Dialect in SFF: What Does the Future Sound Like?

You know what I will always remember? “Schway”.

You remember “schway”, right? That hip futuristic slang from Batman Beyond? Schway, adjective, ‘fashionable, popular, cool, or good’.

Can anyone tell you where ‘schway’ comes from? As in, what its etymology is in that universe, how it grew in popularity there, what about the word stands out as interesting to that world’s young people?

Because I can’t lie to you—‘schway’ almost made me hate Batman Beyond.

I loved old-man house-on-the-hill Bruce Wayne, I loved Terry’s confidence and compassion, I loved watching the already pretty peculiar world of Gotham City shift from dimly lit art deco into a pretty easy-to-read vision of a neon future without giving up its noir darkness, the hokiness of some of its villains, and the sleek cool of its lead, a hero even younger than Bruce was when he first donned the cape and cowl. In a lot of ways, Batman Beyond was a better experience for me than my introduction to the original character had been—and I say this as someone who also truly loved Batman: The Animated Series.

And yet, every time the word ‘schway’ fell out of someone’s mouth…I would grit my teeth.

It felt unearned. I couldn’t follow it, couldn’t see how it could follow all the way back to present-day language or identify what that said about the world or the words that came before them. It was… made up. Out of nowhere, totally non sequitur to anything that generation actually knew or learned before. (Unless you want to convince me that it evolved from ‘swag’, which… well, I don’t believe you.) And I don’t think I have to tell anyone that this isn’t how language works—even the nonsense words that we know right now, your ‘cromulents’ and ‘frabjouses’ and what have you, came from somewhere, have meaning and value ascribed to their use in those places; they are typically neologisms designed specifically to critique the ways in which we think about language, and can be followed back to those places of origin without much difficulty.

But ‘schway’ was supposed to feel like naturally occurring slang. And yet no one even knows how the word ‘schway’ became… well, schway in the first place.

And if I’m being really honest, that bothers me because someone, somewhere, is taking a word that they use every day, a word that they share with their friends and coworkers in their homeland every day, and staring at it intensely. Holding it over a blank page with a pair of tweezers and squinting at it, trying to learn how to make it palatable, how to make it fit into a story for an audience that has never heard people use the word the way that they do. Trying to figure out how to make it schway.

And they will most likely just leave it out. Try not to sound like themselves at all.

But won’t that be what the future actually sounds like?

In my first few recordings of Black Star Cruises, my segment in the Cabbages and Kings podcast centered around discovering and sharing black science fiction and fantasy, I spent a lot of time talking about voice. I knew that it’s been important to me, for personal reasons, but I didn’t know exactly how much of a big deal it truly was to me until I realized I spent nearly half of each segment dedicated to just talking about how much I loved how characters spoke. I wanted more characters in more work to sound as authentic as Lucrio in Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey or Desmond Coke in Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier.

And I kept talking about it because I felt like it wouldn’t ever happen.

As I type right now, even, I am tempted to try to tell the rest of this story the way I would speak, as a Trinidadian man. You t’ink you would like that, ent? To ‘ear meh talk how I accustomed to talkin’, so you could feel like you learnin’ somet’ing ‘bout me, ‘bout where I come from?

But I’ve been conditioned not to do that. I’ve been conditioned by hearing so many writers of colour, genre or not, listing all of the reviewers, editors, blog posts and workshops where people have derided their voice. A ‘trick’ or a ‘gimmick’, ‘impenetrable’ or ‘dense’, impossible for them to understand—even ‘false’ or ‘forced’, as if they would know the way that writer’s world speaks better than they would. As if reading a few lines is the same as immersion, as the ritual of being birthed and tried by the fire of dialect.

Suffice it to say that writers of colour talk about voice a lot. You may not hear it often, and I’m inclined to say without a hint of admonition that if you haven’t heard it at all, that says even more about the landscape that we’re in. It happens regardless of genre. It happens regardless of locale—but the Gods help you if you’re writing from outside the domes of the United States or the United Kingdom. It happens regardless of the specific language—one moment an Asian-American writer is struggling to get an editor to parse why there is Mandarin in their draft, and another it’s a dialect of English itself being looked down upon as ‘incorrect’ or misread as an indicator of a character’s poverty or ignorance.

But I feel like this distinction matters even more to speculative fiction, because a responsible and diligent attention to language in the genre is also the act of placing people of colour in these worlds. It is an insistence that, in these myriad ideas of what the world can be, the rest of us still exist, and are still contributing to culture. You can hear them. They speak for themselves, and they speak as themselves.

It comes down to what we think the future will sound like. Do we, collectively, as a genre really want to keep perpetuating the notion that, even in worlds where some manner of social cohesion and multiculturalism is at least in our sights, it is still too hard to just hear the rest of the world in their own voices?

Does the future sound ‘so schway’…or does the future sound like me?

And if it doesn’t sound like me, what does that say about where I am in the future? Is this another future where I struggle to find my own voice against the large cultural giants of the world? Did it die, devoured by the very same monsters of assimilation that call Caribbean patois ‘fascinating’ and ‘exotic’ and ‘impenetrable’, requiring a reader’s ‘patience’ in the here and now? Or is it rumbling and revolting in the underground, murmuring curses at the establishment under the bridges and in the tightly locked houses, using its tongue to light the torches that will burn the system down?

Do I still sound like ‘too much’ in the future where we meet aliens with unfathomable languages, and kids seem to make up cool new lingo out of nothing? Do I still sound like ‘too much’ in the same imagined past that is flooded with dragons that speak English, and dwarves that write in their own sharp and defined script? Or can my voice be enough, for once? Enough for me to travel with, through time or into the depths of space, and share with you when I meet you there? How many Desmond Cokes will there be, how many Lucrios will there be?

Because so help me, nothing is going to be ‘schway’ in the future.

The future go sound like I does sound. Sweet an’ deliberate an’ handsome, an’ if yuh ain’t like it, me ain’t know what tuh tell yuh. This is how I does talk. I talkin’ like this since I born, and meh chirren go talk like this after I dead. What make you t’ink the future don’t sound like me, eh?

Because I t’ink the future could sound beautiful, if you let me speak in it.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, Arsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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