Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Language and Culture in Sci Fi: Futurama

Last week, we started our new "Language and Culture in Sci Fi" series by looking at the linguistic landscape of Joss Whedon's Firefly television series and following Serenity film. Today's focus is on Matt Groening's follow-up to The Simpsons, Futurama, which first hit the small screen back in March of 1999.

Futurama is set in New New York,
which is built above Old New York
Futurama ran for four seasons which Fox broadcast across five years before cancelling the show. After its initial run ended in 2003, four different films were produced. Each of the films was split into four parts in order to air as regular episodes would have. After the films, another two seasons were broadcast on Comedy Central with the final episode airing back in 2013, a decade after the show was first cancelled by Fox.

Throughout the series, Futurama parodied a large number of common science fiction tropes, and the concept of merging cultures and languages was no exception. In the series a number of major world religions had supposedly merged into The First Amalgamated Church, whose logo includes Buddha holding a crucifix and a Star of David sitting underneath an Islamic crescent.

In terms of language, Futurama includes a reference to a (somewhat useless) universal translator that only translates into an undecipherable dead language. The language in question just so happens to be French. However, in the French dubs of the show, the joke is changed to refer to the German language.

Many science fiction shows and films feature aliens, and Futurama is no exception. However, despite their diverse and bizarre cultures, most of the aliens in the show speak English. The show's writers did create a couple of alien languages (known simply as "Alien Language 1", "Alien Language 2", and, in one episode, "Alienese"), but they consist of nothing more than a cipher of the Latin alphabet represented by a number of different symbols.

Much like Times Square, all of New New Yorkin Futurama is covered in billboards.
These ciphers are often seen in the background of scenes, appearing on branding and billboards in New New York (where most of the show takes place), as well as the many other weird and wonderful locations visited by the characters.

Of course, while the spoken English used in Futurama is very similar to Modern English, there are plenty of neologisms that were created by the show's writers. These are most often employed by Amy Wong, the character who is arguably the most up-to-date with the coolest slang in the 4th millennium.

Though not frequently referenced, Leela's mother, Turanga Munda (or simply Munda), has a special place in my heart due to the fact that she holds a doctorate in "Exolinguistics". Surely this means she must have extensively studied, and assumedly produced a thesis on, alien languages. In one of the later episodes (originally airing on Comedy Central), she even puts these skills to work as an interpreter for the obnoxious and misogynistic space captain, Zapp Brannigan.

Which sci fi series or film should we cover next? Tell us below in the comments,,,