Lang Belta: The Language of The Expanse

Linguistic worldbuilding can be fairly simple—like making up and incorporating a few slang words or insults based on whatever your fictional culture finds profane—or it can be elaborate, like inventing an entire new language and writing poetry in it (hi, J.R.R. Tolkien!), or anywhere in between. We’ve already discussed an example of a technique around the midpoint of the spectrum in Cherryh’s Hunter of Worlds, so now I’d like to explore something on the more elaborate end: Belter creole in The Expanse.

This will first require a discussion of what creole languages are, as well as their key characteristics. I must note here that I am not a creolist by any means, so please forgive (and correct!) me if I misstate something. I took a class in contact linguistics, where we covered the basics of pidgins and creoles, among other things, and in preparation for this essay, I read John McWhorter’s The Creole Debate (2018). To avoid any potential confusion, please also note that this is a discussion of the concept of creole languages, and not the concept of creolization as it relates to ethnicity and Creole peoples. It was just my luck that Ars Technica published an interview with Nick Farmer about his work on the TV version of Belter while I was putting the edits on this post.

What I learned about creoles in Contact Ling was that they are the result of a pidgin developing a full grammar and being acquired and spoken as a native language. A pidgin is an ad hoc language that typically arises in situations where people who don’t speak the same native language have to communicate with each other, such as trade with a new partner or (all too frequently) as a result of colonization or enslavement. A pidgin doesn’t have grammar per se, but it has very basic syntax. Nouns can come from any of the languages in contact with each other, as can verbs, adjectives, etc, although vocabulary most often comes from the dominant language (i.e. that of the people in power).

So, how does a creole evolve and develop from this? It’s an interesting question—apparently some people disagree with what I thought was a settled matter (again: not a creolist), as I learned from McWhorter’s book. He is a proponent of the pidgin-creole lifecycle hypothesis, which he refers to as Creole Exceptionalism, and I think he lays out an excellent case for his argument. A break in transmission of the parent languages is a key aspect in the formation of a creole, because when adults learn a second language (in a non-classroom setting, as would be seen in this type of situation), some of the more complex features are lost, and when these adults transmit the languages to their children, those features aren’t there. So the children take features from the languages and construct a new grammar, which becomes a creole.

The main opposing view is that pidginization is not necessary because creoles are mixed or hybrid languages, created by speakers choosing from a “feature pool” of the source languages to build new morphology, where similar features combine in a least-common-denominator-type arrangement. There is no break in transmission of the source languages. In relation to plantation creoles, for example, the Feature Pool Hypothesis suggests that, as multiple waves of slaves were brought to the Americas, they learned a non-native version of the languages, which approaches equilibrium over time. This is a pretty neat idea, and it goes along well with the Chomskyan/generativist trend in formal linguistics, but, according to McWhorter, there is no evidence at all whatsoever for this hypothesis. The FPH advocates only study one or two creoles, when there are in reality hundreds of them, and claim that CEH advocates aren’t scientific because they aren’t using generativist theories.

The Feature Pool isn’t the first hypothesis to make use of generativist ideas. In the 1980s, Bickerton proposed the Bioprogram Hypothesis, based on Chomsky’s conception of Universal Grammar (that brains come inherently equipped with computer-like 1/0 settings for principles and parameters, which are set as the languages are acquired). According to this hypothesis, “creoles instantiate Universal Grammar with parameters unset, the ‘default’ of language, produced by children under the unusual circumstance of acquiring language with insufficient input” (McWhorter 1). It was a pretty cool idea at the time and would have done a lot to support the UG hypothesis, but, unfortunately, evidence contradicted this premise, as studies were published that showed that children who created creoles (in this case, Hawaiian Creole English) did not have insufficient input, because they spoke English at school and their parents’ languages at home (McWhorter 2). So today, in creolist circles, the Bioprogram Hypothesis is basically disproven, but it provides a theoretical heritage, of sorts, to the Feature Pool.

For our purposes, the rest of this article assumes that the CE hypothesis is correct. Now for some definitions: Every creole has a lexifier, which provides the majority of vocabulary. The lexifier is often, but not required to be, the superstrate, the dominant language or language of power. There is also one or more substrates, the minority language which has an effect on the superstrate. Within a creole, there is an acrolect, which is most similar to the lexifier, a basilect, which is most different from the lexifier, and a mesolect, which is in-between. (This is really a spectrum, rather than a three-point line.)

A really cool but rare result of language contact is a mixed language. These are true hybrid languages, where two languages are intertwined. The two most well-known of these are Media Lengua, which combines a Spanish lexicon with Quechua phonology, morphology, and syntax, and Michif, which combines French nouns and nominal morphology with Cree verbs and verbal morphology. Pidginization was not involved. These languages developed among fluent bilinguals.

