Epistemic status: Really silly headcanon. Total retcon. Not to be taken too seriously.
Attention conservation notice: This is probably the nerdiest post I have ever written. It is only of interest if you’re a Stargate nerd like me.
I make no secret of the fact that I love Stargate. I can take or leave Atlantis, and I’m mildly hostile towards Universe, but Stargate SG-1 is one of my favourite series. One of my most read pieces ever (top 10 certainly, maybe top 5) is a piece of Stargate fanfiction about software testing.
But lets be honest, Stargate makes no sense. It’s ridiculous and it knows it.
Not that that stops me trying to make sense of it.
One of the things I have never ever been able to come up with a convincing explanation for (and as far as I can tell neither has anyone else) is why everyone in every galaxy speaks English. On the long list of things that make no sense about Stargate, this is basically top of the list. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever even tried to explain it in series (though I think it gets lamp-shaded once or twice).
I think I finally have a headcanon that explains it. It’s not even too much of a stretch.
Here are the things we have to explain:
- Almost everybody speaks linguistically modern English.
- The people on Abydos had to be taught English.
- Almost everyone everywhere else spoke it automatically.
- Many non-English words are used and have to be translated, especially early on in the series.
- There are many languages that most people don’t speak (Goa’uld, Ancient, Russian).
- When people who went through the stargate come back to Earth they do not magically acquire fluency in any other Earth language.
- The written language is typically not English
- People far away from stargates still speak English (I’m reading the Stargate Atlantis Legacy series at the moment, which is actually pretty decent, but at some point they posit that the stargate is doing translation. This is manifestly not a sufficient explanation)
- When people come to earth, they are still speaking English, even when talking with people who have not been through the stargate.
This rules out all sorts of explanations. Here are some non-explanations:
- “English is actually the shared language of the human race”. No. Just no. No I don’t care about your clever theory about how Merlin did it. Setting aside all of my aesthetic objections to this theory, the English they speak is much too linguistically modern given the isolation of earth.
- “The stargate is translating” fails to explain both how people communicate when on a ship far away from a stargate, and also how people speak non-english (e.g. Goa’uld) around it.
- “Translator microbe plague”, again fails to explain how people speak non-English languages without being understood and why people who have been through the stargate .
- “Daniel taught them all the universal language based on ancient Egyptian that everyone speaks”. Implausible given timeline, doesn’t explain people in Pegasus who are very unlikely to speak the same universal language even in the unlikely event that they did before they became isolated populations. Also doesn’t explain how alien visitors to earth speak English to people who have no reason to know about the stargate. Also language acquisition is hard, especially for people who aren’t used to it.
The core problem is that what we have is non-universal translation. If everyone understood everyone all the time, sure translator microbe plague, whatever, but we have to explain not only why people understand each other most of the time but sometimes they speak a completely different language and aren’t understood.
At this point the sensible thing to do would be to shrug and say “Eh it’s a TV series. It doesn’t have to make logical sense” but no I demand an explanation.
And finally I have one.
In this explanation I posit two things:
- The fact that everybody “speaks English” is a translation convention for the sake of TV. Everyone is speaking a common language, but it is often not English and it would be too tedious for viewers to subtitle everything so this just gets rendered as English in some cases where they’re actually speaking some other shared language. So although we must still explain why they share a language, we need not explain why it is English.
- The stargate can rewrite the genetics of people who travel through it on the fly. Given the other things we see ancient tech do, and given that it is canon that the stargate does dematerialise and rematerialise you rather than just physically sending you through, I do not feel this is too much of a reach.
Given these two assumptions, we can explain everything.
We know that the ancients can encode memory in genetics. After all, they created the Goa’uld (I acknowledge that this is technically not canon, but it makes so much sense of everything that I just consider it canon now, sorry).
We also know that the Stargate is a horrible bodge of a project subject to massive feature creep and poor quality control at the whims of its committee, so what’s one more feature? (same)
So, at some point, the committee had a problem: It’s really annoying to travel somewhere and not speak the language. To solve this, they had the following bright idea: Why not have the stargate preload everyone who comes through it with a primer pack for the local language? What could go wrong? Stargates are perfectly reliable technology after all, and it sure would be convenient.
