I watched a episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that might be one of the best things I’ve seen on television, but might also be very problematic indeed. It’s ‘Darmok’. I watched more than my fair share of this show first time around, and I have been dabbling a bit recently, drawn in by Netflix and nostalgia. There are just about enough decent episodes that it is not only sustained by the strange mystery of Commander Riker’s galaxy-wide sex appeal (is no species immune?). I think I should be a little more interested than I am (i.e. barely at all) by the android Data’s attempts to be more human. Sometimes the efforts to portray the United Federation of Planets as, you know, nothing like the bad kind of travelling, settling, encountering-the-other times in history, just don’t work. Sometimes the portrayals of other peoples are clumsy as a result. But ‘Darmok’ has something special about it. It has a bit of low-tech / low-budget charm, a bit of low-tech / low-budget rubbishness, but most of all it has a script that seems to me to have some interesting questions about the way language works.
The premise is that the crew of the Enterprise meet an alien species (the Tamarians) for the first time. Most unusually, the amazing Universal Translator fails. This tool is a brilliant convenience in science fiction (Douglas Adams equivalent: the Babel fish), generally coming with a rationale that the fundamental structures of nearly all languages have been decoded, so the rest is just details. Anyway, it’s rare for it not to work, but negotiations go nowhere, and in a surprising twist the Tamarians transport Captain Picard and their own Captain Dathon to a nearby planet for a seriously dangerous camping-and-bonding trip.
The team-building exercise is 50% fatal but 100% successful in creating mutual understanding. It turns out that the Tamarians have a language based on symbolic episodes in stories. Rather than saying ‘I am struck with sudden grief’, they’d say an equivalent of ‘Juliet, waking to find Romeo’s corpse’. The journey from perplexity to realization is well handled — it gets quite moving (if you like languages as much as I do) when at the end they come up with a new image: ‘Picard and Dathon, at El-Adrel’. This is all a bit shaky, though. Could an allegorical language like this really work? How would a child learn it? How would you tell stories in the first place? (Perhaps with a different written language; perhaps in pictures? Things do get a bit shaky when Picard starts passing on the Epic of Gilgamesh.) Is it compatible with a mind organized anything like ours, or do we have to imagine complementary cognitive structures? Star Trek fans, and authors of apocryphal works set in the same universe, don’t let things lie. You can find a lot more information here. The glossary is nice. Knowing that in one short story it’s stated that the Tamarian brain has a completely different architecture is actually a bit disappointing — I prefer to have that question open.
Watching the episode over again, you see subtleties, but not too many (it’s not the most demanding bit of TV). Knowing more of the phrases changes the meaning of some threatening gestures, for example. ‘Darmok’ elicits questions about languages and minds as both social and personal matters; it doesn’t arrange these into an orderly argument, and it does seem to begin to fall apart when you think about it too hard, but the story makes it all matter in the fiction. One interesting thing is that the Tamarians appear to be more advanced technologically than the Federation (and also extraordinarily committed to making links with other people); this language has enabled them to achieve a great deal. So here we are in a hypothetical scenario far beyond the everyday or the laboratory, but pushing at possibilities that are also being explored when linguists and psychologists think about how different languages work in and on us. Trying out how different a language could be is a worthwhile way of addressing why the ones we know are the way they are.
There’s only one way to sign off: MIRAB, WITH SAILS UNFURLED!