How is Mandarin used in the fictional universe of the SciFi-Series "Firefly"?

Term Paper, 2016

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Background
2.1 The languages of the 'verse
2.2 Domains and Code-Mixing & Switching

3. Data and statement ofresults

4. Discussion: in which way is Mandarin used in Firefly ?

5. Conclusion: Difficulties with data/argumentation, suggestions for futureresearch . .

6. References

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

Bilingualism is a frequent phenomenon in our present society, and it is as varied as it is frequent. In a survey which was carried out by the European Commission in 2006, 56% of the inhabitants of the then 25 EU countries as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Croatia stated that they were able to have a conversation in a language other than their mother-tongue. It is evident from these numbers that Bilingualism is an area ofresearch that can offer many insights that may speak not only about the usage of language itself, but also about the culture and history of theregion it is used in. In the past, Bilingualism has beenresearched to great extent. Whatremains a smallresearch area within Bilingualism is theresearch area of fictional speech communities which can be found in many worksranging from SciFi to Fantasy. My subject ofresearch will therefore be the fictional speech community of the SciFi- series Firefly. In it, the viewer is confronted with a future in which humanity has left Earth- that-was (as the present Earth is called in the Firefly -universe) due to extensive pollution and overpopulation and populated new star systems via terra-forming. Throughout this generation-spanning process of emigration, the languages of the previously geographically separated areas were mixed,resulting in a multilingual society whose main languages are English and Mandarin, presumably the two majority languages on Earth-that-was. In this paper, I aim to uncover some findings about the characteristics of the usage of Mandarin in Firefly as well as some insights into the speech community portrayed in Firefly. As a multilingual society which has developed through a fundamental uprooting and transplanting, it is interesting to examine the visible (or hearable)result of this process. Thisresult will be data gathered from the series, focused on verbal utterances made by the characters of the series (visual signs of Bilingualism like street signs and inscriptions will be omitted). To gain insights on the characteristics of the usage of Mandarin in Firefly, I will examine the domains in which Mandarin is typically used in conversation, and examine the way in which it is used. As code-switching and code-mixing are a phenomenon which occursrather often, I will use a numerical approach to create an overview over the number of Mandarin utterances, and analyze them further by comparing my findings with the features found in Holmes 2013. In doing so, I hope to prove that Mandarin seems to be the language which is more easily at the disposal of the speakers, in opposition to English, which seems to be the official language used in everyday situations.

2. Background

The speech community of Firefly is multilingual, blending languages from different former geographic areas in a "intergalactic melting pot". Although the distribution of Mandarin and English varies throughout the galaxy ("core planets" who have been populated for a longer time are more likely to have a more distinguished use of English while "Border planets" are more likely to have an accent-coloured variant of English, the main cities also have linguistic particularities: Londinium is mostly English-speaking, Sihnon mainly Mandarin-speaking, the distribution within the speech community of the space ship Serenity, in which most of the dialogue takes place, seems to use both languages with the same proficiency. The process which led to this "intergalactic melting pot" is very fittingly summarised when Ilse Lehiste writes: "languages come into contact when speakers of those languages come into contact" (qtd in Mandala 2012: 38). Susan Mandala describes in her book "Languages in Science Fiction and Fantasy" this contact as the main catalyst for all linguistic phenomena associated with Bilingualism such as code-switching or lexical borrowing. What is interesting is that languages do not seem to be affected negatively by the presence of other languages within their speech community, on the contrary, they seem to thrive on the exchange. This is a phenomenon which is also described by David Sankoff in his article "How to predict the evolution of a bilingual community" when he writes: "The vitality of a language depends not so much on how many people know it, [which can be derived from the census], than on how much they use it in diverse contexts" (Sankoff 2008: 192). From this quote I derived that the languages which a community tends to use more often must pose a certain ability to either fit into the environment of a given community or to be capable of adaptation. Firefly offered me an interesting opportunity to look at a community which is faced with a completely new geographical environment but old cultural patterns. The question which arose was: why do the people of the 'verse (as the universe is called in Firefly) speak English and Mandarin?

2.1 The languages of the 'verse

The most obvious argument is quantitative. According to a survey done by in 2013, Mandarin is the language spoken by most people in the world (889 million), with English (339 million) as the third most spoken language (Lewis et al. 2016). The argument thus is a practical one: it is better to be able to communicate with the majority of those around you.

A different argument is the ability of adaption. English offers a wide variety of formation processes (compounding, derivation, conversion (Kortmann 2005: 94-109)). Mandarin seems to incorporate words differently (Miao 2005: 152), but it does so nonetheless. Both languages seem to be highly adaptable and thus provide a fitting code for conversation in the Firefly universe. Nevertheless it seems that both languages are not used in the same way. English is, at least from what can be seen and heard throughout the show'srun, the language which is used in day-to-day conversation. So whichrole does Mandarin play within the speech community of Firefly ?

2.2 Domains and Code-Switching & Mixing

Mandarin, as opposed to English, is spoken lessregularly in Firefly, which points to a specialrole or a character which the language assumes. To illuminate thisrole or character, I will examine the domains in which Mandarin is used. Domains are, as Janet Holmes summarises, typical interactions between typical participants in typical settings (Holmes 2013: 22). This may, for example, be a typical interaction in a work environment. The typical domain of Mandarin in Firefly is varied. It is used not only in the conversations between the crew-members of the Serenity, the space ship who carries the protagonists of the series, but also in bars, in families and hospitals. This indicates that Mandarin is a language which does notrepresent a low variation of speech, on the contrary: we see Mandarin being used in high society, by members of academia and thieves alike, in situationsranging from balls to hostage negotiations.

What is interesting is the usage of Mandarin itself: the utterances are alwaysrather short. The code-mixing and switching with and to Mandarin often occur within a sentence. An argument has been made that these code-switches and mixes occur to avoidrestrictions made by the series air station, FOX. For this paper I will ignore this argument and stay within the series' narrative for my analysis.

3. Data and statement ofresults

The corpus I analysed is the product of my close viewings and the personal knowledge andresearch of Kevin Sullivan the man behind, as well as my own additions. It is focused on audible utterances in Mandarin, the charts omit visual occurences of Mandarin such as street signs or posters and usages of curses in other languages which are used in the Firefly - universe (such as Czech). As the distribution of used languages is around 80% English, 19% Mandarin and 1% other languages, the occurences of Mandarinremain arather small number. A difficulty while evaluating the data was the categorisation of what seems to be a curse and what could be categorized into "other usages" of Mandarin.


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How is Mandarin used in the fictional universe of the SciFi-Series "Firefly"?
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Institut für Anglistik)
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mandarin, scifi-series, firefly
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Lisa-Merle Gier (Author), 2016, How is Mandarin used in the fictional universe of the SciFi-Series "Firefly"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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