AMC’s “The Walking Dead” aired its 10th episode Sunday night. Rick and the gang are back together again and they’re not going to take it anymore. While in search for other groups willing to help them fight Negan and the Saviors, they come upon a community as yet unknown to them.
These sullen-faced newcomers, who are dressed in black and mostly silent, live in what can only be described as a landfill maze. When their leader, Jadis, begins to talk to Rick, what comes out of her mouth is nothing short of incredible. Not because of what she says, but because of how she says it.
Jadis’ English is stilted, and she seems incapable of employing anything but the most basic sentence structures. She says things like “We take. We don’t bother,” and “Wanted bullet long time.” She repeats words like she’s a tourist in France who’s only taken two semesters of French, and doesn’t know how to make clear to a shopkeeper what kind of vegetable she wants to buy. “Jars and guns. Guns and jars.”
This Newest Plot Development Just Doesn’t Make Sense
I realize the irony in picking out inaccuracies in a show that’s about a zombie-apocalypse. But part of the fun of watching “The Walking Dead” is imagining the unexpected ways in which society would break apart and patch itself back together after a global cataclysmic event. For the most part, the show’s creators have crafted scenarios that ring true. But this one doesn’t.
The show’s creators seem to be trying to depict strange medieval tribes and kingdoms that have developed in this new world, each with its own peculiar societal structures and cultures. They thought that language would be a good way to demonstrate this. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t make any sense.
In medieval times, when travel was difficult, communities divided by mountains or great distances would gather only once or twice a year to trade. Not speaking one another’s language or dialect, they would rely on a lingua franca in order to complete the transaction. Their command of the lingua franca might be very weak and so communication would be choppy.
Alternatively, they might patch together a system of communication using a little bit from each language. This language, called pidgin, would have an extremely simple grammar. It would not be considered a full-fledged “language” and might sound a little something like how Jadis speaks.
Seven Years Won’t Create A Language Barrier
But in “The Walking Dead,” these are still just a bunch of Georgians who, seven years ago, spoke English just fine. They haven’t been cut off for centuries from neighboring communities by a mountain range. And they’re not native speakers of another language. It would be one thing if they were a group of foreign-exchange students who were in the U.S. when the zombie-apocalypse began. But most of these people have probably never even learned another language that would cause any linguistic confusion.
Groups in isolation over long periods of time can and have demonstrated linguistic changes and, sometimes, oddities. There are plenty of examples of this. Quebecois French developed differently from European French, for example, once the British took control of Canadian territory in the eighteenth century. These changes are mostly evident in their accent and their vocabulary, but also, occasionally, in their grammar.
Some of this has to do with high levels of contact with English. In one eastern Canadian dialect of French, speakers use the French prefix “re-,” implying repetition of an action, along with the English word “back,” which serves the same purpose. So they might say “je reviens back,” literally meaning “I am coming back back.”
What Linguistic Shifts Would Be Realistic?
Similarly, some Russian communities in Alaska, known as the Old Believers, were cut off from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and therefore speak a very different Russian than what is spoken in the Old Country. In fact, it might even be the case that the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. But the Old Believers didn’t lose their ability to use the language. It didn’t just de-evolve. It simply developed differently.
What’s more, it took generations for these changes to take place. In the world of “The Walking Dead,” about seven years have passed since the breakdown of society. This simply is not enough time for this degree of linguistic change to occur. Not to mention, the community in Alexandria, where Rick and his crew are now based, has been equally isolated and their English sounds just fine.
The most likely short-term linguistic change that would occur in the “Walking Dead” scenario is shifts in vocabulary. Language is always changing and developing, our lexicon most easily of all. That’s because humans are inherently innovative and life is constantly presenting us with new scenarios to describe. In the case of “The Walking Dead,” there are now flesh-eating zombies walking around trying to kill you. You’re going to need to find an effective way to describe that.
This Isn’t ‘Star Trek,’ But It Feels Like It Could Be
Episode 10 of “The Walking Dead” went beyond that. It had the feel of countless “Star Trek” episodes featuring visits to a strange new planet and inhabited by races that speak very limited English. The most famous episode of this kind is “Darmok,” in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard meets the Tamarian captain, Dathon, who repeatedly references Darmok and Jalad and their antics on the ocean and at Tanagra. His language is entirely based on allegories from his culture’s history, making communication well-nigh impossible (don’t worry, Jean-Luc figures it out in the end).
But it makes no sense, just like the linguistically challenged group in the latest episode of “The Walking Dead.”
The only plausible explanation for the utter deterioration in English proficiency among Rick’s new allies—and it’s just barely plausible—is that a person’s language skills might become wooden if they belonged to a group that didn’t allow its members to speak to one another. Then, when a person did encounter and speak with an exogenous individual, their English might be rusty. But it would hardly be reduced to “Guns. Soon. Or else.”