“Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club – the community of speakers of that language.”
— Frank Smith
Common. Galactic Basic Standard. Allspeak. A lot of universes have this as a part of their setting as a matter of convenience. We typically see language as boring or a barrier when encountered in entertainment mediums, which makes sense. Regardless of how many languages you speak, the ones you don’t serve as a barrier.
For me and Trigate, it is a subject that hasn’t received a lot of thought. It was Common Tongue for a time, then Allspeak to try to make it a little more unique… but honestly that was just a coat of paint.
I figured that Allspeak, at its core, was more of a psionic language, a translation tool like the Babelfish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You couldn’t just speak Allspeak. Instead, you’d need to learn a language of some sort and only once you understood the language well enough could you learn Allspeak. In doing so, you would tune your brain to understand others who know Allspeak; You still spoke your language of choice, but anyone who couldn’t understand that would hear the meaning of your words in a psionic fashion if they too knew Allspeak. Like broadcasted telepathy, I suppose.
That’s sort of where Allspeak sat for a long time.
Then I came across this blog post by Noise Sans Signal where they discuss this actual topic in greater detail and come up with a rather elegant idea. What if Common, or Allspeak in our case, was a memetic-virus? He writes something that is terrifying to ponder:
Thanks to this gameplay convenience, when taken in-universe Common as a language has a lot of unnatural features, and thus can be seen as self-propagated, self-sustained, monolithic mnemonic entity, a memo-virus similar to the Idea of Thorns from Gardens of Ynn, only much more subtle. Such memo-virus would be quickly replacing in-world languages as soon as it is introduced to/infects the local populace: it is just too darn inconvenient not to use Common, and thus local languages and dialects die within generation or two, replaced by it, with intricacies of previous languages lost without native speakers. Being a subtle memo-virus without counters, Common can maintain its structure unchanged, without necessity to adapt; maybe it is even lazy enough to share the space with other languages as long as it is in the mind of the speaker and the most dominant one used.
A lot to unpack here. First off, The Gardens of Ynn by Emmy Allen is a fantastic product so seeing it mentioned as an example is awesome. Second, in certain settings I could see where the subtle destructive influence of Common would be neat to explore, but I don’t think it fits Trigate. I’d rather use the above idea in corruptive fashion in limited instances; a plane where it has destroyed a particular language or even on a more individual basis of afflicting an individual. I think that would be a more interesting story told on a personal level moreso than a cultural one.
Instead, I think Allspeak (which if we were to use the above idea in any capacity, would be entirely a name given by those hosting their minds and not the thing itself) is less of a virus and more of a memetic symbiote. If such a thing were to exist, there would be some questions we would need to answer:
Movement: Allspeak, existing in a different realm than biological life, would most likely move and spread through words, utterances and probably any sound made by someone capable of using it. My thought is that a part of becoming a proper host is being taught about its use. So to an unsuitable host, what could happen? I imagine it could be hallucinations in both a visual and aural sense. Perhaps this led to the common cause of lone wise men types, spreading stories to others so that they may remember?
Growth: As one increases in linguistic capability, so too does Allspeak flourish. New languages are the best for increasing growth, as are the unique connections made in the minds of people who speak multiple languages.
Nutrition: Looking at “Growth” above, I think it would make sense if the memetic-symbiote fed on the firing of neurons in the brain when used for language. I mention that use specifically because it makes sense with the theme and context of what we’re going for, but it also can allow an interesting angle pertaining to “Movement”: Do the songs of birds count as language? I already have lore pertaining the spread of birds through Trigates from one world to the next… maybe that is a potential vector for transmission?
Another interesting subject to tackle would be the concept of Linguistic Relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. If you don’t already know what that is, I got you: it is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language affects its speakers' worldview or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language. (The movie “Arrival” that the first image is from above is pretty much all about that concept. I can’t recommend it enough.)
Maybe it is that similar, unified perception that helps beings across multiple worlds actually be able to exchange ideas?
What if you don’t treat it as a simple, mindless symbiote but as Noise Sans Signal mentions:
And at the last, one can treat Common not as simple mindless memo-virus, but as an Eldritch God, a formless being propagating through the minds of mortals and immortals alike, influencing their ways to express themselves and thus affect the world to its liking.
Could you imagine? If you had that sort of control, you could prevent entire cultures… no, worlds from being able to communicate on given subjects. It reminds me of a fact I first learned in a book by Ralph Keyes:
Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn’t even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word — this is up in Northern Europe — bruin, meaning “the brown one” as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don’t know what word it replaced, so bear is the oldest-known euphemism.
— Ralph Keyes, Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms
Who knows what secrets it may want hidden…
Back to our Allspeak symbiote, such a thing could exist and never even have its hosts consider it anything other than a language, avoiding being noticed. How would one go about discovering and cataloging memetic viruses, symbiotes or other life forms? I’m sure there are individuals who have some idea how to do that, but for the general tech levels in which Trigate stories are set… it would require a genius. Or a madman. Or both.
Suddenly the idea of a Cult based around Language seems a lot more interesting…
07/02/2021 Edit: While discussing this subject with a friend, they had mentioned to me that the suggestion above of a mnemonic symbiote would only technically work with organic life, but not things such as golems, machines, constructs, and so on. If you were to use the explanation given above, it would lead that to be true but remember… this is a fictional universe. Given that it does work for inorganic life adds to the mystery (or theory it relates to an eldritch or divine being).
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”