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Title: The Languages of Daniel Jackson
Author name: Icarus
Author email: icarus_ancalion@yahoo.com


Melpemone and I were chit-chatting about Daniel Jackson and language, and I thought I'd better write this while linguistics is still fresh in my mind.

The Languages of Dr. Daniel Jackson

For Daniel to have the range of skills he's displayed in interacting with all these ancient races across the galaxy, he will have studied all the main types of language morphologies (a morphology is the way a language, well, morphs or grows. Some grow by sticking words together free+way=freeway, others by adding endings this-um, that-am, etc.). Since he understood 23 languages (as mentioned in 1969), it's very likely language has been a lifelong hobby. People who only learn languages in school for doctorates learn maybe 3-5, and only those relevant to their field. Daniel's knowledge is far-ranging and has little to do with his specialty of Ancient Egypt.

Early Childhood Exposure

I believe that Daniel was exposed to three radically different language systems before the age of 8, when the human mind is hard-wired to pick up language quickly.

Those languages (and their associated morphological systems) were probably:

His native English (derivational)
Arabic (agglutinating) learned on digs with his parents, through playing with the worker's kids, and
Dutch (compounding) via his grandfather Nick.

He would also have played with his parents Egyptian symbols and been taught hieroglyphics (what kid could resist all the cool pictures?).

Teenage Language Studies

Because these three languages form words so differently from each other, Daniel would have taken an interest in sorting them out. After his parents' death he would have had a very different lifestyle, and noticed other kids didn't know other languages.

Then he would've found in Junior High that he picked up new languages readily. The American school system starts teaching foreign languages after age 13, when the window for language acquisition has closed. So while the other kids struggled, these foreign sounds flowed easily from Daniel's lips, due to early exposure. One can imagine a German teacher excited by Daniel's lovely (if slightly Dutch) accent, "Everyone, listen to Daniel. Now Daniel, repeat the passage for us."

A nice little ego-boost, especially for a slightly goofy-looking kid living with foster parents. French, German and Spanish are the usual language offerings in High School.

I expect after a couple years of "normal America" he would have missed the multi-lingual world (it's unlikely his foster parents were Archeologists) and associated the sounds of foreign languages with family, parents, home... It would be like the smell of homemade cookies for most of us. Studying language would have felt good for a lot of reasons.

By the way, his American accent – with the soft t-sounds and non-rhotic accent – is distinctly Californian, probably southern CA (not bad for an actor from Canada; we must congratulate his voice coach). His parents' accents were both East Coast, his mother being more midwestern, from Pennsylvania or Chicago. His father's voice had the hard east coast edge, slightly aristocratic. I'm going to say Connecticut born, lived in New York as an adult.

The implication is that Daniel spent the majority of his childhood after his parents' death in Southern California. There he picked up both his accent and most of his slang… with that west coast tendency to trail off and throw away half a sentence.

Daniel is my age, and was a teenager right around the early video game boom (Space Invaders, PacMan, Donkey Kong) and… the original influx of Dungeons & Dragons, which sucked in all the imaginative geek-types (before it developed the rep of being a little strange; originally parents supported D&D as being a sort of "PBS" of kids' games.). His interest in Mythology goes far beyond and probably predates college.

Since Daniel's life as a foster child would have been very normal (he's too well-adjusted for it not to have been), we have to assume pop-culture teenage sources for some of his later interests. His parents died too young to explain it entirely. With Daniel being slightly geeky it's not much of a stretch to picture him making use of (and expanding) his childhood knowledge of mythology for gaming through ages 11-14, which then revitalizes and makes use of his knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics. I'm going to guess that he also learned Celtic Runes at this time, for very teenage reasons:

a) they look cool when you draw them on your jeans
b) pretty girls cluster around and say "Hey, draw my name in Runes!"
c) their similarity to hieroglyphics where each symbol means something.

Daniel, with his obsessive personality, probably went further and started playing with Old English and Middle English in high school. This may have come through the patron saint of D&D, J. R. R. Tolkien, (a devotee of mythology, linguist and Old English scholar), or a high school literature teacher (Advanced Placement in literature, Chaucer, anyone?). Or else Daniel may have taken summer jobs at the Renaissance festivals (it's somehow difficult to imagine him mowing lawns and working at MacDonald's).

Since this D&D and Renaissance festival stuff had a rep of being "childish" and "weird," he would have abandoned it by the time he went to college, and studied mythology from the perspective of psychology and philosophy. This would have fed his interest in Archeology, following in his parents' footsteps.

This would go a long way in explaining why Daniel is far more mystical than his parents (note their clearly intellectual responses to "8-year-old" Daniel when he claimed he'd hurt his leg).

College Language Studies

Later languages he would have picked up through formal study in college. His ease in acquiring languages through conversation indicates someone who's used to learning through listening. I'm guessing that in addition to his childhood, he probably "hung out" with the foreign students out of his own desire to travel and see the world, and learn about other cultures. This is where the Daniel we know begins to make his appearance. Here his language acquisition would have been very eclectic, based on whatever nationalities were represented at school.

