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First, a preface: I’m not at all familiar with any of the previous Wonder Woman continuities. I’ve never read or seen anything from that franchise at all.


In the new Wonder Woman movie, an explicit, humoristic point is made of the fact that Diana and the Amazons are excellent polyglots (though they all seem to have a faintly southern-European, but non-native, accent in every language they speak).

At some point, fairly early on, Steve asks Diana how come she speaks English, and she replies, “We speak hundreds of languages”. Presumably, ‘we’ means ‘all the Amazons’ here. They appear to all speak English (with their funny accent) amongst each other, both as children and as adults.

Later on, we hear her briefly converse with Sameer in a quick little ‘battle of languages’ consisting of French, Spanish, something which I gather from the subtitles was meant to be Mandarin,1 and something which I think was supposed to be Ancient Greek (since it referenced “quoting Socrates in the original”), but was pronounced like Modern Greek. Sameer did not understand this last one and thus lost the ‘battle’.

It seems clear from the start of the film that Diana is not really aware of the outside world as such. She knows that Themyscira is somehow hidden away, but Themyscira is all she knows. And she’s lived there for millennia.

Yet she clearly speaks modern-day, twentieth-century English, French, Spanish, and presumably the other two as well, seemingly without having been exposed to any of them herself.

A previous question has asked how the Themyscirans knew English, but the answers given there would all seem to be at least somewhat contradicted by the new movie. Jeff’s answer to that question says, about Wonder Woman specifically:

It's been a while since I read any Wonder Woman, but I believe she has a magical ability (built into her armor, tiara, or other gear) that allows her to speak/understand all Earth languages.

It may also be that her gifts from the Greek Gods included this ability (along with strength, speed, etc).

The first part cannot account for it alone: there are times in the movie when she does not have her armour or tiara, and she still speaks perfect English (in fact, if I’m not misremembering, her ‘battle of tongues’ with Sameer takes place at a time when she is not wearing her armour or tiara).

The second part might explain Diana’s polyglottism in isolation, but it would not explain why the rest of the Amazons are equally gifted. Regarding the Amazons in general, Jeff continues:

The best explanation I can recall (though I do not have a reference) is that part of the magic which hides it from 'Man's World' allows the Amazons to speak/understand anyone on the island, or possibly just speak/understand anyone.

This would explain how they knew all these languages on the island, but not how Diana continued to do so once she left the island.

So the most complete possibility seems to be that:

  • panglottism is an effect of being on Themyscira, inside the magic shield which protects it from the outside world (in which case Steve was perhaps also panglottic while he was there, just without realising it?)
  • Diana is inherently panglottic as part of her divine inheritance

It seems to me that both of these would have to be true to explain things, which just seems a bit roundabout for my taste. Especially the first part: why would Amazons confined on an island hidden from the rest of the world need to know any language but their own? Apart from the odd shipwreck once a century or so, they’d never speak to anyone but themselves.

Is there a better, simpler explanation for how both Diana and all Amazons seem to be panglots?

 


 

1 I don’t know what it actually was, but it sure wasn’t Mandarin. Not by sound, at least. The only word I potentially managed to pick out was the last word Sameer said in this language, which I think may have been 汉语 Hànyǔ ‘Chinese/Mandarin’. The rest was gibberish.

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    +1 for the title. You might want to know that we have a chat feed named "Babelfish", and seeing this was a something. – Gallifreyan Jun 9 '17 at 15:11
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    I think that Themyscira was somehow protected or patronised by Athena in comics, so given Athena is also the goddess of wisdom, that may not be too much of a stretch. – Gallifreyan Jun 9 '17 at 15:44
  • re: the other Amazons, don't forget they were created directly by Zeus. That would seemingly give a reasonable likelihood that the linguistic ability is from that, in all of them, not unique to Diana because of her special ancestry. – Zeiss Ikon Jun 9 '17 at 15:48
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    The way she uses this power in the movie is distinctly different from a Babel Fish. She's not being auto-translated, she's actively switching languages, with full knowledge of what languages she's switching to. It makes me wonder if there was a morning when she woke up and exclaimed "whoa! I know Elvish!" and then decades later, she was disappointed to find out that elves did not actually exist. – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 9 '17 at 16:02
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    @DaaaahWhoosh You're quite correct, of course. The Babel Fish bit was only to make the title a bit more eye-catching (you'll note that in the actual question I only call them poly- and panglots). Good point about conlangs, though. I imagine waking up one morning and realising you speak Klingon must be a bit like waking up with a sore throat. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 '17 at 16:07

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