16 – Language after the Fall in the film Cloud Atlas (2012)


When presenting distant worlds in science fiction or fantasy, one of the common processes that can increase the experience of defamiliarization for the readers or viewers is to immerse them in unfamiliar linguistic environments. To that end, writers have even created entire languages (e.g., Tolkien and his Middle-earth languages). When it comes to the distant past or the distant future however, efforts are rarely made to acknowledge the fact that language changes over time. The post-apocalyptic section of Cloud Atlas relies precisely on linguistic change to depict a futuristic world, both in David Mitchell’s 2004 novel and in its 2012 film adaptation by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. From the point of view of a linguist, it is striking that some of the changes created for Cloud Atlas are entirely plausible ones when considering the real future of English varieties. In this paper, I show how this futuristic language is rendered in the film and I analyze what mechanisms of change might have been at work if this were not fiction. Some other aspects of the evolution proposed are not very plausible (e.g., the absence of vocalic variation) but the encoding of the variety is a linguistic representation, an aesthetic and artistic proposition, which does not have to be completely realistic. Still, the linguistic features created help the filmmakers create an effet de réel (Barthes), probably because the linguistic construct of Cloud Atlas is based on the observation of present-day variation and on the history of the English language.


Lorsque l’on présente des mondes lointains dans la science-fiction ou le fantastique, l’un des procédés courants permettant d’accroître l’expérience de défamiliarisation pour les lecteurs ou les spectateurs consiste à les immerger dans des environnements linguistiques non familiers. À cette fin, les écrivains ont même créé des langues entières (par exemple, Tolkien et ses langues de la Terre du Milieu). Cependant, lorsqu’il s’agit d’un passé ou d’un futur lointain, on s’efforce rarement de reconnaître le fait que la langue évolue avec le temps. La section post-apocalyptique de Cloud Atlas s’appuie précisément sur le changement linguistique pour dépeindre un monde futuriste, à la fois dans le roman de David Mitchell de 2004 et dans son adaptation cinématographique de 2012 par les Wachowskis et Tom Tykwer. Dans une perspective de linguiste, il est frappant de constater que certains des changements créés pour Cloud Atlas sont tout à fait plausibles si l’on considère l’avenir réel des variétés d’anglais. Dans cet article, je montre comment cette langue futuriste est rendue dans le film et j’analyse les mécanismes de changement qui auraient pu être à l’œuvre s’il ne s’agissait pas d’une fiction. Certains aspects de l’évolution proposée ne sont pas très plausibles (par exemple, l’absence de variation vocalique), mais l’encodage de la variété est une représentation linguistique, une proposition esthétique et artistique, qui n’a pas besoin d’être complètement réaliste. Néanmoins, les caractéristiques linguistiques créées aident les cinéastes à produire un effet de réel (Barthes), probablement parce que la construction linguistique de Cloud Atlas repose sur l’observation de la variété actuelle et sur l’histoire de la langue anglaise.


Cloud Atlas is a 2012 film directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. It presents the viewer with six different stories, set in different eras: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2321. The main actors and actresses play different parts in the various sections and the different characters that they play seem to be connected through reincarnation. The 2144 section is set in a city called Neo-Seoul and takes place before what is referred to as “the Fall”, which we understand to have been a nuclear disaster. The 2321 section is set 106 years after the Fall. It focuses on the tribespeople of the post-apocalyptic Big Island of Hawaii, renamed “Big Isle” in the film. It is therefore a part of the world that we know today, except that it takes place in the very distant future. Three different peoples interact on Big Isle: the Valleysmen, the Kona and the Prescients. The Valleysmen are a peaceful tribe who worship the goddess Sonmi. One of them, named Zachri, is the protagonist of the 2321 section. He is played by Tom Hanks. The Kona are a violent tribe of cannibals and appear to be the archenemies of the Valleysmen. Hugh Grant plays the part of their bloodthirsty chief. The Prescients are non-natives of Big Isle. They still wield pre-Fall technology and come to the island aboard floating ships. Meronym, played by Halle Berry, spends time among the villagers to carry out environmental research. A fourth category is simply referred to as the “Old Uns”, the people who lived on the planet before the Fall. One of the challenges of this futuristic world is that the language spoken needs to have changed enough to create a sense of defamiliarization while it needs to be comprehensible enough for the viewer to make sense of the story. The English of 2321 can be baffling for viewers, who at first may be confused as to whether the story takes place in the past or in the future. Indeed, the Valleysmen’s language has a quaint quality, in the sense that it sounds both unusual and old-fashioned. It takes on a defamiliarizing strangeness for present-day viewers, who naturally expect a much more mainstream sort of English to be used, one closer to contemporary English and maybe one that shares more features with standard varieties. Therefore, the language of Cloud Atlas fully partakes of the creation of a distant world that has XXIst-century viewers momentarily lose their bearings.