Common Features of Creoles

Creoles frequently omit the copula. This is the linking verb ‘to be.’ If the lexifier uses a copula, the creole often lacks it, or only uses it in certain instances. European languages are the most frequent lexifiers (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese), and all of these languages use a form of ‘to be’ to link the subject with the predicate: The sky is blue. I am a woman. In a creole, ‘is’ and ‘am’ would often be omitted: the sky blue .

Verbal inflection is minimized. Inflection is the changing of a word form to mark person, number, gender, case, etc. In creoles, this often takes the form of generalizing the infinitive. While English doesn’t have much verbal morphology, and the verb often looks like the infinitive, the Romance languages have extensive verbal inflection. Since I don’t speak any Romance languages, I’ll turn to English and German to invent examples. For standard English, we have ‘I go’ but ‘she goes.’ Generalizing the infinitive would be ‘she go.’ German has different inflectional forms, ‘ich gehe,’ ‘du gehst,’ ‘er geht,’ ‘wir gehen,’ ‘ihr geht,’ ‘sie gehen.’ Generalizing the infinitive would give ‘ich/du/er/wir/ihr/sie gehen.’

Case distinction is lost in lexifier pronouns. Rather than I/me, or he/him, you find ‘me’ or ‘him’ extended to all cases: think Harry Belafonte, “daylight come and me wan’ go home.”

To negate a verb, the lexifier’s negator is placed before the verb. McWhorter gives an example from Sranan Creole English, spoken in Suriname (5), which includes multiple creole features:

A hondiman no ben e bai wan oso gi mi

the hunter NEG PAST PROG buy a house give me

“The hunter was not buying a house for me.”

Tense, mood, and aspect are simplified in comparison to the lexifier and substrate languages. “Practically all of the Atlantic English-lexicon creoles, for instance, employ a Past tense derived from been, a Future derived from go, and a Terminative Perfect expressed by done” (Winford 324).

Creoles: A Summary

Creoles emerge from language contact situations where people need to communicate with speakers of other languages. They begin as a pidgin, which is an ad hoc language with minimal morphology and basic syntax, and children develop them into a full language, and the next generation speaks it as their native language. Creoles have some common grammatical features, like preposed negation and simplified morphology.

The Expanse

The Expanse is an ongoing novel series by James S.A. Corey (the collaborative pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck); currently at eight doorstop-sized volumes, it was adapted for TV by SyFy, cancelled, and rescued by Amazon Prime. The background pits three main factions against each other: Earth, Mars, and “the Belt,” which is everything past the asteroid belt. The Belters consider Earth and Mars to be equally bad and refer to them as the Inners. Earth and Mars have a very tentative alliance that could come crashing down at the least provocation. Both of the inner planets use the Belt as a source of resources, in an extractive economy. Earth and Mars have a financial interest in the colonies in the Belt, and Belters typically work for companies owned by Inners. The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) is a very loose collection of factions who want the Belt to be independent from the Inners, each with its own preferred methods of getting there and vision of what an independent Belt would look like.

Earth and Mars have their own insults for each other and the Belters, but they speak similar standard languages, with some lexical variation akin to U.S. vs. British English. Out in the Belt, though, people from a lot of different countries who spoke a lot of different languages came together to build colonies or mine asteroids or fly cargo ships. This is exactly the type of situation where we’d expect a pidgin to develop, then eventually a creole.

I didn’t write every example of belta in my notes as I read, and the ones I took are primarily from the first two books. I also noted some examples from the first two seasons of the TV adaptation. (So there aren’t spoilers for anything past the opening of book 3, Abaddon’s Gate.)

The two most easily identifiable (to me) non-English languages involved in lang belta appear to be German and Spanish, with que/ke, pendejo, agua, nichts, dir, and bist. Other source languages include French (bien, dieu), Japanese (shikata ga nai), and Mandarin (dui ), along with other languages that I didn’t recognize because I don’t know them. These languages blend together, so you get things like “sabez nichts” (know/s nothing), “bist bien” (am/are good), and “kept top bunk á dir” (for you). I don’t know how many real-world creoles are composed of a lexifier plus five or more substrate languages (I think the one McWhorter mentions with the most substrate languages is Mauritian Creole French, at six substrates), but it is certainly possible, especially in a space-future where people from dozens of countries are thrown together and have to communicate.

Lang belta shows some features of creoles, and, given what I’ve read about the size of the worldbuilding bible for this novel series, it’s likely they did the research (A+). For the TV adaptation, they recruited the linguist Nick Farmer to consult and develop the creole further (see the Ars Technica post linked above), and he put his linguistic skills to work imagining what curses and insults people would use in space and how body language would look.

