October 10, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: God Is Dead, but Swear Words Live Forever?

"...colorful metaphors..." (STAR TREK: The Voyage Home)

“Felgercarb and frak!” (The original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA broadcast series)

“Puling mess…” (Geroge RR Martin’s short stories collected in TUF VOYAGING)

There are others, but I won’t go into them now.

In case you haven’t figured it out, these are futuristic “swear words”.

With these, I have no trouble – as I have no trouble with “bloody” or “sodding” in England. (I’ll let you look them up for the American equivalents if you’d like). That’s because swearing has cultural roots that invalidate words as curses outside of context. Douglas Adams takes this to the extreme (as always!) in HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY when one of his characters utters the phrase, “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.” This initiates an interstellar war because to the Vl’hurg, it is the most offensive insult imaginable, while being a perfectly innocent (if obscure) statement in American/British English.

Again, I don’t have any trouble with that because it lends a sense of fun to my read.

What I object to is authors who throw 21st Century, English-speaking-American cuss words around as if they will fly to the stars and follow us forever. As it happens, many SF authors then make the assumption that while our cuss words will follow us, God and all of the institutions and trappings that have gathered around Him will be blithely left behind as antiquated and meaningless in an interstellar culture…

WTF? Are they trying to say that cuss words will go to the stars, but God will stay behind?

How about we look at this from a language development point of view?

The “f-word” as we know it, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=devil) which is where I go for all of my etymological (no, this is NOT about bugs! That’s eNtymological) needs), while it has its origins in history, wasn’t codified until around 1500 AD. The same for “s - - -”, at around 1600 AD. So let’s be generous and give both of them an extra millennium from current time to origin: the words as we use them today would be 1500 years old.

By contrast, the WORD for God has its origin in a language called Proto-Indo-European, at least the word for God that you’d find in India and other European languages (Spanish, Italian, English, German, French, Portuguese and others) and originated about 4000 BC (or BCE if you absolutely insist AND read my essay regarding that designation: http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2010/01/slice-of-pie-to-whom-is-ce-common.html) or six millennia of usage.

So SF writers, often of the “military SF” variety, sprinkle their writing with f-words and s-words and never the G-word as if the two are here to stay (even in the 25th Century) and the one will disappear once we fly away from home. Two words not even two millennia old will outlast one word that approaches six millennia old.

Oh, come on.

My argument has always been that while SF strives to represent a version of the future of Humanity, writers do so selectively and in accordance with their religious beliefs or non-beliefs. While excellent writing is absolutely de rigueur for a latent Christian worldview to be acceptable to the SF community at large (and some DO include their beliefs: Connie Willis, Michael F. Flynn, JRR Tolkien, Eric James Stone, Orson Scott Card and Gene Wolfe), the majority of SF excludes God. That’s their choice, absolutely. It’s my choice to continue to READ them as well and I will – like the wonderfully renewed career of C. L. Anderson (bka Sarah Zettel) in her “new” book, BITTER ANGELS.

But if I may flog a dead horse, I will continue to prod at the case of cuss words, I’d like to see a higher level of intellectual honesty in usage: if you’re going to keep the 2000-year-old f-word and the 2000-year-old s-word, then grant the benefit of the doubt and keep the six-thousand-year-old G-word as well.

image: http://resources2.news.com.au/images/2010/08/31/1225912/243178-star-trek.jpg

1 comment:

Paul said...

It certainly makes sense that the evolution of language will work on profanity, so the locker room talk of tomorrow will use different words and phrases than it does today. But evolution will work on the rest of language, too. How often do we "vouchsafe" something today? Is "bear baiting" used as an everyday metaphor anymore? If a work of science fiction takes place a thousand years in the future and tries to imagine how language will have changed in that time, then the characters' speech--all of it; not just the profanity--should perhaps feel as "foregin" to us as does medieval literature. While such a novel would be an intellectual challenge to write and read, would it be emotionally satisfying?

I think at least one reason science fiction that takes place in the future uses today's language is to give readers the most efficient path to the emotion that's being portrayed--which seems to be a sort of semiotic explanation: the words are the signs that point to the emotions; if signs are in a different language--or even a different form of the language the readers knows--then the path becomes more difficult to follow and the emotion may not be realized in the reader's mind.