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My hero travels from our world to a fantasy world where people speak English. While there are other nations that speak non-English languages, the particular land she arrives in does. How can I explain away English developing in a world otherwise unlike Earth?


I think I'm going to go with a mix of implying English speakers came in the past and taught it to everyone and handwaving it.

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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I'd love to see a story that doesn't just circumvent the language barrier. I find language an extremely interesting subject and would love to read someone's evaluation of how two alien species can overcome the language barrier between them. I've heard the new film arrival does this, but I haven't seen it yet. $\endgroup$ – theonlygusti Jan 19 '17 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @theonlygusti The film is about that, but if you're interested specifically in the languages, you could be interested even in a short story Story of Your Life that inspired the film. $\endgroup$ – TGar Jan 20 '17 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ Lots of good answers given but one simple option is to rely on good old suspension of disbelief. In the majority of the countless stories where people should speak different languages, they don't, and nobody complains. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Jan 20 '17 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Devsman Agreed. I could probably just have them speak English and never acknowledge it, but it's one of those things that would jump out to me. I just don't want to waste time by having my hero spend 3 months in the world learning a new language before setting off! $\endgroup$ – Austin Arminio Jan 20 '17 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ Both our world and the fantasy world exist within a computer simulation. The fantasy nation speaks English because whoever wrote the simulation used global variables instead of local. $\endgroup$ – Rat In A Hat Jan 20 '17 at 18:33

20 Answers 20

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There are a few ways to go about this...

She's not the first

Simply put she isn't the first English speaking person to be there, maybe of the few that came before her who spoke English one came into a position of power and the people just took up the language. It happens.

Coincidence

Simple enough, although in all honesty, it's a 1 in a who-knows-how-big number.

You don't

Here's how and why: Your world is a fantasy world, all you have to do is explain how they appear to be speaking English, this could be done in numerous ways, for instance:

  1. Your character's natural and inherent magic ability grants her the ability to understand their language, this allows you to have her learn to read, write, and speak their language as part of her character development. If your different countries/nations have different magic systems, this allows you to limit her to that country and learn some of the languages.

  2. Alternatively If your character is not magically inclined or you just don't want to do that, have her somehow receive an amulet or magical artifact that can help her to understand the language, this grants the same options as the above. If you were to go for the amulet or artifact, the easiest way for your character to receive it might be a family heirloom, this raises questions about her and her families past.

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    $\begingroup$ Or just do what D&D does and call it "Common" or "Common Tongue" instead of english. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Jan 19 '17 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ Or Star Wars: "Galactic Basic" $\endgroup$ – Mike Clark Jan 19 '17 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ See Babel Fish (relevant to #2) $\endgroup$ – DivideByZero Jan 20 '17 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants: Unless Common is the same language as english that doesn't really help. It just raises the opposite question of how somebody from our world would speak "Common". $\endgroup$ – Chris Jan 20 '17 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants That explains how the book you are reading depicts everyone speaking English, not how the hero from our world would end up speaking the same language (English or otherwise) as the inhabitants of the fantasy world. $\endgroup$ – chepner Jan 20 '17 at 14:28
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This is a ⚠trope. The child page “playing with” catalogs dozens of varieties.

There are an infinite of alternate fantasy worlds. Why did he wind up in one with 3 dimensions and a recognisable Earth with humans who are the same? English is just one more little feature after all that. I suggest that of all the infinite to choose from, he broke through to one “near” in the sence of the state being very much like his own.


Truth can be as strange as fiction. I just heard about how when the Mayflower arrived at the “new world”, the first person they ran into spoke their language perfectly!

So, it might work because the protagonist is not the first to make the trip. It’s more realistic because not everyone speaks it, and the person who does is likely to be the one making contact with the new arrivial. “The royal mage has detected a transdimentional anomaly in the southern kingdom—better send the grad student who’s studying the other world.”

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    $\begingroup$ Please use warnings when linking to alltropes or tvtropes. Waay too easy to lose hours in there. $\endgroup$ – Jared Smith Jan 19 '17 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredSmith Yeah, some kind of not safe for… <checks TVTropes for most appropriate word to use $\endgroup$ – Williham Totland Jan 19 '17 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredSmith I know what you mean I had to install StayFocused and Leechblock into my browsers and blacklist the tropes sites $\endgroup$ – Matthew Lock Jan 20 '17 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @WillihamTotland I think it's TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life $\endgroup$ – Oriol Jan 20 '17 at 20:53
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One tool that's often used for this is to make translation a side effect of the transportation process. This is used in Dr. Who, where The Doctor explains to his companions that his ship, the TARDIS, is actually translating for you, psychically. This becomes a plot point in an episode where the TARDIS is not functioning properly and stops translating.

