SyFy’s The Expanse takes place 200 years in the future, a time when humans have colonized Mars and the entire solar system. Belters are the displaced underclass, a great hoard of humanity who left every nation on Earth to find work in the outer reaches. And, just like their bodies changed to acclimate to low gravity, their language also evolved to communicate in the universe’s ultimate melting pot. Belter is the lingua franca for the universe’s most dispossessed peoples. To hear it spoken on the show is to understand how much has changed in this future, but also how similar the Belter experience is to that of immigrants at any time, including now.
This is perhaps why the language resonates so well with the show’s fans on Earth. Enthusiasts regularly tune in to actor Andrew Rotilio and linguist Nick Farmer’s weekly Belter class on Twitter. A punk band wrote a song in the language. And, according to Nick Farmer, the linguist who developed the language, someone even proposed marriage in Belter. The Expanse’s patois has become, like Klingon and Dothraki, the show’s great unifier—the slang all devotees speak.
In the Expanse novels, Belter is mostly just a dialect. But when the show jumped to TV, the producers brought on Farmer to make a it a fully realized language. When he got started, Farmer immediately understood that Belter was a creole. Creoles are based on a mother tongue—in this case English—but incorporate the influence of many other languages. Farmer looked to Haitian Creole for inspiration. Nowhere near as many languages contributed to that creole as to Belter, but it was the best correlate on Earth because it developed after people from all over the world arrived on the island—in many cases by force. “The situation for the Belters is the same,” Farmer says, “but in space.”
Belter is composed mainly of Chinese, Japanese, Slavic, Germanic, and romance languages because Earth’s most common tongues would be the ones to survive to form the new brogue of the cosmos. And every choice Farmer makes about new inclusions affects the world-building of the show. If he puts in a Zulu word, that means there are Zulu people in the Belt. Knowing this, he took his time with the language, writing pages and pages of grammar and hundreds of vocabulary words, which he keeps track of in a Google Doc that he guards like his first-born child. Which, in a way, it is.