The future variety of English that is carefully crafted for the film seems to be based on an observation of the mechanisms of linguistic change, on the way present-day English varies across dialects, as well as on phonetic, grammatical and lexical processes. It also seems to draw from the uniformitarian principle (Romaine, 123), whereby the processes that were at work in the past are still at work today and would therefore most certainly continue to operate in the future. However, the English spoken in Cloud Atlas is not so much a linguistic construct as it is a very creative and artistic proposition. Yet, it has been described in rather negative terms, as “a post-apocalyptic pidgin, which is frequently difficult to understand” (Wickman), as “disjointed English” (The GradeSaver study guide). This idea of regression is reminiscent of the view commonly held among laypeople that language change is synonymous with regression or “degeneration” (Whitney, 84), under people’s misconception that there was a linguistic “golden age” in the past (Labov, 214). This view is not shared by linguists, for whom this golden age is nothing but a myth. About Cloud Atlas, Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 76) writes that “English seems to have regressed just as humanity has” (my emphasis), but she proceeds to demonstrate that it is not the case. This myth about language is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, where language was in some sort of prelapsarian perfection until God confounded it. In Cloud Atlas, the English spoken by the tribesmen of Hawaii “106 winters after The Fall” may be perceived as a way of linguistically representing the catastrophe of “the Fall”. In that sense, language is as much constitutive of the reader’s cognitive and perceptual understanding of the film as are the characters or the diegesis. This is a recurrent trait of contemporary dystopian novels that depict post-apocalyptic worlds. In such works as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006) and of course David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), language may be seen as the main character because it is fully alive, having continued to evolve while the rest of the world is struggling to recover (Sorlin, La défamiliarisation).

However, this paper is based on the 2012 film, not on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell that it is adapted from. Some of the encoding chosen by Mitchell is very effective on the page but it does not work when considering oral English. Therefore, I will concentrate on the specificities of the spoken variety created for the film as used by the actors and actresses. The choices behind the spelling that I use when quoting the dialogues of the film are based on the script written by the directors. First, I will see how the principle of internal change that is known as the principle of economy seems to be at work in the language of Cloud Atlas and how it is partly counterbalanced by the principle of expressiveness, another mechanism of change. I will then explain how analogy also underlies some of the changes created for the film. Next, I will show that the linguistic construct of Cloud Atlas is also based on the observation of present-day variation and on archaic forms of the language. This will allow me to conclude that the variety created is not entirely realistic and that it is therefore essentially an artistic proposition.

1. Economy

According to Deutscher (62), “the motives for change can be encapsulated in the triad economy, expressiveness and analogy. Economy refers to the tendency to save effort, and is behind the shortcuts speakers often take in pronunciation […]”. This principle of economy is also known as the principle of least effort, as it is a manifestation of human articulatory “laziness” (McWhorter, The Story, 15) in the way that it is characterized by a lesser articulatory effort. In Cloud Atlas, the language of 2321 has been marked by the erosion of grammatical markers. Verb endings such as third-person singular –s or the use of –ed to mark the past tense do not seem to be relevant any longer, as is shown in the following examples: “Could I have stop […]?”, “This world poison me.”, “Abbess say-so”. In the last example, we can also notice the absence of the article the. Article loss is a recurrent pattern in this future variety of English. Here are a few examples, in which the symbol Ø represents the loss of an article compared to what would have been expected in present-day English: “Ø Kona will be feastin’ on Adam and his boy by sunup.”, “Ø Whole valley whispering.”, “I bring you Ø gift, Zachry.”, “Front of Ø gathering”, “Ø Prescients dyin’.”

The last two examples also display preposition loss (in front of the gathering) and auxiliary loss (the Prescients are dying). Dropping of be is more widespread in the film, being systematic when be is a copula or an auxiliary. This elision is based on what happens in certain non-standard varieties of English, such as African-American Vernacular English, in which a similar dialect-internal rule deletes be when it is a copula or an auxiliary. Below is a variety of instances:

He young.
They coming.
Safe here.
Whole valley whisperin’.
This my big bro.
I prayin’ for you.
Why you here?
I needin’ a guide.
You Kona meat.
You troddin’ on the devil’s ground.
You savin’ me twicely now.