This feature was made with the following cultural assumptions:
- Everyone who matters already speaks Ancient
- Planets are long-term homogenous stable civilizations, so only speak one language. Linguistic isolation is only possible between different worlds between which, prior to the invention of the stargate, communication and travel between was much slower.
As a result, every Stargate has a language pack associated with it. All (well, almost all), incoming travellers to that gate automatically acquire that language pack on arrival.
These language packs obey the following rules:
- They will never teach you Ancient, because you either do or should know it already.
- Being loaded with a language you already know is confusing, so if you seem to already know it they won’t give you the pack. Also if you have already been through a stargate (in either direction) that stargate will avoid giving you a new language pack, for the same reason.
- If enough people going out through a stargate don’t speak its currently configured language and do speak some other common language, the stargate will build a language pack from modelling them and eventually sets its current configuration to that pack.
I believe this explains everything.
The overwhelming majority of stargates in the milky way galaxy are set to the common Jaffa dialect, as they are the primary users of the stargate network, and this system has a rich get richer phenomenon: If people learn Jaffa automatically, it becomes a lingua franca and people will tend to learn it even if they don’t go through the stargate. Thus when they first enter a stargate they already speak Jaffa and do not trigger the check for whether an outgoing traveller does not speak the local language.
This knowledge is genetically encoded, so even if the local population are not stargate users (most aren’t in the Milky Way), the Jaffa language becomes essentially heritable. Therefore almost everyone in the Milky Way is in fact speaking Jaffa, including the people from Earth who come through the stargate. There may be local dialect differences and loan words, but the language people are speaking is overwhelmingly a Jaffa dialect, and regular infusions from outside keep it fairly stable as such even when there are no outgoing travellers to reset the local stargate. Unfortunately Jaffa has no written form (all official Jaffa documents where such exist are written in Goa’uld), so the stargate doesn’t teach anyone that.
In Pegasus people are very regularly travelling between worlds using the stargate network and have been doing so for a very long time. This has resulted in a shared Pegasus trade dialect that serves much the same role as Jaffa. There is a written form, but most significant local civilizations also speak and write at least one local language and most of their documents are written in that.
The earth stargate on the other hand has primarily been used by the USA military and its civilian contractors, and on the first time out none of them speak Jaffa, so it is configured to prime you with English. Non-native English speakers do not get any extra grasp of English from this because they have inevitably been through the outgoing stargate. Thus, anyone who comes to Earth through its stargate automatically speaks English. Even once the stargate program becomes more international, the overwhelming majority of people leaving through it speak English, so no single other language manages to unseat it.
The Abydonians do not speak Jaffa because Ra has kept them a deliberately isolated and subservient population (and Abydos was not configured to Jaffa at the time they got there).
The initial confusion over some words (Chapa’i) is because the concept of a stargate was not yet routine enough to have become embedded in the core English language that the stargate network picked up. Now people are much more familiar with stargates and stargates are much more familiar with English, so the problem doesn’t crop up so much.
One thing this doesn’t explain is why we don’t see people deliberately switching languages more – stargate teams could speak in English when on other planets and not be understood, or in Jaffa when on earth similarly. I’m going to cop out and explain this as it happening occasionally but we mostly don’t see it on screen, and where we do it’s just covered up by the translation convention.
I’m sure there are some edge cases in the series that this doesn’t cover. There’s a lot of it, and I don’t remember every part, but nevertheless I think this so much more sense than everyone speaking English that I’m happy to provide some elaborate explanation for special cases that this doesn’t cover. Also note that if someone comes to Earth the long way, you can just round trip them through the Alpha Site (which of course is also set to English) and they get the English language pack.
So, there you have it. This is why everyone speaks English. It’s not just bad world building for the sake of story telling convenience, it’s because A Stargate Did It. Now we can all rest easy at night.