Yay, I managed to get this together today, keeping to my schedule of one worldbuilding essay a week. Yeah, it's a bit light, but .
How the various creatures are portrayed in MLP, and how the ponies react to them, is very odd and seemingly inconsistent. As I’ve mentioned before, inconsistencies are opportunities for worldbuilding.
Those who are reading my various posts may have noticed that I am using an odd word ‘Sophont’, where others would likely use ‘Sapient’ or ‘Sentient’. It’s a relatively recent word, coined in 1966 by Karen Anderson (wife of writer Poul Anderson) from the Greek word sophisma, meaning wisdom. To me, the distinctions between the ways the words are used apply very strongly to MLP.
Sentient technically means something that feels emotions, rather than being purely reflex driven. It’s pretty hard to deny that real-life animals like dogs and the like don’t feel joy, sorrow, anger, and so on. So it’s not really a good word for indicating level of consciousness, which is why most people have switched to using the word ‘sapient’.
Sapient, although not originally defined this way, is usually used to refer to something that is self-aware. Here’s where we run into a problem with MLP, as everything there is depicted as self-aware. The various pets, animals, even insects display sapience as they can be talked to and reasoned. Yet they are not deemed to be in the same category as ponies, zebras, minotaurs, dragons, etc. as they can’t talk back.
Which is where sophont comes in. Technically it means the exact same thing as sapience, something with wisdom. However, usage puts sophont at a somewhat higher level; a creature that is not just self-aware, but with culture, language, and philosophy. Often it’s also used negatively; ‘too smart for your own good’, connecting it back to the term ‘sophistry’, meaning anyone willing to discuss or argue philosophy, which is considered to be a pointless waste of time.
MLP:FiM divides creatures into various categories: animals, sophonts, an odd middle ground between the two, and adds a qualifier ‘monster’ to the mix.
Animals are basically any creature that cannot talk. Snakes, dogs, bats, birds, and so on display conscious thought and reasoning abilities, but do not talk and are therefore treated as ‘lesser’ creatures needing protection, guidance, or the like. This goes all the way down to butterflies and ladybugs, all demonstrating a similar level of intelligence, although some seem a bit dafter or brighter than others this appears to be an individual thing, not a species attribute.
Sophonts are talking creatures that are treated just like ponies, as ‘people’. This includes gryphons, donkeys, buffalo, and Saddle Arabians.
The middle ground is where things go strange. Cows and sheep have talked in the show, and goats were seen with microphone equipped headsets (although they did not actually speak in that episode), and yet they are treated like livestock rather than people. In fact, let’s call this middle ground ‘livestock’ just to keep it clear.
As far as I can tell, the livestock creatures are proper sophonts, but are culturally subjugated to the ponies. I’m not going to call it slavery though, as it is probably closer to the medieval concepts of villeins and/or cottagers, steps above slaves, but not truly ‘free’ men. They could own property, have some rights, can’t be sold like a slave, and it was possible to become freemen through a variety of ways. This seems to map to the way livestock is being treated in MLP:FiM. I know it’s not a nice thought, and it is easily possible to take this in dark directions, but these creatures are regularly herded and penned by ponies. It's hard to look at it in any other way.
Next week, let's look at Monsters.