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Darmok, its meaning obscure

One of the most famous episodes of Star Trek is "Darmok" (TNG). The Enterprise attempts to make contact with the Tamarians. The trouble is that the Universal Translator doesn't work. Or rather it does, but instead of producing results like "We breathe oxygen" or "don't shoot" it produces phrases with proper nouns such as "Rai and Jiri at Lungha". The Tamarians suddenly beam Picard to the surface of a planet, along with their own captain Dathon, apparently because "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra". Eventually it turns out that their language consists entirely of imagery, more specifically references to stories. (In this case, the reference was a story in which Darmok and Jalad had to confront a threat together at Tanagra, thus coming to understanding: similarly Picard and the Tamarian will have to confront a threat together in order to communicate.)

The episode is justly famous for raising in a story form some fascinating issues about the nature of language. But what people get out of it varies. You could use it as a sort of litmus test—are you bothered by the logical problems? Many are, others are not.

"Darmok" is itself a story, and its meanings are in that form. However, let's first look at the more literal significance.

Data comments that since the Tamarians' statements are all allusions to stories, "It is necessary for us to learn the narrative from which the Tamarians drawing their imagery." This seems to block progress. However, it is possible. The Tamarian captain does in fact relate the story to Picard, sort of: "Tanagra on the ocean. Darmok at Tanagra. ... Jalad on the ocean. Jalad at Tanagra.... The beast at Tanagra."

How do the Tamarians learn and make sense of their own language? In the outline narrative just given, Dathon refers to "ocean" and "beast", so apparently it is possible to name some things by ordinary words which refer directly rather than by allusion. If Dathon had had to use an image from a story to refer to the ocean, it would have been more difficult. Perhaps the concept of "ocean" could be expressed by a story of a great rain: "Jalad, the great rain of Whatsit"—oh, hold on, now I need an allusion which will indicate rain. Trying to talk in this way leads into an infinite regress unless we allow some words to be outside the story-reference system. But once you do that the Tamarian language is not entirely imagery, merely an ordinary language that uses imagery a lot.

Of course, there are some theorists who argue that language is really a closed system which never does escape into the real world. I don't, myself, think this is coherent, but in any case it doesn't seem to be what the episode is saying (but see below).

What is the role of imagery and story in language? It is indeed essential. When the Tamarians open with "Lowani under two moons" and so on, Picard responds with "Captain, would you be prepared to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples, possibly leading to a trade agreement and cultural interchange?" The Tamarians laugh, and you can understand why; the contrast makes Picard's literal language seem pretty extreme in a different direction. However, the idea of a language which is entirely metaphor reminds me of the musical composition "Four minutes thirty-three seconds" by John Cage, in which the musicians do not play for that length of time. Silence is a vital part of music—a silence can even be a sort of note, the "rest". So, Cage's composition raises the question, could a piece of music consist entirely of silence and still be a piece of music? One is tempted to say that there is an answer to that question: No. But musicians may wish to weigh in.

The Tamarian language would be a bit inconvenient for many purposes, but we are only interested in the questions of principle, and there is no reason why conventional metaphors could not cover all the necessary cases. "Shaka, when the walls fell" seems to cover "failure", "it isn't working" and similar meanings. However, surely this means that "Shaka when the walls fell" is in fact the Tamarian translation for the English "failure"? We now have a (compound) word, and the Universal Translator should recognize it.

But all this perhaps misses the point. "Darmok" itself is a story and only makes sense when you take it as such. As well as raising questions about the nature of language, it is science-fictional in its portrayal of an alien intelligence which thinks in a really different way. This has been attempted many times but seldom successfully. The classic is "A Martian Odyssey" (1934) by Stanley Weinbaum. (Interestingly, the human and the Martian are also in the situation of confronting threats together.) The narrator is able to communicate with his Martian companion up to a point but every so often comprehension goes completely off the rails. The Martian seems to be amused that for the narrator things have the same name each time they come up. You could also perhaps include Solaris (I am thinking especially of the 1972 Soviet film version) as another example. In "Darmok" communication is difficult and imperfect even when Picard grasps the principle.

