Star Trek with linguistic pretensions

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/06/19 14:45 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2005/06/19/430591.aspx


I certainly used to be a fan of the orginal Star Trek series (what fans now call Star Trek: TOS) when I was growing up, though I remember that the TV station used to show episodes out of order. Even a kid can be confused if from week to week people do not seem to remember what they had just learned even days ago. I think I decided they just were not very good at remembering details. The notion of rerun was also something I did not understand, but then I was very young.

As an aside, I used to date a woman who at one point had worked at Paramount's King's Island as a 'spotter' for Dino the dinosaur (a not-so-amusing fact is that sometimes children will kick or otherwise abuse the dressed up characters, and spotters kind of help keep things from getting out of hand). And she told me about the care with which they made sure that different people dressed as the same character were not walking through the park at the same time, due to the emotionally scarring consequences of seeing the same character more than once that way. My reaction when I learned about the setup with reruns was not that bad for me, but I can relate to those kids. It was pretty weird.

Anyway, I sort of outgrew the series, and I would see some of the movies later (though not all of them), and it never held that much interest. Though I did find it fascinating that Dr. Marc Okrand (a former graduate studies classmate of Unicode's Dr. Ken Whistler) was hired by Paramount to create the Klingon language for Star Trek III. That was a cool idea. I remember buying The Klingon Dictionary and probably learning more about grammar through trying to understand this constructed language than I had tried to do for English or Spanish or Yiddish or Hebrew, previously! That copy of the book actually went to Dr. Ori Soltes, then a professor at the college where my mother was a registrar and someone who was willing to put up with my endless questions about all of the stuff he knew. I was fascinated at how many languages he knew both for reading and converstaionally and thought he might want to tack this one on. He was amused and enough of a fan to take a look...

Even then I did have something of a meta-language interest, something I never really picked up on until years later....

I had trouble ever getting into the next franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation (fans call it Star Trek: TNG). Ignoring the fact that it was set 100 years later (pretty long generations in the future!), I just never was able to keep interested. Except for one episode, which was actually my favorite and the one episode I really enjoyed. The name of it was Darmok.

The premise for the episode was interesting:

The Children of Tama are a mysterious, rarely encountered race whose language is indecipherable even by the Universal Translator. This is because Tamarians speak in metaphor, which is strange and poetic, but, without a frame of reference, also gibberish. After yet another failed attempt at communication, the Tamarians take drastic measures: they kidnap Picard and beam him to the surface of a hostile planet along with their own captain. What follows is an interesting, well-acted story of the struggle to understand.

Of course from my own prior posts about the difficulty with machine translation, readers will have no problem understanding my skepticism about the Universal Translator (for this device I have the same kind of skepticism that most have for the Star Trek transporter technology). A language that the Universal Translator cannot handle is easy for me to grok.

The story even inspired web sites like The Darmok Dictionary to talk about the episode.

What was fascinating to me was the idea of a language whose principal means of communication is through metaphor. Would it actually be feasible? Or even possible?

I mean, it is easy to imagine communicating concepts like doing something ridiculous (e.g. getting drunk and dancing while on a scooter) by saying something like "Michael and Teresa at Matrix" or a pleasantly infuriating technical coversation by saying something like "Michael and Andrea at CttM". If people had been reading this blog and bothered to remember all the crap I post about, then they might even be able to understand what is being communicated.

But carrying off entire conversations that way, the notion is one that I had so much trouble accepting that I decided I had to like the episode. Anything that made me think that much deserved at least that much recognition!

The real problem, of course, is that when Picard finally told his alien compadre a similar story from his own culture (he chose the story of Gilgamesh), he had to tell the story as a story. And the alien understood the story, even without it being told entirely in metaphor. So clearly they are able to understand the stories (told as regular stories) that we would understand.

Maybe that is how it would work -- when you are a child you are told stories and you learn them, and in private you might even talk with that mode. But public speech is always through metaphor. Certainly there are many differences between what we do in language as children versus adults, so this is an easier framework to accept.

The other problem I have with the concept though is how to understand the meaning of each metaphor, since not every story has only one lesson. Looking even at the examples I gave, a lot more conversations happened in both situations. I guess if your only contact with either situation was this blog then your job is easy, but what if I added additional posts with other conversational nuggets?

Or what if the 'lesson' that you gleaned from the first story was "It is good that Michael does not get drunk often" and from the second story was "as a flirt, Michael truly can be a geek" ?

What if the thing I said was "Michael at MSDN Blogs". I mean, I blather on here forever -- how could one know what is being referred to, even generally?

In the end I think I decided that such a language would probably not work in practice. The Children of Tama are an interesting construct in the Star Trek unverse, but ultimately unsupportable as a concept (even if the notion of the Universal Translator is debunked a little). Which is fine since they used the transporter to get down to the planet anyway....


# Suzanne McCarthy on 19 Jun 2005 9:36 PM:

Whoever wrote that episode about the children of Tama may have been interested in Vico's theory about the origin of language. Vico wrote that language developed from signs to metaphors to words. I think of Giambattiste Vico 1688 - 1744 as the father of writing system theory in Europe so I'll blog about him some day.
According to Vico, metaphor is meant to be the earliest, most primitive and at the same time integral kind of communication, next came the heroic and legendary stage - maybe more your style.

I was fan of the early series of star trek.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 19 Jun 2005 10:34 PM:

According to http://www.chaparraltree.com/sflang/whatis.shtml --

The teleplay was written by Joe Menosky, and the story was written by Philip Laznebik and Joe Menosky.

Not sure if that was the original source, but if so that might imply that this culture was not very advanced, maybe?

# Suzanne McCarthy on 19 Jun 2005 11:23 PM:

A quick search tells me Menosky is an expert on the Italian renaissance.

"But the years on staff had taken Menosky away from his first love, which was scholarly research. He slipped away to go live near family in Italy and devote himself to long hours studying, eventually penning a mini-series about the Italian Renaissance."

"Masks" was a typical Menosky script much like "Muse," a story full of the writer's love of mythology, archetypes and intellectual puzzles.

http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/news/article/111610.html

There is also a spaceship named Vico so yeah, just maybe there is a connection.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Jun 2005 12:09 AM:

Wow, that's a cool bit of research, and fast too!

# Philip Newton on 20 Jun 2005 12:12 AM:

I had to think of kennings, which also seemed to be metaphorical ways of expressing things. To understand them, you'd also need to have a good grasp of mythology so that you know what various things refer to. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenning .

# Daniel Garlans on 20 Jun 2005 8:20 AM:

The thing that always bugged me about the universal translator, besides the obvious improbability, was that it was somehow able to magically fix the lip synching, even when you were standing face-to-face with the alien...

i remember there was an episode of deep space nine where the translator couldn't quite figure out the alien dialect so it was all just gibberish but every now and then a real word would slip in, as the translator learned "context"...

# Maurits [MSFT] on 20 Jun 2005 3:54 PM:

What is your impression of Douglas Adams' Babel Fish (see the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books) as opposed to the Universal Translator?

Or see this page for the pseudo-techie explanation of how the Babel Fish works:
http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/b/babel_fish/

# Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Jun 2005 3:57 PM:

How do I personally feel?

Well, Adams did it for laughs and never truly expected to be taken seriously. But Star Trek talks about it like a matter of fact device sitting in the shelf.....

referenced by

2015/07/29 Star Trek with linguistic pretensions (2015 edition)

2007/10/30 How are *you* feeling today? And can I quote you on that?

2007/10/13 Not exactly a career

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