig isn’t a bleak spot behind the Iron Curtain any more; it’s a tourist attraction.

“Well, Margaret, you should have seen that coming.”

Yeah, but I hadn’t made the mental leap to what it would mean in conversation.

Things get weirder from there out. Sampling audio lessons made at different periods over the last 50 years means that while the speakers in one set of dialogues are looking for a tobacco shop and discussing the merits of cigars over pipes, in another lesson plan they’re looking for a nonsmoking hotel with good exercise facilities and a green star for recycling. One pair of speakers is all about their favorite beers, the next is bent on explaining all their food allergies. (I haven’t yet come across anybody who requires gluten-free meals, but just wait.)

In one group of lessons the formal “Sie” doesn’t exist; people dutzen each other casually. Um, there’s no English equivalent for dutzen, because in English we haven’t used the informal second person since the last Quaker stopped addressing people as “Thee.” Call it being on a first-name basis. In these dialogues nobody seems to have a last name. That might be a function of what age group the lessons are aimed at; I think that particular set was designed for millennials. In good old stodgy Pimsleur the du/Sie distinction is still alive and well.

Then there’s the rash of English loanwords… and some words whose provenance escapes me. I won’t bore you with a list, but most of these loanwords are replacing perfectly usable German originals. Why should an infant now be a Baby instead of a Kindlein? Even the neologisms are startling. Alma, if you’re listening, can you tell me why a cell phone is a Handy and a pen a Kuli?

Oh, and did I mention the PC factor? I don’t know which is more irritating, the lengthy dialogue in which the speakers agree that because of their deep concern for the environment the hotel that employs them should send everybody to a very important conference in which they can voice their dedication to recycling… or the set of lessons that self-consciously asks me to translate, “He is giving a book to his husband.”

Okay, about the time travel bit: I’m not just complaining about all this. All this startlement and amazement ought to be useful for a writer, especially a science fiction writer. After this month’s back-and-forth through the decades I’m longing to write a character who gets zipped fifty to a hundred years into the future, just because I now have so many ideas for the little things that will keep him bemused and, hopefully, make the reader have that sense of ground falling away underfoot. I don’t know if I can use the loanwords bit, because that was done so brilliantly in A Clockwork Orange that I hesitate to even tread on the same ground. But the rest? This month has been an illuminating display of how unsettling even minor social changes can be when they’re thrust upon you without warning, how difficult it can be to understand a conversation when the speakers’ underlying assumptions differ from yours in ways you had never consciously considered.

So… looking ahead another half-century… what little things do you suppose would keep reminding someone from 2020 that 2070 is another world? Never mind the flying cars and Mars colonies. What fun could we have, imagining how conversational rules and assumptions may have changed? Easy at this point to look ahead a year or two and imagine that shaking hands is seen as an extremely impolite aggression and that all air travelers have to pass through quarantines… but what little things will be different fifty years out? Will the EU still exist? Will China? Will families be a thing of the past or will they be stronger than ever? Are we going to develop a perfectly neutral set of pronouns for safe conversation with strangers?

I can’t predict; nobody can. But it’s fun to try, and even more fun to think how we’d weave social changes into the dialogues of the future.



  1. well, if i were writing a This Way Lies Bad Things book, the EU would be collapsing in a spasm of war and we’d be fighting China to keep them out of it.

      1. Huh, and here some rather excitable people online are telling me how /wonderful/ everything is in Italy compared to the awful disease-riddled USA. Of course these are people in the category of ‘I can agree with his opinions, but Lord above is he gullible’.

  2. All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.
    — Robert Owen (1771-1858)

  3. I’ve been having some fun running idly through a bunch of different setting ideas. One of them being distinctions between worlds demonstrated in different ideas about math, or alternate mathematical histories.

    These guys never invented computers, so instead of discrete math, they’ve stuck to other topics.

    Or a portal fantasy where the hero travels from a world where he studied a numerical technique, to a world with a hole in its aerospace engineering that would be well served by applying that technique.

    You could establish that a setting has something very weird going on with its physics by cutting in an applied math lecture where they talk about the difficulties caused by a term that does not exist in our reality’s lectures.

    Or other ideas that we can inspire by looking at past stories that look very weird from what we now know. Someone has mentioned the Lensmen books recently, but there are others. Laumer’s Bolo, with their psychotronic computers, holographic memories, and absurd precisions.

  4. Margaret, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I heartily recommend that you look up an old Robert Sheckley story: “Shall We Have a Little Talk?” Without doing it a lot of violence, I can tell you that it involves a grandmaster of language acquisition attempting to learn and master enough of the language on an alien planet to complete a real-estate purchase. I promise that you’ll laugh your sides off at it. (If you can’t find it, I’ll send you a copy.)

    1. Oh, thanks for reminding me of Robert Sheckley! Haven’t read him in ages. I found an anthology containing that story and some other classics and am looking forward to reading it.

  5. I still use Sie/Ihnen when I’m around German speakers. They appreciate it, probably because 1. we’re both, ah, older people, and 2. it is very respectful and proper. That plays well in shops and restaurants, so to speak. If I tried to dutzen an older stranger, the ghosts of Doktorin W and Doktor Mö would rise up and smite me! 🙂

    1. Yup. My reflex is to use Sie towards any adult with whom I’m not already acquainted. More like 60 than 50 years on, the memory of Frau L. would dry up my throat if I started dutzening total strangers.

      Early conditioning is important, isn’t it? In India I had no trouble at all using the Hindi equivalent of “du” with children, servants, and the annoying young men who wanted to sell me crafts made in their (conveniently nameless) village.