More grammatical erosion is observable with the elision of other auxiliaries, as in “if my tongue been more bold” (dropping of had) or “Why words slink and slide off a tongue when we need them most?” (dropping of do). A question that arises with the English of Big Isle is whether that futuristic variety is on its way to becoming pro-drop. The term pro-drop stands for pronoun dropping. A pro-drop language is one in which pronouns can be omitted when they are grammatically or semantically inferable. This is for instance the case of Spanish, which displays sentences like “Estoy contento.” or “¿Eres la prima de Raquel?”, alongside more emphatic sentences with explicit subject pronouns, as in “Yo estoy contento.” or “¿Tu eres la prima de Raquel?”

Another form of elision that characterizes present-day informal English is speakers’ tendency to drop first- or second-personal pronouns in spoken English. This may happen in utterances like Don’t know (“I don’t know”) or Want to come with me? (“Do you want to come with me?” / “You want to come with me?”). This propensity towards eliding subject pronouns has a higher frequency of use in the film and occurs in a wider variety of environments, as shown in the following examples:

Safe here.
Need no gift from a stranger.
Don’t need no smart rope.
Seems they were different.
Ain’t the true-true.
Prescients dyin’ Zachry.

In Cloud Atlas, economy also manifests itself in the elision of sounds. Weak vowels, and schwas in particular[1], are often dropped. This is of course a common process in a great many varieties of English but it is taken to a higher level in the film. The very name of the protagonist, Zachry /ˈzækri/, reads and sounds as if it is a deviation from the more established Zachary /ˈzækəri/, through the elision of the schwa /ə/ that is expected to form the nucleus of the second syllable. A similar example is Meronym’s use of s’vive /ˈsvaɪv/ for survive /səˈvaɪv/, with only one syllable. The illusion of a systematic elision is also conveyed with what is known by the general public as g-dropping, a linguistic misnomer which refers to –ing endings in which the more standard /ɪŋ/ is pronounced [ɪn]. This is conventionally represented by the graphic form <in’> on the page. The reason why it is in fact a misnomer is the same as the reason why the process only carries the illusion of a phoneme being dropped. Indeed, –ing endings are not pronounced with a final [g] but with a final [ŋ]. The process is therefore one whereby [ɪŋ] becomes [ɪn], with two phones in either case. It is only the graphic difference between <-ing> and <in’> that erroneously gives the impression that something is lost in the process.  Yet, the English created for Cloud Atlas strongly relies on this illusion to convey the impression that endings are truncated. The use of [ɪn] pronunciations being systematic, as in: “You a’ lustin’ for that darkly, sweet meat”, “smilin’ and wormin’ her way. Scavin’ n’ sivvin’ for what?”

Sometimes, the dropping of sounds is so advanced that entire parts of words are elided. Such aphaereses (omission of one or more sounds or syllables from the beginning of a word) may happen at the beginning of words: “not ‘zactly same” (exactly), “feelin’ I owin’ you a real kowtow for ‘vading your house with no say-so” (invading), “fore it’s too late” (before). Note that this is a process that happens in reality in spoken English (e.g. because’cause) but it is once again taken to a higher level of frequency in the film. The middle of words can undergo vowel elision as well: “She died hundreds of years ago on a faraway pen’sula.” (peninsula). Such a process, which results in one fewer syllable in the shorter variant, is known as compression and is in real-life English more frequent in high-frequency words and fast or casual speech (Wells, 173). Word-ending elision is also common in the film. It is reminiscent of apocope, a sort of elision that sometimes leads to linguistic change. Real-life examples of apocope are invite (abbreviated from invitation), mike (abbreviated from microphone). In French, a word like cinéma is abbreviated from cinématographe (which is now a marked variant even though it is the original word), just as the more colloquial cata is abbreviated from catastrophe. In the film, some abbreviated forms have evidently become the norm: “No answer ever quenched your curio.” (curiosity), “A spesh guest” [..] You got spesh smarts in that gearbag.” (special), “scavin’” (scavenging; the verb scavenge has become scav).

From the point of view of viewers, these various processes of elision or erosion are experienced as a perceptual lack, as if something is missing from the linguistic landscape that they are presented with. This erosion of language further highlights the erosion and regression of the world depicted in Big Isle.

