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In my sci-fi setting there's a Universal Translator similar to does seen on Star Trek and Farscape (basically working with nanoprobes) thus, once inyected on the bloodstream people who speak different languages would understand each other. Is outright said on one chapter that they don't work with toddlers, animals or non-verbal species because you need to learn at least one language before they work (this is address because a little girl who is deaf (something uncommon as most forms of deafness are cured by technology but she was raised far from civilization) is discovered and is mentioned that although her deafness can be easily solved she still has to learn the old fashion way).

My doubt however is this; how would this affect the evolution and development of language in general? Languages evolved with time as people who speak them get influenced by other inputs includings cultural changes, local idioms and foreign languages, but if you only learn one and after that everything else is translated, would that cause some sort of stagnation?

Thank you.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would it? First, the way the question describes it, this technology works only with live speech. It doesn't work with written words, it doesn't work with recorded speech; which means that there is still great value in learning other languages. (For example, nobody learns Latin or Greek or Old English for the purpose of speaking with live speakers of those languages.) (I'm not even going into the problems of the inherent limitations of translation.) Second, while linguistic contact with a foreign language is indeed a factor in language evolution, it is only one factor among many. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 11, 2023 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ Good point, particularly on writen language. But would it affect in the same way the day to day use? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    May 11, 2023 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ The main factor in the evolution of a language is the imperfect transmission from parents to children. Children will never learn their mother tongue perfectly. Over time, the small deviations accumulate, and the language changes. I am sorry I cannot answer the question because I simply don't understand what the translation machine does. Into what language does it translate? Into the standard grammar book languge? Into the specific idiolect of the user? Does it translate between speakers of the same language, for example, between American and English? How does it deal with the difficulties? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 11, 2023 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ It consist on nano-machines that work directly in the brain's Broca's and Wernicke's areas (or the equivalent depending of the species) allowing the individual to "understand" any language he/she hears like if is his/hers native tongue, provided the other also has it or the communication won't be in two ways. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    May 11, 2023 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ That's not translation, that's magical telepathy. I speak four languages, and can read another two, and believe me, translation is hard. Translation is a skill very much above and beyond simply knowing a language. Multilingual speakers absolutely do not translate from any of the languages they know into their native language; on the contrary, they simply think in one language or another. These sentences have never ever had a form in my native language, which was then translated into English; they were formed directly in English. Translating them into Romanian would require work. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 11, 2023 at 11:57

3 Answers 3

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Very slightly

Languages develop with communication, some new words or memes arise and spread when people talk, write or play jokes, also new words can appear when a cardinally new device is invented or created somehow. And you say that your version of universal translator works only on those that know at least one language. Therefore, that universal translator should employ text-based translation rather than image/vision-based type, with all the detriments involved with it, like inability to strictly translate localized jokes or names, and also it should somehow gather data about new words when they arise, such as any technical term starting with "lever" and up to infinity. But it does not prevent either party from calling new devices with slang or self-invented names, as well as it does not prevent people that speak the same language of inventing new words for existing events or things, say "Whatevergate" or "cancel culture" which are both quite modern English wordings for something that didn't exist before. So the main pathways which modify the language are unaffected by the existence of such a translator.

Yet, at least one path is affected, namely literal assimilation of foreign words into a language, starting from "film" in Italian and back into depths of humanity's history. This path is created by international community of scientists, constructors, artists or other specialists that would need to create a common set of terms in each language involved in the development. Yet, after the term set is coined, it's released into the public by means of that translator and whatever publications done like today, and the new words in each language start evolving separately as semi-independent entities. For example, ENIAC as a device had a word "computer" in its full name, which evolved into a generic term and replaced at least the "ЭВМ" word in Russian language, that used to mean "electronic computing machine" if literally translated to English. This universal translator, being a thing that translates words, would not inhibit the process of using the more appropriate written word as a more common spoken variant, effectively slowing down but not completely eliminating this pathway of language evolution. Especially if the spoken word in another language is a lot shorter than its translation, which seems to be one of the more involving reasons for using one synonym over another, which in turn determines what words survive and what don't.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the way subgroups intentionally invent new words, phrases, and reuse old words in new ways. They do so to create the subcommunity and give a way to identify each other. This happens with every new generation. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    May 11, 2023 at 15:36
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It might fix the language, even if the translator has been built to track linguistic mutations. The first dictionaries froze the spelling of words, and probably froze the meanings too. Modern dictionary compilers attempt to catalogue what is out there, and not to supply a 'definition'.

