So, what language does Wonder Woman speak as an L1? What’s the language she spoke growing up on Paradise Island, aka Themyscira? That’s a good question and The World’s Greatest Detective™ is on the case:
This panel is taken from a comic where Batman and Superman travel with Wonder Woman to her birthplace, Themyscira. (They’re in a dream-like trance, but they are all having the same dream. Please don’t try to use logic on this. It’s comics.) Wonder Woman and the Amazons speak in a language that Batman can’t identify, but he’s sure it has “Indo-European undertones” and “Afro-Asiatic—” somethings. I’m not sure what Batman was going for there. His terminology could use a little updating. The World’s Greatest Linguist he is not.
But wait! He’s not the only one we have on the case. Enter… Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva! You may know Dr. Minerva as the Cheetah, but she hasn’t turned into that supervillain yet. She’s still working with Wonder Woman and she was one of the only people who could understand WW when she came to Man’s World. Also, she’s one of those comic book characters with multiple PhDs. Others include the movies’ Bruce Banner/Hulk, who has 7 PhDs, and the Flash TV show’s Earth-2 Harrison Wells, who also has 7. Dr. Minerva only has 2 (sad!), but she’s fluent or near-fluent in 15 languages. Fifteen!
So Dr. Minerva is who we want investigating the mysterious case of Wonder Woman’s first language. With Dr. Minerva, we see that Batman was on the right track. WW speaks a language with Indo-European roots and a strong Afro-Asiatic influence. But WW’s is definitely NOT Ancient Greek.
This doesn’t help us much though. Dr. Minerva understands Ancient Greek (and her linguistic terminology is better than the Caped Crusader’s), but she essentially has to learn WW’s language on the spot while speaking with her. This is interesting because WW is simultaneously learning English from those around her, but while she has many people speaking English with her, Dr. Minerva has to learn WW’s language from only WW. I think this should qualify Dr. Minerva for another PhD.
Later, Dr. Minerva finds a cave/tomb with Themysciran writing in it. She describes this language as an “amalgam dialect” – again with an Afro-Asiatic element.
So what are Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic? They are both language families. The Afro-Asiatic language family includes Amharic, Hebrew, Arabic and Somali. The Indo-European family includes English, German, Celtic languages, Persian, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Punjabi. Most importantly for our purposes, the Indo-European language family includes the Slavic languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian, Czech and Croatian. That’s where Dr. Minerva’s “amalgam dialect” comes from, I think (no, I’m not going to address the use of the word amalgam). That is, WW and the people of Themyscira speak a language that is a combination of the Hellenic family and the Afro-Asiatic and Slavic families of languages. Or, I guess more accurately, they speak a language that is a combination of one of the Hellenic languages, one of the Afro-Asiatic languages and one of the Slavic languages.
Ok, I lied. I will talk about amalgam (but not this amalgam). I think what Dr. Minerva was getting at with her description of the writing she found is that it’s a creole or a mixed language (it’s pretty clear that one of those PhDs she has is not in linguistics). The “mixed language” article on Wikipedia has one of those juicy notifications saying that the “neutrality of the article is disputed”. Ooooh *twiddles fingers*. Creole is a more accepted term in linguistics and it refers to a language which has developed out of a mixing of languages. Often, two or more languages will be thrust together for socio-economic reasons and adults will be forced to develop a pidgin language to communicate – a sort of simple hybrid of the two languages (see a case of this here). Two of the major differences between creoles and pidgins is that creoles are more complex (morpho-syntactically) and they are learned by children as an L1.
I think we have to assume that Wonder Woman and her fellow Amazons speak a creole that emerged from the mixture of Greek, a Slavic language and an Afro-Asiatic language. The Greek language is an obvious choice given the Greek mythology involved in the Wonder Woman mythos (although Dr. Minerva was pretty insistent that WW’s language is NOT ancient Greek). But the Slavic and Afro-Asiatic are a little strange and harder to account for. Perhaps someone with a better understanding of history or linguistic typology could explain this more than I can. Of course, the Amazons were sheltered from the rest of the world for thousands of years, so it would’ve been possible to say that their Hellenic language just diverged far from what happened to the rest of the languages in that family, particularly Greek. It could be similar to the way that Modern English, with its heavy influences from Old Norse, French and Latin, is very different than Old English. But I like the idea of Wonder Woman speaking a creole. Maybe there were many speakers of Slavic and Afro-Asiatic languages among the early Amazons and these heavily influenced the Greek-like language of the other Amazons. I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer – a history of the languages of an imaginary group of warrior women doesn’t exactly make for an exciting comic book story. Or does it? (It totally does).
[Note: This post is about the Rebirth version of Wonder Woman, who appears in WONDER WOMAN Vol. 5, 2016-, and other DC Rebirth titles. The featured image for this post is from Wonder Woman Vol. 5 #6 by Greg Rucka (w), Nicola Scott (p & i), Romulo Fajardo, Jr. (c) and Jodi Wynne (l).]