Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Past Made New: Futurama and Middle English

Happy (early) X-Mas!
Futurama has always been one of my favorite shows, if not my favorite. Its witty brand of humor which mixes intellect and wacky adventure has tickled my funny bone for years. Recently, however, as I have been studying the basics of Middle English, I am remembered of an aspect of the show which I never thought a whole lot of—its use of language.

                In episode 204, “Xmas Story,” the Planet Express delivery crew finds their lives in jeopardy from a murderous mechanical Santa. Scary stuff, right? Also interesting—robotic Santa which thirsts for your doom? Yup, but you know what is more interesting? The sly lingual game playing in the background of this episode.

                Let me explain: early in the episode, after our titular heroes have gone skiing and are relaxing by the fire, Fry remarks “it really puts you in the Christmas spirit.” His friends and co-workers are baffled and it is not until Fry spells it out “X.M.Y.S” that they understand that by Christmas he means what they know as X-Mas. Leela remarks, “Oh, you must be using an archaic pronunciation, like when you say ‘ask’ instead of ‘ax.’” Needless to say, as someone studying Middle English, I now find this hilarious (or, at least amusing).

                In his pamphlet, Peter G. Beidler remarks that “our word ‘ask’ derives from the Middle English axen, a pronunciation now considered in some circles to be substandard: ‘I want to ax you a question’” (19, A Student’s Guide to Chaucer’s Middle English). So, let’s now consider the fact that Futurama is set in the year 3000 (A.D). What are to make of the fact that the denizens of this period denote ‘ask’ as an archaic pronunciation while ‘ax,’ the Middle English word, is the standard?

                Well, aside from the pro-secular stance on the use of X-Mas instead of the Christian ‘Christmas,’ this is an instance of temporal looping.

                In our time, it is ‘ax’ which is considered archaic, not ‘ask.’ But, a thousand years in the future, it is considered the norm—so it is a reverse of our present time; what is archaic to us is modern to the future, and so our modern is archaic to the future, with the past archaic now non-archaic. Typically, language changes over time and words are gradually morphed into new words with new, or altered, meanings. This is the case in our present with ‘ask’: it started as ‘ax’ and then morphed into ‘ask.’ It has the same basic pronunciation, and even, to a degree, the spelling (it remains fairly short). But in Futurama we have seen the opposite: instead of changing into a new spelling and pronunciation, the word has reversed, degenerated, into an older form.

                Why did this happen? Hard to say. In the Futurama universe there is many absurd happenings. But the general consensus is that of a loss of historical memory. What was in the past is lost and only survives as bits and pieces, and so medieval life and culture has taken on new shape but a shape divorced from the wider linguistic legacy. This would allow for the reversal of linguistic change, a faux shift. 

Or it could be much deeper or a mere fun alteration on the part of the writing staff. Who knows! The point is, I found it greatly amusing now that I am studying Middle English and will be sure to keep my eyes open for any other such references, in Futurama or otherwise.

 Works Cited 
Beidler, G. Peter. A Student's Guide to Chaucer's Middle English. Seattle: Coffeetown Press, 2011. Print.

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