By making it tied to the already-fantastical process of teleporting to another world, you have more room to handwave. You could do something like tie the teleport not to a location in the other world, but to a person. You can then argue that the teleport process also set in place a bridge so that you can understand their language (but you have no such bridge for other language pairs).

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    $\begingroup$ The Babel fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is another tool to solve the same problem. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 19 '17 at 22:31
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The Language of the Future

TL;DR: The reason that English is spoken in your fantasy world is because a powerful mage traveled to Earth, thought it was the language of the future, and introduced English as the official government language. After generations of use, eventually everyone in the nation spoke English.

Dear <insert native name here>,

My explorations of yours and nearby nations have been fascinating. Seeing Ewoks play with the sapling Ents was particularly cute. But one question has been incessantly nagging at me. As you well know, I come from a extremely distant nation. You would not be able to comprehend how far it is away from your nation. At the place that I come from, people speak several different languages, depending in which nations they live. I have also noted the same thing to be true here. While most languages that I have heard here have nothing in common with the languages spoken at home, the language that is predominant in your particular nation is not only similar, but virtually identical to my native language. Our two cultures are so vastly different, along with the distances between our nations, that I cannot comprehend why our languages are identical. Can you tell me what you you know about English and how it came to be spoken in your nation?

Sincerely,
<insert hero name here>

Dear <insert hero name here>,

I too am intensely curious as to how our languages became so similar. Fortunately, being a royal librarian gives me access to many of our nations most ancient documents. To sate mine and your curiosity, I searched these documents and found much knowledge that has long been forgotten by our general population.

Many and many generations ago, our nation was newly formed from the ranks of several races, several of which you have already met. Each race had their own language, and it was necessary for us to choose a national common language for legal purposes. To resolve the quandary, a great council was called of the wisest elders of all our races.

At the meeting, these wise elders could not settle on any one language. Whenever one language was proposed, the representatives of groups that didn't speak that language would argue that selecting that language would provide an unfair advantage to the races that already spoke the language. After months of this constant arguing, it seemed that all hope was lost.

One day, the great and powerful mage Yaj rose from his seat. The entire room was suddenly silent. Yaj had single-handedly destroyed more of the invading forces that brought the nation together than all other forces combined. He then announced to the congregation, "I have found a language. In the far future, a future so distant that oceans have moved to where mountains are and mountains where oceans, most of the inhabitants of the world speaks one language. This language is vastly different from any of our current languages. Since it is the language of the future, I propose that our own nation adopts this language." He then sat down.

Our Elders quickly decided to adopt Yaj's solution, though it was more because of their fear of disagreeing with him than the reason-ability of the idea. After their agreement, he produced several strange square manuscripts written in English. He then performed magic to make the manuscripts never fade or wear. He also performed spells of universal understanding on these books so that anyone would be able to learn English. Some of these manuscripts provided strict rules for English. Others had long lists of words that we could speak. Interestingly, the manuscripts even had a name for strange square manuscripts. They were called books. The most common type of manuscript merely showed examples of that language. After that point, our nation slowly adopted the new language over the course of generations.

Maybe your nation conquers the world in the far future. That is really the only explanation that explains why you have the same language as us. If you find more information that helps explains this quandary, I would be glad to hear of it.

Sincerely,
<insert native name here>

After receiving this letter, your hero comes to the conclusion that Yaj had been wrong when he thought he had traveled to the future of the fantasy world. He must of instead traveled to a fairly modern Earth to a place that speaks English like America or England, and then assumed that it was the future. The square manuscripts were obviously books written on Earth but preserved on this world using powerful magic.