The processes that have been described so far are realistic when considering actual linguistic change. This is because they are based on processes that exist and/or have existed in the history of English, on account of the principle of economy. It may even be argued that the language of Cloud Atlas is the continuation of a long process of streamlining whereby the grammar of English has systematically become more simplified with time. For example, English has gradually lost grammatical complexities like grammatical gender or verb endings. Its inflectional morphology has been simplified over the centuries (e.g. McWhorter, Myths, 42; Glain, Variations, 118). In this respect, the language proposition of the film sounds as a realistic variety that could have developed between now and the year 2321. This is further reinforced when considering the second mechanism of internal change known as expressiveness.

2. Expressiveness

Deutscher (62) explains that expressiveness “relates to the speakers’ attempts to achieve greater effect for their utterances and extend their range of meaning […]”. In other words, it somewhat counterbalances the principle of least effort in that it does not reduce the various forms of language. On the contrary, it tends to extend them. Certain innovations produced for the language of Cloud Atlas may quite convincingly be the products of expressiveness if they occurred in real life. They counterbalance the viewer’s feeling that something is missing from language, making it particularly vivid and meaningful. Such is the case of various coinages, such as the verb “yarn”, which means “tell a story”. It is based on the noun yarn, which means “a long, often elaborate narrative of real or fictitious adventures; an entertaining tale” (The Free Dictionary). Today, the word yarn exists as an intransitive verb, but not as a transitive one. However, it does occur several times as a transitive verb in Cloud Atlas, in which it can also be found as a noun and as a gerund, as in: “This my big bro’ I yarn you about.”, “She ignores you, your yarns n’ ways.”, “My yarning is done.”

The verb “yibber” is another coinage linked to the motif of language in the film. It is defined by Wickman as “to talk, jabber, or gossip”. Like yarn, it is based on words that do exist in contemporary English. Possible sources are most certainly gibber (pronounced /ˈdʒɪbə(r)/), which means “to prattle and chatter unintelligibly”, jabber (pronounced /ˈdʒæbə(r)/), which has the similar meaning of “to talk rapidly or unintelligibly”, or the Australian equivalent, yabber (pronounced /ˈjæbə(r)/) (definitions from The Free Dictionary). Given the orthographic and phonetic similarity between gibber, jabber and yabber, it is easy to imagine a word like yibber, pronounced /ˈjɪbə(r)/), which may have sprung from them. The pattern of variation /(d)j/ – /(d)ʒ/ that may be noticed at the beginning of the words above is a very common one, as the various pronunciations with /dj/ or /dʒ/ of words like dune or during clearly show (Wells). What is more, /dj/ has repeatedly evolved into /dʒ/ throughout the history of English (e.g. XVIIth century: soldier, early XXth century: gradual, late XXth century: dune; cf. Glain, “Consonant”, 19). The term yibber is used repeatedly in Cloud Atlas: “The ancestry […], yibberin’ stories.”, “They never stop a’ yibberin’.”, “You come […] yibberin’ about the True-true.”

Another coinage is the verb “judas”, which has evolved from the proper noun of the biblical betrayer of Christ to simply become a synonym of the verb betray: “Her life was sad and judased.”, “You judasin’ your people for a piece of ass.”

By contrast with the motif of deception, the adverbial phrase “true worldly”, another creation, is synonymous with the phrase “to tell the truth”: “True wordly was, Meronym answered the questions.”

Other coinages, which contribute to creating a sense of defamiliarization for the viewer while remaining comprehensible, are “Smart” (a noun- always capitalized- or an adjective) and “cogg” (verb), which respectively mean “the futuristic technology held by the Prescients”, and “to know, to recognize, to understand” (definitions by Wickman):

[Meronym’s ship] just floating on the Smart of the Old Uns.
You got spesh smarts in that gearbag.
Old Uns got the Smart.
Don’t need no smart rope […]
I cogg you ain’t come to learn stitchin’ or milkin’ or heardin’.
I cogg you killin’ Catkin by not actin’.
I can’t cogg a thing.
You cogg he’s real?
I need to cogg what you’re doing.
I cogg valleysmen’s beliefs.

The verb “cogg” is a sort of back formation from the noun cognition, which refers to a form of acquaintance or knowledge. Back formation refers to the creation of a “shorter word derived by deleting an imaginary affix from a longer form already present in the language”[2] (Crystal, 48-49). Once again, the innovations of the film are somewhat based on the reality of language usage.