Examples of Belta

In Leviathan Wakes, chapter six, Detective Miller, a Belter who works for an Earth-based security company, is talking to a man who’s inciting a riot on Ceres. The man says, “Inners kibble you, bitch. You they dog.” This demonstrates both copula deletion and loss of case distinctions (no possessive marking), as well as the verbing of the noun “kibble.”

It’s easy to notice examples of verbal simplification. Throughout the books, people say “bist bien,” which uses the German du-form (2nd person singular) of “to be” for all people and numbers, and “sabez nichts,” which also extends the 2nd person singular form of “to know.” Many creoles extend the infinitive form, but that doesn’t mean this one is impossible. The you-form of verbs would be pretty frequently used in this kind of situation, and it’s plausible that this would be the most salient, noticeable form for learners, which they then would pick up and use as the only verb form.

Sociolinguistic Factors

There are also various sociolinguistic factors in evidence in belta. These are not specifically tied to creoles; these are factors that we all use every day when we speak, write, listen, and read. We link particular traits to accents, dialects, and slangs (among other things), and we choose, consciously or not, our own ways of writing or speaking depending on our audience. You write a chat message to a friend differently than a quarterly report for your boss or a letter to your grandma. You can choose to use a different dialect or a particular type of slang to show that you belong to a particular group (this is often called code-switching), either out of solidarity with your interlocutor or to reject your interlocutor’s familiarity and emphasize your difference. Diglossia occurs when two dialects or languages exist in the same space and are spoken within a language community. For a real-world, US-based example, we have Standard American English (what you learn in school) and African-American Vernacular English (which has its own separate rules). (Sociolinguistics is the fun part: it’s the “why do people do the thing?” and “what does it mean when they do the thing?” Many of my friends and colleagues prefer formal linguistics, which is cool I guess, and someone has to study phonetics and morphology and syntax, and I’m glad it’s not me.)

The narrators explicitly mention social aspects of belta multiple times. This means that people in-universe are aware of the language as a marker of Belter identity. Early on in the book, Miller and his partner are interviewing a witness to a crime. Miller is from the Belt, and he and the witness speak together in belta. His partner, from Earth, remarks that it’s “Belters keeping the Earther out,” but Miller corrects him: it’s poor folks keeping the educated guy out. This idea of Belters using their language for privacy and to assert identity—people who associate most strongly with Belter independence ideals use belta more often, and often a deeper lect of it—repeats throughout the series.

Together on the Roci, the crew and Miller are discussing the reasons that Protogen, the Earth-based company, believed that they could use Eros as a testing facility for their protomolecule. (They don’t consider Belters fully human.) Naomi and Miller explain to the three Inners in the room that people and society are different in the Belt. Miller even remarks, “We’ve practically got our own language now.” Amos, despite being from Baltimore, has spent twenty-five years on ships and has learned to understand Belter talk, which he demonstrates when Naomi breaks out with “tu run spin, pow, Schlauch tu way acima and ido.” He translates this as “Go spinward to the tube station, which will take you back to the docks.” A more literal translation might be “you run spinward, tube your way up and gone.”

Belters like Naomi can make use of their bilingualism and code switch to show solidarity, which Naomi is also shown to do in the TV adaptation (season 2, episode 6, around 35 minutes in). Drummer doesn’t believe that Naomi is on her side, so Naomi answers her in the belta basilect.

Is it a creole?

I think you could call lang belta a (constructed) creole, because it hits many of the common features of a creole, and if similar conditions were mapped onto a real-world situation, the social aspects would be highly amenable to creole formation. The question remains as to whether modern tools like Google Translate or Duolingo would have an effect in this situation. Machine translation could potentially limit the need for a pidgin to form, but machine translation is only as good as its programming. It’s gotten better, but it has quite a ways to go. As a language teacher, I have to say I’m not fond of Duolingo’s pedagogical methods (other people have discussed the topic here and here), so I am skeptical of its utility in this kind of hypothetical situation.

Sociolinguistically, lang belta functions as a typical language in a diglossic situation. Belters use the standard language when they have to talk to people not from the Belt, and belta to communicate with the in-group. Nick Farmer discusses that in the interview with AT:

Some characters speak pure Belter, but most speak about half-English, half-Belter, adjusting their vocabulary for each situation. If they’re holding a separatist rally to protest Earther rule, Belter is the order of the day. If they’re trying to talk to a boss, English makes more sense. In everyday chit-chat, they’ll probably switch back and forth without thinking about it.

So, beratna: What are your thoughts on belta? Do you want to learn it? There are plenty of other linguistic worldbuilding features I didn’t cover in depth, like Inners’ slang and Belter body language, so please feel free to discuss those below as well!


 

References

  • McWhorter, John. (2018) The Creole Debate. Cambridge University Press.
  • Winford, Donald. (2003) An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing.

Additional Resources

  • Thomason, Sarah and Terrence Kaufman. (1988) Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics. University of California Press.

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke.

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