Sunday February 29, 2004


[Note: this contains a spoiler for a surprise in the first half of the story, but I don't spoil the ending.]

The Outer Limits was an early-60's science fiction anthology TV show. In a lot of ways, it was a pale reflection of Rod Serling's earlier and better series The Twilight Zone, but several Outer Limits episodes rise above the others in terms of quality. One of the best is "Soldier", the first episode of the second season, adapted from his own short story by Harlan Ellison. It contains an interesting linguistics angle.

War rages across a bleak, twisted future landscape. Two enemy soldiers armed with ray guns and wearing helmets each take a moment of rest. One of them pulls out a cigarette, striking it like a match to light it. Too soon, the soldiers' helmets give them new orders: "Kill! Kill!" They run out to attack each other, but in a flash of energy beams and lightning, they disappear.

One of them appears in the present (circa 1964, that is). Confused by his unfamiliar surroundings, he frightens a crowd of people and disintegrates a police car before being subdued. In the next scene, a scholar named Kagan enters a government facility and meets Agent Tanner of "the bureau" (probably the FBI, but I don't think the full name is ever mentioned) and introduces himself as a philologist. Tanner has never heard of a philologist, and Kagan has to explain that he's an expert in languages. The bureau has called him in because the soldier speaks a strange dialect. Tanner doesn't hide his skepticism—as far as he's concerned, the soldier is nothing more than a psychotic killer.

Later, Kagan and Tanner peer down through a window at the soldier in his padded cell. Kagan has concluded that the solider has extremely sensitive hearing, and his rages are being triggered by the sound of the elevator mechanism. Radiation burns of a type the doctors don't recognize cover his body, and he keeps shouting the same thing over and over. Roughly transcribed, it's:

[nɛmz kwaɹlo klobɹɛgnipɹaʲt aɹɛmiɛndiɛntio]

I've sampled it so you can hear it for yourself. (Can you make any sense out of it? When I saw this episode as a kid, it just sounded like gibberish to me.)

Kagan wants to figure out what the soldier is saying, but he's getting nowhere just listening to him rant. He insists that he needs to go down into the cell and try to talk to the soldier face to face (a point I particularly liked—learning anything about a language without attempting communication must be nearly impossible). Tanner thinks Kagan is crazy, telling him, "He'll take you and tear along the dotted line," but Kagan convinces him.

Kagan enters the cell and closes the door behind him. He gives the soldier a cigarette, and the soldier immediately tries to strike it on the pack. Kagan shows him how to use a lighter. He then tries what must be the oldest first-contact trick in the book: he points at himself and says "Kagan", then points at the solder and says "You?", but the soldier just keeps repeating his shouted litany.

Days later, Tanner is getting impatient, and asks Kagan if he's learned anything. Kagan needs more time, but he has deciphered what the soldier is shouting over and over again. You can hear his explanation here—go listen, it's good stuff. He later describes the soldier's language like this: "It's gutter English, vastly speeded up, and filled with slang of his time." 1800 years in the future!

The rest of the episode contains a lot more Qarlo's future-slang. I think Ellison (and Michael Ansara, the actor who played Qarlo) does a great job giving us the impression of someone who speaks a future dialect of English. Many of the words are familiar, but their usage has changed (e.g. he always uses "grasp" for "understand"). Other words have been contracted into unfamiliar forms (e.g. "freddit" for "forget it"). I won't spoil the ending.

(BTW, some web sites spell the soldier's name "Quarlo". The character's name does not appear in the credits, so I went and looked it up in the original short story, where it's spelled "Qarlo Clobreginny". I suspect Ellison intended the soldier's name to be a futuristic version of "Carlo", but the actors on the show saw a Q and, as English speakers will, figured it must be pronounced QU.)

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Any link to the spoiler for the end? Thanks.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Aug 12, 2005 8:00:48 PM

There's a brief summary here. There's probably a better one somewhere on the 'net, but it wasn't in the first few pages of my Google search. :)

Posted by: The Tensor at Aug 13, 2005 4:11:56 AM