Beyond the creation of lexical items, expressiveness takes the form of reduplication, which is a process of repetition of words that are semantically and/or phonetically similar, a process which is quite common in present-day English (cf. nooks and crannies, helter-skelter, hurly-burly). According to Van Dael (14), reduplications are used in the novel “as a means of intensifying words [and] for the purpose of intensifying emotions”. Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 9) writes that reduplication is often used in the novel “when a speaker adopts a tone more expressive or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often […] iconic in meaning”. In the film, the process is used rather extensively and similarly contributes to making the language of Cloud Atlas particularly expressive, as in the following examples:

Their ship creep-crawling on the waves.
Why words slink and slide off a tongue when we need them most?
Zacchry: Who tripped the fall if not old Georgie?
Meronym: True true? Old Uns.
That is the True-true. / You want the True-true? / Ain’t the True-true. / You come […] yibberin’ about the True- true / Ain’t no blade can protect you from the True-true.

The adjectives “true-true” and the noun “the True-true” are undoubtedly the reduplications that are used the most often by various characters. Something “true-true” is to be understood as something which is very true, which is true beyond doubt. This very expressive adjective contrasts with something which is simply true, a word which seems to have perversely acquired the meaning of untrue across the years. This linguistic need to establish the True-true as something that goes beyond the truth seems to indicate that the world that has developed between the present day and the year 2321 has been characterized by lies and deception. This is clearly understood by the viewer, who feels that the True-true is being contrasted with a form of untruth. This is all the more decipherable as “the True-true” is phonologically treated as a real compound, with a primary stress on the first term. Through analogy and their familiarity with the patterns that characterize spoken English, Anglophone viewers understand that a sub-category of what is true is being created, implying that the rest is not “truly true”.  Because they help the viewer make sense of the story, the lexical creations and reduplications seem to fill a gap and capture something essential about this futuristic world.

Affixation is a common process of lexical creation in the film, mostly with the addition of suffixes to words to which they are not attached in present-day English. Affixation contributes to making the language of Cloud Atlas a particularly vivid and expressive one. For instance, the adjectival suffix –some is added to adjectives, thereby increasing the “adjectivalness” of existing adjectives, making them expressively “more adjectival than adjectives”:

Sorrysome for wakin’ you, Abess. Something diresome’s gonna happen.
More scaresome ‘bout the weather than any Devil.
Thank you for the kindsome host on my valley stay.
I say-so truesome.

The suffix –ing (that takes the form of –in’, as previously stated) is particularly frequent in the speech of Big Isle. It is often added to nouns in contexts in which it would not appear today and it makes them less static (e.g. “All that answerin’ done”, “offerin’s and honorin’s”, “journeyin’”, “follyin’”). As Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 8) writes about the novel, Zachry’s story is “littered with –ing forms, […] giving the impression of a movement in endless suspension. Nouns, which usually tend to immobilize processes, have been turned into –ing verbs”. This is equally true of the film.

Compounding similarly partakes of the expressiveness of the language of 2321. The many compounds created for Cloud Atlas follow a tendency that started with the XXth century in the history of English, with a significant majority of all post-1900 lexical creations being based on compounding (65% according to Viney’s estimate). In the film, some of these are connected to the act of telling, such as the hyphenated “to say-so” (“to say so”, “to agree”), “to yay-so” (“to say yes”) and “to heart-say” (“to say from the bottom of one’s heart”):

I ain’t yay-soed this, Rose.
Abess say-so a gift of great honor.
Feelin’ I owin’ you a real kowtow for ‘vading your house with no say-so.
Captain say-so take you with us.
I say-so truesome.

Compound adjectives reflect the reality of the Fall and of the world of 2321, with its “fate-twisty wrongs”. The city of Neo-Seoul is said to be “deadlanded” (“under water”). In a manner not altogether different from compounding, the process of grouping words together into new phrases is used to coin resultative constructions. To refer to her inability to act when Zachry’s sister has been poisoned, Meronym says that she can’t “click fingers make right”; she is herself described as “smilin’ and wormin’ her way”, two phrases which are particularly expressive.