Note: Inspired by the explanation that the Divide Trilogy uses to explain a planet-wide English speaking fantasy population.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm giving you a vote just for effort. $\endgroup$ – Austin Arminio Jan 20 '17 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AustinArminio Lol. Good luck with your story :) $\endgroup$ – TheNumberOne Jan 20 '17 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ I like this one, pronunciation might be an issue (unless story only required the written word to be understandable) unless good phonetic texts were also available. I was debating if I should suggest the story takes place in the far future and the English language was one of scholars of antiquities/archaeology who wanted to decipher what was found in a ancient preserved library and converse amongst themselves. Language study vinyl records were also found and players were reverse engineered. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jan 22 '17 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @KalleMP Good point about the phonetics. Even with very similar dictionaries and very little isolation between countries, American English and British English pronounce various sounds differently. Of course, you can always claim that magic magically keeps everyone speaking the same pronunciations. $\endgroup$ – TheNumberOne Jan 22 '17 at 20:22
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Don't

If you're concerned about your world seeming realistic, or more accurately verisimilitudinous, then having the people on the other world speak English is probably not the best way to go.

Although It's Just One More Thing

But, if the people on this other fantasy world also happen to be biologically identical to humans with the same sort of plant and animal life, then you've pretty much jumped the shark already, so having them speak English as well isn't going to hurt anything.

If you have an explanation of why they are impossibly similar to earth humans, like Star Trek's single ancestor conceit, then make sure it explains why they speak English as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ How’s that different from my answer? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 20 '17 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz It doesn't even really seem all that similar. I guess they both mention the shape of the people. $\endgroup$ – DCShannon Jan 20 '17 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz To be clearer, I'm reading your answer as "there are an infinite number of worlds out there, no big deal if they happen to land in a similar one" and mine as "if you insist on doing that, then you better have a logical explanation for all of it, that is consistent with them speaking English as well". Rather different sentiments. $\endgroup$ – DCShannon Jan 20 '17 at 1:03
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For us, the existence of their world is a great surprise, but they have been observing us for a long time, using their magic. Most people don't care about our pathetic little attempts to emulate proper magic with our so called "technology", and focus on more interesting alternate realities to spy on.

However, a small sect of religious zealots is obsessed with our reality and think that magic has corrupted their world. They have learned our languages and consider them superior to their own.

You can even make this the mechanism by which your hero is transported over. They have been searching for centuries for a way to bring someone over from our world to serve as a savior who will rid their world of the corrupting effect of magic. It also sets up a nice conflict if they're basically a bunch of terrorist maniacs, and your hero has no intention of co-operating.

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    $\begingroup$ Or maybe they just really, really like watching EastEnders and Neighbours on their crystal balls. $\endgroup$ – Robyn Jan 20 '17 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ "They have been observing us..." Galaxy Quest! $\endgroup$ – Paul Chernoch Jan 21 '17 at 3:47
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I like the technique used in "The Thirteenth Warrior." An Arabic prince is hijacked into a quest with 12 Viking warriors to save a kingdom from a dragon. They have no way of communicating, but the prince is a student of languages. Near the beginning of the movie is a montage of him listening to them that ends with this:

Viking: Blow-hards the both of you. She probably was some smoke-colored camp girl. Looked like that one's mother.

[laughter]

prince: [slowly with much difficulty]My mother was a pure woman from a noble family. And I, at least, know who my father is, you pig-eating son of a whore!

Viking: Where did you learn our language?!

prince: [angrily and with more confidence] I listened!

This is one of my favorite Antonio Banderas movies.

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Since this is a fantasy world, you could possibly say that they were the first group of people who spoke English in the entire universe. I know this sounds kind of stupid, but if you ever wanted a back story for this planet you could say that the beings who speak English were the one's who placed humans on planet Earth in the first place. This can then be used to explain why one of the primary languages on Earth is English. I know this is a very silly idea, and it does need to be developed further, but it is just a suggestion.

Or you can do what others have told you to do and that is not explain why people speak English. This would make sense, just make sure your character never asks how the beings on this planet know English.

My final suggestion is similar to an answer that had already been mentioned, but basically you can say that the aliens (or whatever your calling them) have the technology to make a device that lets them understand your character and also lets your character understand them. This can help to explain why the character can not understand any of the other of species of aliens. I hope this was helpful.

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They learned it by listening to our radio and television broadcasts.  They could have learned other languages that way, but America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent were the only shows they liked.

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The whole mechanism that lets character to travel might also equip her with one arrival language knowledge along with some trivia.

Otherwise, it's hugely unrealistic for English especially. You could claim they speak Chinese or a-bit-Fantasy-old-fashioned Russian, but English makes the whole European history, with Greeks, Romans, Saxon settlers, invasion of Normans and French cultural hegemony too apparent in its body. You can't go more than two phrases without exposing all those heritage, and then explain why your world has Europe.

