[This is part of an ongoing occasional series about linguistics in science fiction. Fair warning: spoilers.] I've been meaning to write about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" for years. In fact, I had it in mind when I started this blog, and I promised that a post about it was imminent in September of 2004. (Doh!) Well, during our ongoing sojourn in Germany, we discovered to our horror that we'd run out of English-language TV. Fortunately, I remembered that I've had an AVI of "Darmok" sitting in my hard drive since July of 2004, so we fired it up and watched it.
"Darkmok" is easily the most linguistic of the Star Trek episodes I've seen. Unlike a lot of the SF I discuss, it's pretty well-known, so I'm a little nervous about writing about it—I'm sure you can find many, many essays about it online, but hopefully I have something to add. For a comprehensive review, check out this page by Raphael Carter, which includes both a summary and a glossary of all the alien utterances in the episode (and from which I got the official spellings of most of the proper names). I'm going to summarize the linguistic aspects of the story, then analyze where I think they're wrong—which is, unfortunately, pretty often.
A ship from an alien species called the Children of Tama has been waiting near the planet El-Adrel for three weeks, transmitting a signal containing a "standard mathematical progression" toward Federation space. It seems they want to make contact, and the Enterprise has been sent to do so. This may not be straightforward, though: seven times in the previous 100 years, Federation ships encountered Tamarian ships, but, as Data puts it, "formal relations were not established because communication was not possible."
When they get to the planet and open up a channel, this is what the Tamarian captain says:
Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.
Huh? As Data observes, "the Tamarian seems to be stating the proper names of individuals and locations," but what's it all about? Picard replies with some polite suggestions about a mutual non-aggression pact but meets with incomprehension. It's clear both sides think they're expressing themselves clearly, but no message is getting through.
The Tamarian captain and first officer argue, apparently over how to proceed. Finally, the captain seems to come to a decision. He pulls a knife from a sheath on his chest and another from his first officer's, turns toward Picard, holds out the knives, and intones, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra." Before the Enterprise can stop them, the Tamarians have beamed both captains down to the planet. Uh-oh, it looks like "Arena" all over again! (Dude, make gunpowder!)
Down on the planet, Picard and the Tamarian eye each other warily. The Tamarian keeps repeating "Darmok and Jalad", holding out both knives. Picard says he won't fight, and even when the Tamarian throws the second knife at his feet, Picard throws it back. The Tamarian, seeming disappointed, says, "Shaka, when the walls fell."
The Enterprise can't beam up Picard because the Tamarian ship is interfering, and, predictably, it doesn't help trying to talk to them about it. As attempts at retrieving Picard continue, Data and Troi try to work out a way to open up communications. While studying the recording of the Tamarian officers arguing, it occurs to them to try searching through "all linguistic databases for this sector" for the proper name Darmok. There are 47 hits. But when they search for Tanagra, they notice that one of the hits is from same planet as one of the hits for Darmok. (Apparently they don't have AND in their search engine.) Data and Troi later summarize their research:
Data: The Tamarian ego structure does not seem to allow what we normally think of as self-identity. Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which occur in their mytho-historical accounts. ... Troi: Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It's how they communicate and it's how they think. Riker: If we know how they think, shouldn't we be able to get something across to them? Data: No, sir. The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary.
Meanwhile, down on the planet, Picard is trying to figure out the same mystery. When the Tamarian leaves his camp, Picard sneaks in to look for clues that might help him understand what the alien is saying. The Tamarian comes rushing back, shouting about Darmok, and tries to press a knife into Picard's hand again. Picard starts to refuse until he hears a scary snarling noise from behind the Tamarian. Looks like they've got company, and the Tamarian wants to fight together against the common foe.
In fact, that turns out to have been his plan all along. Picard finally realizes that the Tamarians communicate by allusions to their mythology (although he calls this "metaphor", which I don't think is quite right). Knowing this, he begins to make a little headway with the "vocabulary", discovering that "Shaka, when the walls fell" refers to failure, while "Temba, his arms wide" refers to giving. The Tamarian wants to re-enact the story of Darmok and Jalad, who met on the island of Tanagra, fought together against the Beast of Tanagra, and left as friends.