The first time I saw it I found the logical problems got in the way of being able to appreciate it at a different level. Having got past that, it becomes possible to appreciate the issues as questions.

Do all our languages rest on metaphors and stories, just not as much as Tamarian? Certainly idiom does. Data, especially early in his time on the Enterprise, has trouble with idiom. When O'Brien says "We'll all be burning the midnight oil on this one", Data objects that "If you attempt to ignite a petroleum product on this ship at zero hundred hours, it will activate the fire suppression system". ("All Good Things", TNG) Allusion to stories requires familiarity with common cultural points of reference. For English speakers, traditional stories are less familiar than they were, but there are modern alternatives. Star Trek and Star Wars, in fact, are possible sources. Then there are dead metaphors—it's noticeable that "toe the line" is often misspelt "tow the line" because many people no longer have any sense of the image implied. Also proverbs. Suppose there is storm damage, and someone, seeing people from a repair business, says "It's an ill wind" it will make no sense unless you know the full proverb.[1] This is perhaps close to the situation with Tamarian, though people, and cultures, vary a lot in how much they use proverbs.[2]

There are other possible interpretations. As we have seen, the Tamarian language is capable of making direct statements, which are used to relate the stories. But instead of making such statements about their own situation, the Tamarians seem capable only of alluding to the stories. One interpretation would be that the Tamarians have (for cultural reasons?) somehow become psychologically incapable of thinking except in terms of these stories. But another interpretation would be that this is the nature of language; it is in itself a closed system, but it can be connected to the outside world by metaphor. Thus, all our statements about the outside world are actually metaphor which needs to be decoded. This is in effect one form of postmodern thinking about language. However, the episode could also be seen as an illustration of what is problematic about this viewpoint. They eventually communicate asymmetrically, rather than by matching stories.

In some fan discussion, I have seen the comment that people should not worry about an impossibility regarding language, when they do not worry about impossibilities regarding faster-than-light travel and so forth. But this is a mistaken comparison. Warp drive is a given of Star Trek. It is the "imaginary science", something in the background which makes stories possible. The Tamarian language, however, is what the story is about.

"Darmok" is as I said a famous episode. In my view it fails to be a great episode because the actual story is slow-moving and doesn't live up to the possibilities. It gets boring when no progress is being made. The great episodes not only have a great idea but make it into a great story. "Blink of an Eye" (VOY), for example, has a fascinating basic idea—the planet whose time is accelerated compared to surrounding space—but the episode uses it to make every moment count. However, I have heard the alternative opinion that the repeated failure of communication between Picard and the Tamarian conveys the frustration of the situation and is thus interesting.

A comment about the universal translator. This is a basic convention of Star Trek. In the vast majority of stories, the different languages are irrelevant. "Darmok" is the biggest exception, but there are some others. (Captain Picard once has to address an insect intelligence directly in their own language, for diplomatic purposes: "The Big Goodbye", TNG). So we have the universal translator to get the issue out of the way of the story. You're not supposed to ask how it works. (If it worked by reading thoughts like Douglas Adams's Babelfish it should be able to cope with Tamarian.) In TOS, the aliens just spoke English without explanation, an approach I approve of. There are a few references to language, such as in "The Cloud Minders" (TOS) which seem to suggest the crew of the Enterprise may not really be speaking twentieth-century English, but you don't need to know the details.[3]


[1] The full proverb is "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good," meaning that even when something is generally bad, someone will probably benefit from it. [Return]

[2] Proverbs evolve. "Time and tide wait for no man" is a very old proverb, and originally "time and tide" was an reduplication, with the two words meaning roughly the same, but according to OED "tide" has been understood in its modern sense of sea-tides since the sixteenth century. This arguably improves the proverb as the tide is notoriously unstoppable—there is even an echo of Canute. [Return]

[3] Spock explains to Kirk that "'Troglyte' is an abbreviation of an ancient Earth term" (emphasis added) (i.e. troglodyte) [Return]

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