However, I can note Tad Williams who introduced his fantasy plot in faux Europe, with its Nordic people, Italic people and so on. The map is different but peoples' distribution is the same.

In this setup he could definitely plant a traveller from our world and claim that he can speak Erkynlandish.

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Infinite Worlds

If there are an infinite number of worlds, and more than one of them have speaking inhabitants (therefore an infinite number of them do), it means there are an infinite number of permutations of word-sounds.

This means that there is a world (more than one, in fact) out there where the inhabitants just happen to use the same word sounds as that of our hero, and therefore the speak the exact same language.

Now all you have to handwave is the ridiculously amazing coincidence of our hero landing on this world as opposed to one of the zillions of others. But it could simply be that whatever god, machine, mechanism sent him there did it deliberately for this reason.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe ending up in an English-speaking land is related to the fact that the spell they used to travel was in English, too? The final location is probably part of the spell. Maybe they were trying to open a magic gate to the Elf Kingdom of the Queen Elizabeth, but -given some unexpected complication during the formulation- ended up in the UK. $\endgroup$ – Ángel Jan 21 '17 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ As an example, in Erfworld, the summoning spell choose a hero (from another universe) which would be as familar as possible with the environment. This included speaking "Language". $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Jan 25 '17 at 19:56
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The fantasy world is created by people. Imagining things will bring them in that fantasy world, including the beings living there and their language.

Or maybe the world is susceptible to the human brain and as you explore it, it changes to suit your expectations of it. If you expect English you'll get English, if you expect a sign language you'll get that.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 was going to say. I believe a bang on answer. The definition of fantasy is a world created via imagination. The imaginer was simply English. $\endgroup$ – Luka Jan 23 '17 at 14:38
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Have it be a part of the summoning ritual

A common way for someone to travel from our world to a fantasy world is to be magically summoned by one or more people in the fantasy world. It would be as simple as this:

Hero: Where am I? Who are you?

Summoner: We have summoned you here for blah blah blah...

Hero: Why can I understand you?

Summoner: We made sure that one of the requirements the summoning ritual would fulfill is that it would bring us someone who would be able to understand us.

If you feel like it's still unreasonable to have their English be exactly the same as ours, feel free to modify it. Have them use unusual phrases. Have them reference other stories, e.g "it's just like Beatrice and the Hobbit" instead of "it's just like Goldilocks and the three bears". This can also help get readers interested because they'll feel like the world is really alive, and be curious about all of the history of your fantasy world.

One thing that might help you do this would be to look up idioms from other languages. For example, in Chinese you can describe a large crowd using "人山人海" - literally "people mountain people ocean", or mountains and seas of people. You could either use what you find as inspiration for new idioms that you come up with, or just use the foreign idiom directly.

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Short answer is: you can not. Not, unless there is England in your secondary world. Neither you can name your mules Alpha and Beta, unless there is Greece. Nor you can give your characters a machete to cut the grass, and sombreros to protect them from the sun, unless there is Latin America, or feed them curry without having it come from India.

You will have to hand-wave your way through it: everyone speaks their own language and magically understand each other, just because it is the way things are there: "what do you mean, we are speaking Mandarin, I know only Polish, and that's what I was speaking all this time!"

Warning: had been done before, and not once.

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  • $\begingroup$ speaking in tongues, yay. $\endgroup$ – NZKshatriya Jan 23 '17 at 20:10
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The Will of the Gods

There are at least two divine options.

The first is that God (or one or more of the gods) has authority over multiple universes, including Earth and the universe of your story. English is Hir chosen language, so both universes were influenced to develop the same language. There might still be a handful of differences, but for the most part, but this point the languages match up.

Alternately, a god fleeing Earth (persecution by other gods, or the death of magic) came to the world of your story. As she regained her power and settled in, she taught her new followers her prefered tongue.

Either way, this might also explain why your character traveled between worlds. In the first case, the god who rules both universes creates the connection between the worlds. In the second case, the fleeing god created the portal, the vacuum of which pulls other people and things through, too.