His plan doesn't quite turn out as expected, and the creature on El-Adrel mortally wounds the Tamarian captain. Before he dies, he tells Picard the story of Darmok and Jalad, and Picard responds with the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. When Picard returns to the Enterprise to find the two ships fighting, he is able to defuse the situation by using his newfound understanding to speak with the Tamarian first officer, who acknowledges his account of the fight on the planet's surface by saying, "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel." Picard's not sure they've made new friends, "but at least they're not new enemies."
There's something odd about the beginning of this episode. It makes sense that an unfamiliar language would be, well, unfamiliar, so why are the crew of the Enterprise surprised not to be able to communicate immediately? It turns out that in the Star Trek universe, nobody needs to worry about learning alien languages because they have a device called the "Universal Translator". It was introduced in the original series, implicitly the first time they were able to communicate with a previously unknown species, and explicitly in the episode "Metamorphosis" in this conversation between Zefram Cochrane, Kirk, and Spock:
Cochrane: What's the theory behind this device? Kirk: There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life. This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas and concepts it recognizes, and then provides the necessary grammar. Spock: Then it simply translates its findings into English. Cochrane: You mean it speaks? Kirk: With a voice, or the approximation, of whatever the creature is that's sending it. Not 100% efficient, of course, but nothing ever is.
This dialog takes place while Spock is tinkering together a Universal Translator with a screwdriver (which he can do because Spock is The Man). It's a metallic cylinder about the size and shape of a lightsaber. Even though it's hand-built and impressively compact, the resulting device is so sensitive it's able to detect and reveal that the amorphous alien energy creature they use it on is female—and because this is Star Trek, that's an imporant plot point. (At least Kirk doesn't end up putting the moves on her.)
The Universal Translator is pure Treknobabble. It becomes clear
over the course of the series that it works in both directions, which
means that it's able to both read thoughts in and project
thoughts into the neural architecture of any kind of creature, from
bumpy-foreheaded humanoids to
Note that the Universal Translator clearly works, at least partly, on the Children of Tama. When they speak, the crew of the Enterprise don't hear an untranslated stream of Tamarese—"Darmok Jalad-qo Tanagra-nga". Instead, they hear proper names (appropriately) untranslated, but all the function words, common nouns, and verbs are translated—"Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", "Shaka, when the walls fell", "Temba, his arms wide".
So the problem is not that Tamarese is beyond the capabilities of the Universal Translator, which must mean that the Children of Tama's brains are running on more-or-less the same wavelength as everyone else's. The problem, rather, is that they express themselves entirely using allusions to their mythology. It's easy to imagine why this would be a problem for a person learning the language, but I don't see why it should bother the Universal Translator. Data's speech above about the radically alien Tamarian self-concept is an attempt to finesse this point, I think—the Children of Tama think different—but I'm not convinced. For guys who are supposed to lack self-identity, the Tamarian captain and first officer sure seem to argue like ordinary self-identifying people. What's more, the UT evidently does partly work, which means it's successfully reading the Tamarian's minds—so when the captain thinks, "Failure!", but says (in Tamarese), "Shaka, when the walls fell", why would it produce a gloss of the spoken sentence instead of, you know, a translation?
The linguistic problems with "Darmok", however, run deeper than contradicting previous statements about the (admittedly magical) Universal Translator. Let's assume the facts of the language situation are as the writers would have it—the UT isn't able to handle Tamarese because they speak in literary allusions. Why would that prevent communication? In spite of having starships for over a century in a galaxy teeming with intelligent species—at one point in the episode, Data mentions having personally encountered 1,754 in his Starfleet career—have the Children of Tama never figured out that other people don't share their mythology? That seems like the sort of thing they'd have figured out from first principles before meeting anyone.
What's more, I don't believe in Tamarese as described. With regards to language change, it must be in an extraordinarily unstable state. Let's consider the problem of young Tamarians—the children of the Children of Tama, if you will—who, if the language works the way we're told it does, are presented with a seemingly insurmountable language-learning problem.