The metaphor of the worm exemplifies another characteristic of the language of Cloud Atlas, which the reader finds again when Meronym is compared to a coconut, with her “cokeynut skin”. Nature and wildlife are common sources of imagery in the language of Big Isle, serving as comparing elements in metaphors. In this post-apocalyptic world, the Valleysmen’s way of life revolves around nature and an understanding of the natural environment (in sharp contrast with the urban environment of Neo-Seoul in the story set in 2144). Nature proves to be a powerful inspiration for imagery and a “rich linguistic resource for the survivors in their description of human activity” (Sorlin, “A Linguistic Approach”, 3). As if it was imbued with life, the wind is said to be “biting the bone” and to be “full of voices”, which Zachry interprets as omens of things to come. Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 7) notes that the language of Big Isle is filled with metaphors, “which is understandable among survivors who try to grasp the world around them”. The main function of metaphors is precisely to enable us to understand abstract elements. Indeed,

[…] because so many of the concepts that are important to us are either abstract or not clearly delineated in our experience (emotions, ideas, time) we need to get a grasp on them by means of other concepts that we understand in clearer terms (spatial orientations, objects…). (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 115)

When Zachry uses metaphors and similes, he is trying to make sense of the world by means of concepts that are linked to his natural environment. This is obvious when he says: “I can’t cogg a thing. Words n’ worryin’ s like a wasp’s nest.”

From the various innovations that characterize the speech of Big Isle through various mechanisms of expressiveness, patterns are emerging. Nature and technology are linguistically important. Technology caused the Fall and brought mankind back to a state of Nature. Even the Prescients have somehow been contaminated and cannot survive on earth. Yet, technology allows them to escape and survive on another planet at the end. Another motif that many of the lexical creations are linked to is that of language, which seems to indicate that the act of telling and the concept of mendacity are central to the dynamics of the world of Cloud Atlas. This makes absolute sense as the viewer understands that the Fall was brought about by a series of lies and deceptions, mostly in relation to nuclear energy. As a result, telling is linguistically important (“yarniin’”, “yiberrin’”, “to yay-so”, “to say-so”), particularly telling the truth (“the True-true”, “truesome”, “true-wordly”, “to judas”, “heart-say”). All the stories told in Cloud Atlas are based on mendacity, on deception. History seems to have been nothing but a lie, the result of which manifests itself in the language of the final section, set in 2321.

3. Analogy

The third motive for change, analogy, is “shorthand for the mind’s craving for order, the instinctive need of speakers to find regularity in language” (Deutscher, 62). Analogy manifests itself through regularization, that is through the generalization of patterns. For instance, the reflexive pronoun himself has become hisself (“Old Georgie hisself”). This is a form of regularization as it follows the pattern whereby the reflexive pronoun is based on the possessive determiner (myself, yourself, herself, ourselves, yourselves), a pattern to which himself and themselves are exceptions. The third-person singular is made regular in the speech of Big Isle, through the loss of the –s ending, as it is in many non-standard varieties across the world today. Regularization of irregular verbs has been an ongoing process in the history of English. Old English had hundreds of irregular verbs (also called strong verbs), two thirds of which became conjugated with the regular –ed ending over the next centuries. The verbs of Cloud Atlas constitute a logical continuation of this process of regularization: “this life of rotted luck”, “I knowed it”, “Abbess teached you Sonmi was a miracle”.

In a similar way, be has become more similar to other verbs, as it is often left with no apparent conjugation markers in the present (“Adam […] n’ his son n’ me be trekkin’ back from Honokaa market”, “Those wishing to come with us […] be welcome”, “If a prescient be layin’”). Like other verbs, be displays only one pattern in the negative in the past, “weren’t” (wasn’t seems to have been forgotten). To form comparatives from adjectives, more has been generalized, even with one-syllable adjectives (“If my tongue been more bold, could I have stop all that diresomes about to happen?”)

A whole range of constructions with the suffix –wise have seemingly developed through analogy with words like otherwise or likewise (“suddenwise”, “samewise”, “slywise”, “neitherwise”). From the point of view of semantics, they are not constructions that use –wise in the sense of “referring to” (as in money-wise, job-wise).

Other, more subtle forms of analogy are based on the observation of non-standard varieties of English or on past forms of the language, which are paradoxically used to evoke the future. For instance, ain’t is regularly used instead of the negative forms of be and – especially – have:

Ain’t no blade can protect you from the True-true.
Ma says you ain’t been right since Sloosha’s.
I ain’t yay-soed this, Rose.
Cogg you ain’t come to learn stitchin’ or milkin’ or heardin’

Other features that are not standard are the use of double negatives (“Ain’t no blade […]”, “Rose and Catkin never believed no humorin’ […]”, “Don’t need no smart rope”, “Sonmi weren’t no God”, “Got no home neitherwise”), or the use of “got” instead of have/have got (“She got no tongue for hagglin’”, “You got spesh smarts in that gearbag”, “Old Uns got the Smart” “Got no home […]”).

