Friday, February 13, 2015

Language and Culture in Sci Fi: Elysium

As part of my ongoing look at how science fiction portrays languages and culture, I decided to revisit the Neill Blomkamp film Elysium. While many people I've spoken to didn't like the film, I did enjoy it. However, I do agree that it is nowhere near as good as District 9. In this film, Blomkamp follows the same theme as his previous work: taking a social issue and looking it through a science fiction lens. This time, the film focuses on the issues of immigration, segregation, and health care.

The events of Elysium take place in the 22nd century, where a load of posh people live in an "ideal" society on a space station and habitat called Elysium. The rest of humanity lives in squalor with limited access to work and health care. The film's protagonist, Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon), lives in future Los Angeles where everyone lives in slums and speaks both Spanish and English. Max likes to randomly throw Spanish sentences into his speech when talking with his peers. That said, he did seem to speak much more Spanish as a child when he wasn't being played by Matt Damon...

Aboard the space station Elysium, however, the wealthy business owners and social elite speak both English and French. Last week, we discussed how French gave English many of its "sophisticated" words. It seems that Neil Blomkamp decided that the addition of the French language would help portray an elitist society of monstrous and heartless millionaires.

Los Angeles skyline
Why choose French for the upper classes and Spanish for the slums? You'd have to ask Blomkamp or someone else involved in the film's production to know for sure, but it's not too hard to guess. As we mentioned in that post last week, English words of French origin tend to be of higher prestige than those of Anglo-Saxon origin, due to various historical reasons. However, it seems pretty clear that French prestige isn't just limited to English words, but also expands into many other areas of society.

Just think about how often you hear people gushing about the superiority of French cuisine and literature... in English-speaking societies, Victor Hugo and bouillabaisse tend to come up in discussion much more frequently than Miguel de Cervantes and paella, especially amongst the elite. Perhaps it is connected to the same historic reasons that French terms came to dominate the English language. 

The reverence for all things French even seems to extend to the language itself. It's frequently called the language of love, and its speakers are also often said to have one of the world's sexiest accents. While there are certainly those that love the Spanish language too, it just never seems to have the same prestige as French, despite the fact that it is spoken by an immensely larger percentage of the world's population. Perhaps that's why French was chosen as the language of Elysium's elite... Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, so it would be far too common, whereas the less-spoken French language would help to distinguish its speakers and make them seem even more refined.

What did you think of Elysium? Did you enjoy the use of multiple languages? Do you agree with our theory as to why French was chosen as the language of the elite? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.