We know he has a Doctorate in Archeology from the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and there's strong evidence his Doctorate in Linguistics is from UCLA. We don't know where he did his undergraduate studies or his Master's, or what his majors were. However, Daniel's way of dealing with people has a psych-student tinge, so I would guess that his undergraduate degree might be in Psychology (many people start out with more practical foundational degrees) until he realized he was more interested in foreign cultures than anyone's petty psychological issues. He probably took the opportunity to formalize his study of Old English (inflective), Middle English (derivational) at this time (for fun).

Recognizing his interest in culture, he would have shifted to Cultural Anthropology for his Master's. Since culture is so language-driven, he would have really geared up on the world languages, reaching for those languages that were very different from his experience, such as Russian (inflective) or Chinese (isolating).

Then for the doctorate in Linguistics, by this time he would have known he was going for ancient cultures and thus studied Mayan, Aztec, gone back to Hieroglyphics and coasted through those classes, composing his own dictionary and staying late to chat with his professors, Welsh, Ancient Babylonian (Cuneiform), and Phonecian. It's also possible he didn't study Old English until he began Linguistics.

Then on to Archeology, making an arc from the human myth-centric to the historical search for myth in the dusts of time. He would have studied Greek (inflective, I believe) in order to read the Rosetta stone himself and argue with Budge. Most people who study Greek also study Latin, for the same reason: to have direct access to classical texts.

He admits in The Fifth Race that his Latin (inflective) isn't very strong, and that would be because he wasn't exposed to a heavily inflected language when he was young. His German would've always been far better than his French. His Latin's probably excellent compared to most people's, but it would not have come as naturally as he's used to.

He also would have no exposure to an isolating language morphology, but would have studied it intensely once he began focusing on Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It's likely that Ancient Egyptian, like Chinese, has an isolating morphology, namely one sound equals one word, with not much change or growth. Also Chinese is one of only a few modern almost-pictographic writing systems. So he would have studied Chinese in order to gain a grasp of Egyptian that goes beyond Budge.

Daniel and Fundamental Linguistics

So Daniel's background in language doesn't come solely from his parents, nor does it appear out of the blue. It's gradual, and he would have seemed a relatively normal kid, if somewhat better at languages than most (understandably so). His ability comes from the fact that he was exposed to a cross-cut of three radically different language systems, while the sheer number is due to his love of culture.

Below is an explanation of the main language morphologies, and Daniel's exposure to them.

Derivational – English is a derivational language, where prefixes and suffixes are added to a word to make it multi-purpose. This of course in Daniel's native language. "Dis" + "Illusion" = "disillusion."

Compounding – German is a compounding language, as is Dutch I believe. Daniel probably would have been exposed to Dutch via his grandfather, but since Dutch is rarely taught in US schools (based on the slang Daniel uses and his accent, he went to school in the US) Daniel probably studied its close relative, German. Compounding creates words through sticking them together "whale" + "road" = "whaleroad" or ocean.

Isolating – It is highly likely that Ancient Egyptian, like Chinese, has an isolating morphology, namely one sound equals one word, in an isolated society where there's not much change or growth. Daniel's exposure to Abydonian would have worked on his main weakness in his language experience.

Inflective – Latin and Sanskrit are both inflected languages where endings are tacked on to indicate case, whether something is a subject or object. Old English also was highly inflected, and the case still remains in our oldest words, our pronouns. We say "he" if he's the subject, and "him" if we mean the object. Inflected languages do this for all words, so that word order doesn't matter. One can say CAT CHASE DOG or DOG CHASE CAT or CAT DOG CHASE, and the endings on cat/dog/chase will tell who's doing what to whom.

Agglutinating – Arabic is a classic agglutinating language, where the root word syllables are sorted into related words. English doesn't do this at all, so Daniel has a real leg up by being exposed to Arabic so young. With that, unlike most Americans, he would have had some exposure to all the main language strategies. If there were a root Arabic word KaMaTa, then the words created from it would be KaremMa'Tabi.

Notes: A special thank you to Melpemone for providing the list of canon languages.

Languages According to Canon: 22 Earth-based, 4 Off-world

14 Earth-based Languages mentioned in Episodes:
Ancient Babylonian/cuneiform
Norse Runes
Middle English
Ancient Egypitian (later known to be Goa'uld/Abydonian)

4 Off-world languages:
Unas language
Linear A (obscure Goa'uld)

8 Remaining Hypothesized Earth languages (and basis for guess – I'm open for votes on the last two):
Sanskrit (Nirti)
Arabic (Time spent in Egypt, possibly a couple dialects)
Dutch (his grandfather's Dutch)
Chinese (Yu)
French (just making a guess since it's so common in high school)
Old English

I hope you found this interesting and helpful in writing Daniel. No, I am not remotely obsessed with Daniel Jackson. Why do you ask?

ETA: Corrections, additions, guesses at other possible languages, up to and including no way Daniel was a D&D geek, he was really a [punk/goth/stoner/other]! are all welcome. :D