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  • $\begingroup$ The first option only works if the other world also includes Arabic, French, Hindi, Botswanese, etc. The second option still begs the question of dialects and word drift. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 22 '17 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. It depends on what god or gods control the alternate world. They might not all have power over every universe. A god who supports English here might have power in this other universe, while the gods that support other languages do not. And the second case, the god might still have a connection to Earth. Or the language drift might be there, but not enough that the two versions of English can't communicate. $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Jan 22 '17 at 5:27
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Language is a consensus tool, meaning that people understand the noises that we make with our mouths only because they were taught what those noises mean, typically as a child. Therefore, any language is LEARNED, and the meaning of words AGREED UPON.

To explain how those in your fantasy world speak English is asking how your hero understands the meaning of their words, and vice versa. Their seem to exist only two possibilities: Magic (whether a device, spell, travel, etc) or coincidence of hig convergence. In either case, the language of that fantasy world would not be known as English.

By far, the best solution is a handwave or suspension of disbelief.

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I don't think you should worry about it. Someone else mentioned Suspension of Disbelief. That's pretty close. It really has nothing to do with what a reader will or will not believe and has more to do with the fact you are telling a story. Period. The story trumps everything. Is it important to the story for you to explain the seemingly non-existent language barrier? Usually it is not. Usually nobody cares. Usually the reader takes it for granted. Stop worrying about it, unless it's integral to the story.

To take an alternate stance to everyone else's opinion, but all of the devices offered as options to "solve" this problem will actually only shine a light on the fact that a problem exists in the first place. Again, unless it's important to the story ... don't mention it. Let it play out and let the reader not worry about it.

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Just say that the book you are reading has been translated for the reader. If the story is one of those where someone from our world goes to another, then there would have to be a logical explanation or workaround. But if the story just takes place in another world to begin with, then just don't mention it or have a little note saying that the language has been translated into english for the reader's convenience.

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Star Trek's explanation as to why everyone speaks English is -they are not. The universal translator (part of the ship's computer) translates in real time and dubs a computer-generated voice over the speaker's voice. Of course, a large amount of hand-waving occurs in situations where the crew don't have access to the universal translator, comm badges, communicators or tricorders.

ST-Enterprise made an attempt at showing what encounters were like while the universal translator was being developed. Next Generation episode "Darmok" shows an encounter the universal translator could not handle. These are among my favorite episodes.

In situations where the universal translator is available and working this still leaves the question of how the system is able to deliver translation without having to wait for the speaker to complete a translatable chunk of speech.

My take on this is that this problem is solved in the same way several other thorny issues are solved. Some of those other problems are: The ability of the crew to pilot the ship at speeds where they could not possibly react to events fast enough and the ability of the communications system to route comms to the intended recipient before the recipient is known.

My answer is: The ship's computer is permanently kept in a time bubble 2-5 seconds ahead of ship time. Speech input is translated and returned to ship-time users coinciding with the mouth movements of the speakers. Similarly, when Picard on the bridge addresses Riker on an away-mission the computer has already processed the communication and is ready to direct it to Riker's comm.

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  • $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 21 '17 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ What does this have to do with fantasy worlds? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 21 '17 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre While this is not an ideal answer to the question it is still an answer. The question asks why foreigners appear to speak English, and this person thought translation sounded most realistic. Don't get me wrong, they do go off topic, but nonetheless they provide a relevant solution. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Jan 22 '17 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, but there's no ship in the question... I decided to split the difference when this came up in the "maybe remove" review queue... I decided not to delete but still vote down the answer as not the best answer but not warranting delete. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 22 '17 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra It's an answer to a different question. The OP asks how to reasonably explain an event, and this answer says, "Just handwave it like they did in this sci-fi tv show." $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 22 '17 at 5:58
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In Star Wars, the language that is spoken is Galactic Basic aka English.

So, take English, call it something else, problem solved without much work.

Character encounters exact same language as English, given that there is likely a certain limit to sounds/phonemes/combinations of said sounds and phonemes that people can make. Just as there is actually a limited number of DNA combinations albeit it is a huge number

There is an astronomically teeny tiny chance that said character encounters the exact same language as English, with the same structure.

I cannot/will not speculate on definitions of objects however, and do not ask me about odds of finding exact language match. I have no clue, aside from it likely would require the use of 10x19^100000000 (pulled number out of air) D20 dice.

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    $\begingroup$ Not an answer. It doesn't explain how a character from our world encounters exactly the same English when visiting their world. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 22 '17 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM edited question to address that point. $\endgroup$ – NZKshatriya Jan 23 '17 at 20:09

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