Suppose you were many light-years from Earth. Without a FTL connection, it would give English as it was spoken years ago. You may stick to tradition from convenience.

If you are part of a small community, you could modify your language, but there would be a lot of inertia to do so if the few people present were outweighed by the virtual presence of all the speakers and writers in your library and educational databases. Iceland was not isolated, but Icelandic remained the same where Danish evolved. Iceland was a literate community, with written sagas, and this may have fixed the 'proper' way to speak.

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  • $\begingroup$ "There would be a lot of inertia to do so": Hmm. The American language is right now under our very eyes evolving rapidly and moving fast away from the rest of the English language family; for example, the particular dialect heavily promoted on this right here platform appears to be the first language in the entire history where pronouns (1) are not a closed class of words and (2) have lexical meaning. Not to mention insisting that the sentence "they have said" is in the 3rd person singular. (And that's the written language. Don't get me started on spoken American.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 11, 2023 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ My point. We listen to current people. Face to face, and over the net we hear a lot of current speakers. When we hear a clip from newsreels, they sound odd, and stilted. We follow the trends of the current speakers. But suppose much of what we listened to was newsreel or some timeless artificially generated voice. An oddity of speech would sound odder in that context. Ditto writing. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2023 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: American English is actually very similar to European English when compared to American French, American Spanish, American Portuguese, and American German (Pennsylvania Dutch) and the European Counterparts.). Some of those are almost separate languages. $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    May 11, 2023 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting point, thanks $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    May 11, 2023 at 17:19
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Entirely depends on how precise the translation is and how it is used

If it is not connected to any sort of mental link to indicate intended meaning, then it will have to rely purely on KNOWN nuances of the language, which implies that there will be a standardization of sorts. It is pretty much a normal aspect of human speech that we all develop multiple ways of speaking depending on who we are addressing. We normally refer to these as formal and informal, although they can be divided up within those categories as well.

A translator that is not tied to intended meaning will essentially establish a baseline for the formal speech. Even if it includes slang in its database, the point of slang is to convey nuance, and it is constantly changing for that reason. As slang becomes used frequently enough to be added to the official lexicon, it ceases to be slang. An example might be "good bye" which essentially started as shorthand for "God be with ye". This is a fairly consistent iteration of the phrase as the equivalent in languages like Spanish and French, "adios" and "adieu", as they both literally mean "to God" in each language.

You end up running into changes in how people speak in order to intentional create slang, or also to subvert the translators. A good example of this is the sudden rise of the term "unalive", which people use on social media to subvert filters that will suppress usage of words like "kill", "suicide", "murder", and "dead". In a similar vein, people may begin to use terminology in order to more properly convey their meaning as the recipient might receive it rather than how it is translated. This will quickly change languages in the sense that they will start to use terminology and phrasing and speech patterns that may have been odd before, but will function better for the translator.

The greater concern might be about which point the translator comes into use in peoples lives. A big part of speech development is exposure. People pick up their families accent because that is their primary exposure, but their accent may shift if they are exposed to others. Therefore, if they are never exposed to any other accent, and/or they are heavily exposed to translated speech, they are likely to develop a monotone speech pattern or possibly a stagnation of dialect development.

Conversely, lack of exposure beyond close relations may cause a further splintering of dialects as it may quickly separate within the family as every family develops there own slight differences, usually with small children. This is probably most obvious in the thousands upon thousands of iterations of grandparent nicknames, or different terms for pacifier. Imagine if every generation used only nicknames for a whole generation and without any outside exposure, the proper terms would quickly become practically a foreign language.

Realistically speaking, it will probably be a massive conglomeration of each possibility as the translation will affect different people in different ways.

How would the translator know the nuance of Japanese honorifics as they need pre-existing knowledge of the relationship between the speakers? How would it understand when an expletive is being used positively or negatively if both sentences make sense? How will it convey tone of voice or the nuance of speech patterns that are normally recorded in punctuation? Some individuals may not be exposed to universal translators until adulthood, while others will have them their entire lives. Imagine if two parents never learned each others languages and only communicate via translator, but their child develops a sort of pigeon or creole that neither parent understands independently as the translator always offsets the differences.

It's also entirely possible for people to learn to read and write in one language while speaking something completely different and being completely unaware of the differences as there are numerous languages that are non-phonetic. You could standardize a single written language for the whole of the galaxy, but then two individuals could pronounce it in totally different ways that are completely unintelligible to the other. At the end of the day, universal translators would simply be another factor in language drift, but not necessarily make it anymore or less complex.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting $\endgroup$
    – Daniel
    Jun 1, 2023 at 1:20

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