What the Elcor remind us about language

“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.

HK-47
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.

Elcor Reviews
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):

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4 thoughts on “What the Elcor remind us about language

  1. This post is fantastic, and IAN (even) AL. I’m curious about this off-the-cuff statement:

    “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.”

    Perhaps, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less possible. It might just make it _more_ fundamentally alien (i.e. harder for us mere humans to comprehend from our biased vantage point).

    While reading about the episode, I found a claim “that Tamarians have a fundamentally different brain structure to most humanoids, and as such experience concepts such as time and self differently.” [1] This reminds me of trying to understand time itself in the terms of (various) modern theoretical physics. We are so soaked in a single experience of time that it It is difficult to wrap your head around other possible experiences of it or even explanations of just what it _is_ (if anything!). [2]

    Now, it’s obviously hard to fathom how the Tarmarian’s references could be used for every part of expression. (How do you talk about abstract concepts without any grounding point?, for example) But nevertheless, I’m curious if there are actual linguistic arguments of plausibility to consider here? To what end does linguistics consider non-human languages (both earthly and alien)? Even humans sometimes use shared references to communicate in shortened forms, so taking that to the extreme doesn’t seem _too_ far fetched.

    [1] http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Tamarian_language#Apocrypha
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time#Physical_definition is a fun place start: “In either case, however, causality remains unchanged: the past is the set of events that can send light signals to an entity and the future is the set of events to which an entity can send light signals.”

  2. Interesting questions, Tom!

    As a note to other readers, I didn’t fully discuss it in the post, but in the episode of Star Trek we’re referencing, the Tamarian language is eventually described/interpreted by the humans as being *entirely* composed of metaphorical references to stories. Naturally this is hard to figure out if you don’t know the stories.

    On plausability, here are my key questions about the Tamarian language as we see it in the episode (not including the non-canon stuff). It’s the lack of clear answers to these questions that make me doubt the workability of the Tamarian language.

    (1) If you are happy to see your hubby, and you say “Juliet. Juliet at the balcony,” how do you get to be understood more or less how you want? What system will make you express love and longing, instead of frustration with Veronese politics, or instead of thinking your parents are jerks? I think Conselor Troi uses this example when discussing the Tamarian language within the episode, but the only problem she points out is the need for knowledge about Juliet. The problem is even deeper than that, because if you know the story you have *too much* knowledge about Juliet.

    (2) How would the Tamarians tell a new story? Many (notably the Russian literary critic and philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin) have argued for the existence of a profound intertextuality underlying language and literature, whereby all the various meanings of texts are mutually constituted. But for the Tamarian language to work for telling new stories, in my opinion, would be asking way too much of the intertextual properties of stories and speech.

    (3) How do Tamarians say “Wait, I’m confused. Can you say that again?” (i.e., conversational repair). And how would their conversational partner help them understand?

    If we had to expand on how the language COULD work, the easiest way would be to say that maybe the Tamarians have a full natural human-like language, along with a robust storytelling tradition and many other kinds of speaking, but in formal contexts like the deck of a military/exploration vessel, there is a strict conventional restraint to only talk in the story-referential register we see in the episode. I think there is some mention of other language forms in the Memory Alpha article you cited. This kind of strict separation of language forms and contexts could be characterized as a kind of diglossia, which we see sometimes on Earth too.

    So, that is one educational linguist’s take on why Tamarian probably wouldn’t work. As for your question about how much linguistics considers alien languages, other than conlang (constructed languages) enthusiasts like the people who make Klingon, Quenya, and Dothraki, I don’t think linguistics takes much of an interest. Personally I think these conlang efforts, along with more modest portrayals like the Elcor, are a good source of data on various people’s metalinguistic awareness and ideologies about language.

    New piece of data: R2-D2: how does he do it??? LucasFilm must pay people to watch out on YouTube for copyright violations because I don’t see any clips of him. But his way of communicating could use some thoughtful attention as well, for the same reason that the rest of this is interesting. All that comes to mind now is that he has multiple channels of communication because he has several noise makers and whistles that all seem to carry information. I don’t know, and I love that he is not subtitled. Human spoken language already has some extra channels too (like pitch and such, as referenced in the post), but we don’t usually use them lexically as R2-D2 might. However, we don’t need to marvel that long at the astromech droid language, since human signed languages are also explicitly multi-channel at a deep level, and they don’t have any trouble accommodating a simultaneity (or non-linearity) that spoken languages can’t even produce. But I am not too knowledgable about signed languages or astromech droids, so this is just speculative for now.

    In conclusion, language is pretty cool.

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