From the point of view of syntax, non-standardness is reflected in the use of bare relatives (relatives that do not display a visible pronoun; that are used with the zero relative pronoun) in restrictive clauses (“‘Ain’t no blade Ø can protect you from the true true’) and the use of what instead of which (“you got spesh smarts in that gearbag what’ll save her.”)

4. Using the past to evoke the future

In fact, some of these non-standard features are reminiscent of past forms of the English language. The concept of standard grammar as we know it today dates back to prescriptivists in the XVIIIth century. In fact, some features that are considered incorrect today used to be perfectly standard. Such is the case of multiple negatives, which were the norm in Old English and which could still be used in Elizabethan times. In Shakespeare’s, Richard III, we can read “I never was nor never will be”, for example. In the XVIIIth century, prescriptivists applied what they referred to as logic to English and considered that two negatives made a positive, in language as well as in mathematics. This is how the ban on multiple negatives came to be. There was also greater fluctuation in comparative use until the XVIIIth century, as another passage from Shakespeare, this time taken from Measure for Measure, clearly illustrates: “to some more fitter place”. Logic and other principles, which are beyond the scope of this article, were arbitrarily applied to the codification of XVIIIth-century English by prescriptivists. A great many forms and constructions did not survive in Standard English, even though they can still be used in non-standard varieties. The makers of Cloud Atlas rely on such forms, such as negative concord, double comparatives or ain’t, to encode the future language of 2321.

This insight into the past is reinforced by the use of former variants of the language, or even downright archaisms. This is the case of the terms “afore” and “uns”, which respectively mean before and ones (as in the sentence “Afore the Fall, Old Uns built dwellings”). This is also the case of such forms as “tis she” or “yay” and “nay” (in place of yes and no). The dated dimension of the language is also conveyed by grammar, with the use of the archaic attachment a’, as in a form like “a’ bleeding”, which was historically the result of the reduction of on. This attachment was used with the present participle to indicate, among other things, that the action was on-going. In present-day English, the attachment has of course entirely disappeared. However, it has been brought back to life through the encoding used to craft the language of Big Isle: “bridge a’ broken” (with a past participle), “hands a’ bleeding”, “You a’ lustin’ for that darkly, sweet meat.”, “They never stop a’ yibberin’.” Of course, educated viewers are aware of such archaic forms of the language, which makes the encoding particularly effective.

5. An aesthetic proposition

Zachry’s language is a rather plausible proposition given the type of linguistic change that might be expected to result from processes of internal change such as economy, expressiveness and analogy, all the more so as it seems to be based on the observation of language variation and past forms of the language. However, the language carefully crafted for Cloud Atlas chiefly remains an aesthetic proposition. The changes that have sprung from reduction and simplification processes are particularly convincing when one tries to imagine what the future of English will sound like, as are various changes that are based on the principle of expressiveness. On the other hand, this futuristic version of English sometimes fails to be realistic. Van Dael (20) argues that the overuse of reduplication that characterizes the language created in the novel is an exaggeration at best. The treatment of vowels does not seem to reflect possible developments either. Vowels are arguably the features that have changed the most throughout the history of English, mostly on account of significant, long-term changes such as the Great Vowel Shift. By contrast, “there have only been a small number of changes involving modification of consonants in English” (Cruttenden, 64). In synchrony, vowels are also much more variable than consonants across varieties of English (Glain, “Consonant”, 13). Yet, the English of 2321 does not display any real vocalic changes, a situation that would be most unlikely given the 300 year-difference with present-day English. It does not show consonant lenition either, a very common process whereby a consonant becomes weaker[3].

The language of Cloud Atlas displays an apparent absence of external changes. Contrary to economy, expressiveness and analogy, which are language-internal motives for change, external factors of linguistic change are due to contact with other languages or dialects. No language other than English seems to have exerted an influence upon the language of Big Isle. This is rather credible on account of the islanders’ isolated position from the rest of the surviving world and on account of the Fall that has affected most of the world. However, the streamlining that characterizes the grammar of Zachry’s language is in real life chiefly the result of adults learning a language and passing it on. For instance, the simplification of the inflectional morphology of English is often attributed to the language having been learned by a particularly high number of non-native speakers. This way, the loss of most word endings in English can probably be attributed to the imperfect way in which the Scandinavians learned the language after the Viking invasions that started at the end of the VIIIth century (cf. McWhorter, Myths). Since English has often been learned by adult non-native speakers, it has acquired all the characteristics of an exoteric language, that is to say “a language that has been learned widely by adults as well as children in its history, such that its grammar has been somewhat simplified by adults’ fossilized ability to master new languages” (McWhorter, Myths, 137). The isolated position of the inhabitants of Big Isle therefore makes the continuation of the streamlining that characterizes their language very unlikely.