  6. Even in 1961 one heard a language record (wax!) with ,,O schau! Dort sitz ein Babi auf sein Vaters Fahrrad her.”

  7. Having a fourteen-day quarantine both going and coming on an international airline trip would have interesting effects on who travels physically, vs who substitutes one or another form of VR. Certainly it would spell the end of cheap overseas travel for the masses. It could be quite a status thing to be able to afford the fourteen days of enforced idleness and economic non-productivity on each end of a journey abroad, a new way to conspicuously consume. Alternatively, business travel abroad might be more likely for persons who need to do those things in person, but can do other significant parts of their job remotely during those periods of enforced idleness before they can return to the home office.

    We may well see some major advances in VR, especially if we can overcome the network lag issues — for instance, imagine having a full-sensory-immersion VR rig on one end, and a humanoid robot on the other, for tourists to experience the joys of travel without the risks of actually going there in their one fragile biological body. Or the economic costs of a lengthy quarantine on both ends, if their work isn’t something they can do on a computer Wherever.

    It might well lead into some of the stuff we see in my short story “Phoenix Dreams,” (which will be free on April 3 on Amazon, along with a number of other stories that have ties to the Grissom timeline, in honor of Gus Grissom’s birthday).

    1. Oh, I like the idea of it being a status marker to afford the extra days that quarantine time would tack onto a trip! That’s the kind of sideways thinking that would be very effective in a story.

  8. Watched a Hulu ad for some UK show starring the Harry Potter kid.

    Two people torn apart by class — who talk alike, dress alike, went to the same college, and have no distinguishable class features. There’s no distinguishable difference in the trailer in social events. Seriously, I wouldn’t be able to tell that it wasn’t set in America, except that the houses and pubs look older.

    At this point, obviously we are talking money issues, not class issues. And I’m not sure there are money issues, either, because I don’t see fancy cars in the trailer.

    So what the heck is their problem??? WHAT???

    1. Okay… it’s not the Harry Potter guy. It’s an Irish guy named Paul Mescal, who just looks like Harry Potter.

      And it’s Ireland. I just assumed it was a UK Irish group, I guess.

      And his mom is the cleaning lady for her mom. (Not the maid. Just the cleaning lady. Big deal. They don’t even show the mom actresses in the trailer, so obviously it’s not that big a deal. And everyone dresses like crap in the trailer, so obviously they can’t be all that lace-curtain la-di-dah.)

      I’m still not seeing it. Especially since the story summary says the girl is not just bitchy, but unpopular and bitchy. How does she get all these boyfriends to have a triangle with?

      1. Well, I went and checked for myself and I would posit that the cues for the class difference are too subtle for you to pick apart, but seemed obvious to me.

        He comes from a working class family, and lives in a modest house.

        She comes from an upper-middle class family, and lives in a house that signals “old” money.

        Again the school clothes are uniforms, so no difference, but the casual clothes are driven by different choices. He’s off the shelf, she’s wearing labels.

        Also accents, both Irish, but his has more of a brogue to it.

        1. Ah! Once again we’re running into: “obvious” signalling within a society that’s impenetrable to an outsider from a different society!

          Because all societies develop ways to differentiate themselves and signal status.. and authors always face the challenge of how to convey that to people outside the culture, without belabouring the point so hard it seems an obvious and unnecessary infodump to viewers / readers inside the culture.

          1. Like all the people when I was in college the first dime “bragging” about how much need-based financial aid they got, as a way to slap the faces of people who had the resources to pay full tuition and fees OR who had purely academic scholarships. It was a really strange pecking order there.

  9. My no-doubt completely wrong predictions.

    Will the EU still exist?

    Doubt it. The problem with the EU is that very few people consider themselves “European.” Even the elites, when push comes to shove, think of themselves as Germans or Greeks or Italians or Frenchmen.

    This could easily be the crisis that undoes it, or it could be something else, but I wouldn’t bet on their being an EU in another 50 years. (Okay, it’s possible that the French and Germans will still have a little club that they call “the EU” where they go and make grand pronouncements that everyone else ignores, but I don’t see any sort of “United States of Europe” going forward.)

    Will China?

    In some form, almost certainly. China has endured a long time. I wouldn’t bet on Pooh Bear’s heirs being in charge, though.

    Will families be a thing of the past or will they be stronger than ever?

    Stronger than ever. The family is pretty much the way that we develop the future. Those that don’t believe in having families won’t have much of a say in it.

    Are we going to develop a perfectly neutral set of pronouns for safe conversation with strangers?

    See above. The future does not belong to those who insist children must be chemically casterated at the first opportunity, sort of by definition.

  10. “I’m longing to write a character who gets zipped fifty to a hundred years into the future, just because I now have so many ideas for the little things that will keep him bemused and, hopefully, make the reader have that sense of ground falling away underfoot. ”

    Poul Anderson wrote a story in which the protagonist, who has an incurable disease, is put in suspended animation and sent into the future. In that future his disease is cured, no problem, but he finds the society to be not just bizarre but *boring*…it is sort of a hippie…folk-dancing-crafting kind of world and it drives him literally crazy.

    Not knowing how to cure this type of craziness, the people of the future put him back in suspended animation for the people of a more-distant future to deal with.

    1. The protagonist is bored with their own era and skips ahead in cryo to try and find an era that interests them.

      1. I’ve read a story like that. Of course, what it was about was there kept on being requirements for him to wake up — mandatory voting, for instance — until finally he went on a deep space voyage in hope of finally getting there.

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