“Pleased greeting. Human, it is always good to see your kind.”
“Genuine Query. Is there something I can do for you this day?”
“With barely contained terror. You drive a hard bargain.”
Such is the speech of the Elcor, sentient aliens from the planet Dekuuna. Appearing in the Mass Effect series of videogames (Bioware 2007, 2010, 2012), the Elcor demonstrate so many principles of interactional sociolinguistics that I don’t think I can even name them all. I obliquely try later on, and I hope I can get some audience participation too!
But before we get into a theoretical description of what’s going on in Elcor speech, let’s hear an Elcor’s own explanation. I’ve got a series of clips to show. For those of you who have never explored the galaxy, battled the Collectors, and eluded the Illusive Man like I have, here are some notes that will help you make sense of the videos:
- In the Mass Effect series, the player controls the actions of Commander Shepard. Shepard lives on a spaceship and has adventures. The appearance of Shepard is customizable, and they can be played as male or female. So in the videos presented here, which have been captured by various YouTube users, you will see a variety of Shepards in conversation with Elcor and other aliens, but they represent more or less the same character in the world of the game.
- The circular list of choices on the bottom of the screen during some conversations is the method by which the player selects dialogue choices, which may have particular outcomes for the game world.
- Some of the scenes don’t directly involve the player character and could even be ignored as they walk by. So some of the clips are stitched together from these short glimpses, and you’ll see Shepard just standing around.
- Videos come variously from Mass Effect and both its sequels. You might notice some graphical differences, but all videos are glimpses into the same social world.
- All videos from the games include subtitles in English.
Okay, so let’s hear about the Elcor in an Elcor’s own words, in this conversation from Mass Effect:
Another conversation, in which the player convinces the Elcor shopkeeper to release another alien (a Quarian) from an unfavorable deal (ME 2):
So. Just like us, the Elcor inevitably produce utterances that align with particular speech genres whenever they speak. Not just broad ones like “statement” or “question” but also “formal welcome,” “knock knock joke,” and “pick up line.” Just like us, Elcor speakers take stances on their own speech. Just like us, they perform speech acts, like greeting, bribe, and promise. Just like us, they create selves with their talk. Just like us, they fit their speech into conversations and create expectations about what’s coming next.
But unlike us, the Elcor give you an explicit heads-up about this stuff. Every time.
Humans have a lot of methods ready to add this sort of content to our speech. Facial expressions and pitch help of course, but other tools can serve the same purpose. For example, emoticons were first developed in modern times to indicate when an electronic message was not serious. (More about the history of emoticons for metapragmatics here, here, and here.) We may even make explicit statements similar to the Elcor in acts of metalinguistic repair like “I was just joking.” or “I need you to be serious right now.” or the multipurpose “I didn’t mean it like that!” But most of the time, we don’t need to talk anything like the Elcor.
I like human data as much as the next social scientist, but having fun with a theory and finding an odd illustration of it is particularly delightful. (Also ask me about my Bakhtin-themed knock-knock joke.) Elcor speech provides a nice way to see how human speech is constantly positioned, generic, and anticipates/creates context. For me, the Elcor are funny because their speech is simultaneously strange and familiar. I get that we do the same stuff, but it’s so weird to see it all laid out explicitly.
It seems like the writers of Mass Effect really run with the humor and strangeness of the Elcor. It’s uncertain if there are any Bakhtin scholars or discourse analysts working at Bioware (when this post was published, I asked them on Twitter), but they clearly have a lot of fun. This is especially evidenced by these ads for the production of Hamlet with an all-Elcor cast (ME 2):
I love the playfulness of hearing a text already linguistically obscure enough that it really needs to be brought to life… which is THEN completely stripped of typical forms of expression, THEN appended with speech-generic tags like “morose rumination.” In another particularly self-referential scene, an Elcor discusses a purchase with an Asari acquaintance and is accused of hacking his translator.
I can’t say for sure, but I think that if the writers came up with this joke in particular, along with the Hamlet scenes, they must really be getting a kick out of writing language in this way. I think they nailed it. But now intently looking at it from the perspective of a language researcher, it does bug me a little that the writers of the game came up with only one truly alien way of speaking. Scripting the Elcor took such a rare combination of imagination and attention to the nature of human talk, but most all the other aliens in Mass Effect sound pretty human. Sure, you’ve got gravelly voices, like those of the Krogan:
and spooky voices like those of the Hanar:
but no speech is as radically unhuman as the Elcor. Then again, it’s not so easy to step so far outside of human talk practices! Here are some other attempts I encountered in the research for this piece.
An entry on one of the Mass Effect wikis (which generally function as player-made game guides) draws a similarity between the Elcor and HK-47, an assassin robot from the video game Knights of the Old Republic. I’ve played one of these games, and while I enjoyed some of HK’s quips at the time, they never seemed as alien as the Elcor’s speech. Check out this fan-made supercut of “The best of HK-47.” It’s long; you don’t need to watch the whole thing to get the point:
The speech of HK-47 is often preceded with generic markers like “Query,” “Answer,” or “Qualification.” However, HK-47 is capable of intonation as typically produced by humans is not in as much need of clarification as the Elcor.
Also, while looking up YouTube videos for this post, I discovered one user who reviews video games in the voice of an Elcor. Here’s an example:
Maybe I don’t like it as much because there’s no conversational partner. I don’t really think they are as good at it as the Mass Effect writers.
Darmok! Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!
An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka the one with the bald guy from the X-Men as captain) involves an encounter with an alien species who appears (at their first meeting) to speak mostly with proper names of people and places. Here’s a short clip from the beginning of the episode that includes the first encounter with the aliens:
The humans sort of figure out a few more things in the course of the episode, but I don’t want to spoil it. Now, I love this episode, but I’m pretty sure that this language makes no sense and wouldn’t really work. It’s not anywhere as believable as the Elcor speech.
Well, what have we learned, fellow space travelers? Are there other linguistic principles that the Elcor illustrate well? Are there other important elements of their speech that they neglect to label? Do you know of any similarly unhuman yet familiar ways of speaking? What else can the Elcor remind us about language?
Bonus Elcor videos:
The Elcor Bouncer (ME2):
Harrot the shopkeeper has a plan (ME 3):
The Elcor ambassador pleads for help (ME 3):