Some aspects of the language spoken by Zachry’s people therefore do not seem realistic. However, the language created for the film is chiefly an aesthetic proposition and, as such, it does not have to be completely realistic. It is a linguistic representation, a linguistic evocation of the future. The encoding that underlies it presents the viewer with a possible future of English that is in fact an artistic vision. This way, the linguistic features created help the filmmakers create an effet de réel (Barthes) that makes viewers feel how distant from their own Zachry’s world is. The language used is in sharp contrast with the different varieties of English used in the other sections, which reinforces the effect of defamiliarization experienced by the viewers when confronted with the final section of the film. Despite a few unrealistic issues, the process is probably very effective because the linguistic construct is partly based on the observation of present-day variation and on the history of the English language.


The filmmakers’ proposition is aesthetic, as much as it is realistic. Zachry’s language really creates a sense of defamiliarization for the viewers, who momentarily lose their bearings. According to Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 9), it is a “very metaphorical, figurative language”, which is also very concrete and signifier-based, as opposed to the language of Neo-Seoul in 2144, which “has to do with semantics, with the signified, rather than the signifier”. In 2321, language is back to a rather natural, unsophisticated stage. Sorlin (“A Linguistic Approach”, 7) reminds us that, in his Essai sur l’origine des langues, Rousseau wrote that “language was metaphorical in its origin because it was born of man’s passions”:

As the first motives which brought man to speak were passions, his first words were tropes. The figurative language was the first to arise, the ‘proper’ meaning was found last […] We started reasoning a long time after” (Rousseau, 63, Sorlin’s translation).

In that sense, as in a more directly linguistic sense with the recycling of past forms of English, language after the Fall is similar to language in its early stages, a long time before the Fall. It is therefore characterized by a certain form of purity, as if it was back to a sort of prelapsarian state, linguistic change being presented as a virtuous circle. The recycling of former linguistic variants is an apt choice for a film concerned with reincarnation and various examples of recycling (in the section set in Neo-Seoul, human corpses are recycled into food for waitresses).

The final scene is set on another planet, where Zachry and Meronym are depicted as happy grandparents. The technology of the Prescients has allowed them to escape from an uninhabitable Earth; the scene therefore marks a new beginning for mankind. This interesting turn of events is accompanied by an unexpected linguistic twist. Indeed, language seems to have become recomplexified. We only have access to a small sample of language in the scene but it is worth noting that, in the sentence produced by Zachry, be is no longer omitted and a “full” –ing suffix is used (as opposed to –in’). This is accompanied by the presence of a grammatical accomplished aspect: “My yarning is done”. In the answer given by the children, a rather “sophisticated” determiner is used, “another”, which contrasts with the elision of determiners on Big Isle: “Come on grandpa. Tell us another story”. Language has somehow regenerated itself as mankind has escaped from a doomed planet. From the point of view of the diegesis and from the linguistic point of view, the end is thus synonymous with a new beginning.

Works cited

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Glain O., “Consonant Variation and Change: Towards a Socio-Cognitive Model,” RANAM (Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines), (n°48), 2015, p. 13-29.

Glain O., Variations et changements en langue anglaise. Évènements historiques, perspectives humaines et sociales, Saint-Étienne, Presses Universitaires de Saint-Étienne, 2020.

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Sorlin S., “A Linguistic Approach to David Mitchell’s Science-fiction Stories in Cloud Atlas,” Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies, (37), 2008, p. 75-89.

Sorlin S., La défamiliarisation linguistique dans le roman anglais contemporain, Montpellier, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2010.

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Wickman F., “The Cloud Atlas Phrasebook: Your Guide to Yibberin’ the True True,” Slate Magazine, October 25th, 2012. Online: [https://slate.com/culture/2012/10/the-cloud-atlas-phrasebook-your-guide-to-yibberin-the-true-true-language-of-the-movie.html] (accessed June 14, 2023)

[1] Schwa is the central vowel /ə/.

[2] In cognition, <ni> is not an affix, only <tion> is.

[3] One possible exception could be the use of the word fugging in “Let a stranger keep fuggin’ your beliefs up n’ down n’ in n’ out”. This could only be a lexical creation synonymous with confuse. However, it could also be a phonetic process whereby [fʌk] has evolved into [fʌg] as a result of lenition.