Think of Tamarese as two languages. Tamarese-A is an ordinary human(oid) language with words and grammar and so forth, which, judging by the internal structure of the allusions we hear, has strategies for expressing common nouns ("walls", "arms"), coordination, possession, and other garden-variety linguistic phenomena. Tamarese-B, their language of allusions, is encoded in Tamarese-A. Are the Children of Tama consciously aware of both these levels? If they are, they presumably know to speak Tamarese-A with children, at least until they learn enough of the canon of Tamarian mythology to get by in Tamarese-B. But if that's the case, the whole episode falls down—after one or two attempts with Tamarese-B, wouldn't the captain give Tamarese-A a try? Worse, when Picard says things in English to the Tamarian captain, the Universal Translator ought to be translating them into Tamarese-A.
The Children of Tama, therefore, must somehow use Tamarese-B exclusively, without realizing it's encoded in Tamarese-A. If that's the case, we should expect Tamarese-B to last exactly one generation. When the next generation of children acquires it, they're going to have no idea what any of the allusions refer to. Instead, just as Picard does, they'll simply learn it as a language with almost no grammar and a few very long words—for them, the Tamarese utterance corresponding to "Shaka, when the walls fell" will be a single lexical item meaning 'failure'. Presumably, they'll then do what human children do in such a circumstance and invent a creole. Tamarese-B, I think, really ought to have disappeared years before, but since failed attempts at communication go back a century, it must, improbably, have survived.
I also don't believe that a language based entirely on allusion is
at all suitable for situations requiring precision. If all you're
doing is arguing about a general course of action, Tamarese-B might be
enough, but how can you run a starship using it? When the captain
wants to tell the helmsman to go to warp factor five, does he say,
"Darmok...uh...that time he went warp factor five"? At the end of the
episode, in fact, the first officer orders his ship to warp out of
orbit with "Mirab, with sails unfurled", which is used several times
in the episode to mean something like 'go'. Shouldn't the helmsman
Come to think of it, what would you do if you wanted to use Tamarese-B to tell someone that a wall had fallen down?
"Shaka, when the walls fell"
[expression of sympathy at your failure]
"No, listen—Shaka, when the walls fell"
"Dude, seriously—Shaka, when the literal walls literally fell"
I imagine that would get old fast.
Another weakness in the episode is that the only reason the crew of the Enterprise are able to start puzzling out what the Children of Tama are saying is that, as near-human bumpyheads, they have familiar human gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice. For example, Picard is only able to guess that "Shaka, when the walls fell" means 'failure' because the Tamarian captain hangs his head and looks frustrated when he says it. The whole episode would have gone very differently, I think, if the Children of Tama had looked like hortas. There's also the problematic scene in which Troi and Data are able to look key proper names (Darmok and Tanagra) in some kind of pan-Galactic linguistics/mythology database. If they can do that, the Children of Tama have already managed to communicate with someone, either to learn that myth or to transmit it.
Even when I originally watched it, I found "Darmok" frustratingly poorly thought out, and knowing more about language has only made matters worse. This is partly because I find the core story pretty appealing:
- Two peoples meet.
- They encounter a communication gulf that both want to bridge.
- One side acts to do so, but in a way that is easy to interpret as an attack.
- Luckily, through persistence and sacrifice, good will overcomes paranoia and communication is established.
That sounds like it would make a nice, optimistic episode of
Star Trek, doesn't it? Unfortunately, in fleshing out
this skeleton, the writers constructed a linguistic situation that's
simply unbelievable. It's not that a language made up entirely
out of allusions is unworthy of fictional exploration. Raphael
Tamarese is similar to the language of the Ascians in Gene Wolfe's
Book of the New Sun, and I wonder if either of these might have
been inspired by the four-character
idioms that famously give students of Chinese so much
trouble. But stories about such a
Still, it's not a bad bit of sci-fi TV. That's due in large part to Patrick Stewart, who seems to have the mutant ability to take any script, even one which doesn't entirely make sense, and infuse it with sincerity and meaning. ("That's why they call it acting.") This helps some, but for me, it's not enough to save "Darmok" from its flaws.
[The Wikipedia page for "Darmok" has some good links at the bottom, including a page about it on Memory Alpha, the offical page on startrek.com, and a non-canonical work of fictional non-fiction by Jean-Luc Picard about the incident.]
1 Recall, however, that in a couple of original series episodes, Federation courtrooms are shown to have a working lie detector. This technology, too, would require a particularly thorough and reliable form of mechanical telepathy.