Outlander, Time Travel Stories, and Language Change

The second half of the first season of the TV series Outlander premieres tonight. For those who are not in the know, Outlander (based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon) is the story of Claire, a nurse from 1945 who travels through time to the year 1743 and gets into some trouble/intrigue related to the civil war in England/Scotland at the time.

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it (though it’s been recommended to me). What I have seen reminds me of a recurring issue that comes up in portraying language in fiction. Language is always changing, so the differences in language from distinct time periods at least has the potential to make communication difficult. Even when varieties are “mutually intelligible,” the differences could in theory make the time traveler (who’s probably trying to stay under wraps) stick out like a sore thumb.

As far as my wife has told me, characters in Outlander don’t comment on how Claire speaks other than the fact that she’s English (and several Scots suspect her of being an English spy). I don’t know how different 1743 English and 1945 English are, and I’m very curious about what a realistic degree of sticking out would be.

Most of the attention to the language in Outlander has related to the use of Gaelic (or Scots Gaelic? — not knowledgable here). For example, as promotional material for the show, you can get “lessons” in Gaelic pronunciation like this one. (As Outlander fans will not be surprised to learn, these also serve as lessons in looking into a camera steamily.) There’s some interesting commentary (and links) about Gaelic issues and actors acting in languages they didn’t know before in a post by plainspokenlinguist. I also managed to find a debate on tumblr about the exact names for some of the “languages” used in the show.

But I’m interested in the English variation / time travel angle here, and it’s been hard to find more analysis of what’s going on in this series or more informed speculation about what this kind of language contact might look like in practice. In the rest of this post, I want to sketch out some of the boundaries of the questions I’m thinking about and give some examples from other fiction that has handled the language change / time travel angle more directly. My hope is that by pointing out some interesting things about this phenomenon, I can entice others to comment from their perspectives and knowledge on these issues.

So the first thing to say is that I think this is a different issue than “realistic” versus “inaccurate” versus “anachronistic” language in historical fiction. For example, some people said that the use of the words thug, turncoat, and fuck in film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was anachronistic because of various linguisticy and history and blah blah blah science reasons. I think it’s probably unreasonable for period fiction to check every single lexical item for timeliness. But still, maybe in a work where someone traveled through time, it would be cool to see some of those words used, and for the locals to say, “huh?”

Here are some other works of fiction that deal with issues of time travel (or extreme differences in time) and language change.

Riddley Walker (novel by Russell Hoban)

“On my naming day when I come 12  I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” That’s the first sentence of this post-apocalyptic novel, set far in the future and written entirely in language approximating the vernacular (and writing style) of someone who lives many hundreds of years after a global nuclear war destroys most of civilization.

The Forever War (novel by Joe Haldeman)

In this science fiction novel, characters don’t exactly time travel, but because they are flying around in space at relativistic speeds, they age much more slowly than people who do not. So a few centuries into the titular War with the Taurans, some military personnel are “from” the early 21st century while others are “from” the contemporary 25th century. The solution? As the main character explains, “Most of them either had English as their native tongue or as a second language, but it had changed so drastically over 450 years that I could barely understand it, not at all if it was spoken rapidly. Fortunately, they had all been taught early twenty-first century English during their basic training; that language, or dialect, served as a temporal lingua franca through which a twenty-fifth century soldier could communicate with someone who had been a contemporary of his nineteen-times great-grandparents.” (pp. 201-202)

Timeline (novel by Michael Crichton)

The role of language in this book is pretty silly, actually. It’s like, “Woah, we’re time travelling to the middle ages. Good thing we brought these linguists who studied Middle French and Stuff, and we have translatey earpieces sort of. But when words have different meanings (e.g., gentle) we have misunderstandings. Later: Oh crap, there’s another crazy time traveler here, and he’s trying to kill us. Who could it be? Maybe it’s the guy who speaks middle english with a weird accent. Later: Oh jeez, we got tricked!!! it was the guy with the really good accent, cuz he had “a thing for languages”!!!

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (novel by Mark Twain)

This is one of several books that I am sorry to have not read even though my father has recommended it to me on many occasions. There is time travel in here, but I’m not sure how serious the language barrier is.

Kate and Leopold (2001 film)

I don’t know much about this film but there is definitely time travel in it. Only from 1876 to 2001 though. I gather that a lot of the comedy of the film comes from how Leopold (the time traveler) is kind of a misfit. I’m unclear about how much language differences are discussed though.


Time Travel fiction certainly can deal with language issues, but there’s a lot that doesn’t deal with language at all. In many ways, in a time travel stories or in others, language is just like anything else that’s part of the setting–sometimes it’s treated in a hyper “realistic” way, sometimes re-interpreted in fantastical but familiar ways,and sometimes ignored.

I’m interested in exploring these issues of language in fiction more in the not too distant future (you won’t need a time machine to read more). I would love to hear comments about language in fiction or language and time travel. Hopefully at least some true Outlander fans can weigh in with their thoughts.

5 thoughts on “Outlander, Time Travel Stories, and Language Change

  1. Update! I’m told that In the premiere episode on Saturday, Claire calls Jamie “a fucking bastard” and “a sadist.” Jamie has to ask her what those words mean. According to OED, the words ‘fuck’ and ‘bastard’ are attested in English well before 1743, but perhaps a handsome Scottish rebel like Jamie would not know them? The word ‘sadist’ certainly did not exist in 1743, since it is a word derived from the name of Marquis de Sade, whose pornographic writings included descriptions of acts that now bear the term ‘sadist.’

    That’s the problem with time travel–you often don’t know when some of your references or words won’t make sense to anybody else alive. So it looks like the writers of Outlander are thinking through some linguistic implications of time travel after all!

  2. I’m curious what is being said in conversation w Jamie & the other actor, in there native Gaelic language in the season finale episode Outlander

    1. That’s an interesting question. I’ve heard that the writers of the show intentionally do not subtitle some of the Gaelic spoken in the show, especially when we are meant to adopt Claire perspective as an Outlander. Some other stories go this route too–I think it can be a very effective choice. But there’s a whole world of other questions that come up here (how do you know the audience doesn’t know the language?) that I hope to pursue in another post in the future.

  3. […] As I explored earlier for the specific issue of time travel, portraying language in fiction presents many difficult choices for artists. On the one hand, I guess I can sympathize. Star Wars already has audible sound in space and faster-than-light travel, why not play a little fast and loose with how language works too? I can see how sociolinguistic accuracy could sometimes get in the way of the story, or at least the business of big budget movies. Maybe audiences aren’t seen as willing to tolerate Harrison Ford speaking half his lines in Huttese. […]

  4. Even if you just go back to 1945 there’s plenty of slang and expressions which would be incomprehensible to most people today. I can’t image the difficulties in communicating with somebody from the 18th century, not mention all the sexism she’d have to deal with.

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