One of my favourite fictional examples of communication issues between two people speaking different languages is in the 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” A quick synopsis: the Federation wants to open dialogue with a secretive race known as the Tamarians, but when they arrive at their planet they run into the slight problem of neither understanding the other’s language. Captain Picard is beamed down to the planet, and together with his Tamarian counterpart, they must find some way to communicate to survive in a harsh environment.
Difficulties with language seems like an obvious story idea for a long-running sci-fi franchise, but it’s surprisingly rare in Star Trek, mainly because they have the almost magical universal translator, which instantly translates any alien language into English. Obviously this device was thought up for the practical reason of not having to create a new alien language for every alien race, but it did mean that stories focussing didn’t feature much.
Darmok gets around the universal translator by having the Tamarians use an allegorical language. The translator can translate each word into English, but the Tamarians use phrases referencing their history and culture to represent specific ideas. If you don’t know the reference, you don’t know what they mean. For example, many of them refer to a hero of Tamarian myth, Darmok. Darmok on the ocean refers to loneliness or isolation. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra refers to cooperation (Jalad was Darmok’s enemy, but the two joined forces at Tanagra to face a common enemy). When Picard begins to understand how the language works, Dathon proclaims Sokath, his eyes uncovered! to express the concept of realisation or understanding.
It’s an interesting concept for a language, and I remember when I first saw the episode being intrigued by the idea of a language that was alien in its very nature, if not its vocabulary. And vicariously daunted by how hard it would be to begin understanding it. If you think about the language for a while though, you can pick some holes in it. How can the Tamarian language consist only of stock phrases, when they still have the individual words which compose them? Surely someone would realise that these little units could be combined to form new meanings? And how could a technologically-advanced society function when it uses full phrases to represent very general concepts? How do you express something nuanced or specific, like Do you think you’d be able to get that report in by 5.30 on Thursday? The purchasing department are meeting at 2 on Friday and they’re hoping to have a look through before then.
Of course it’s interesting to think about the practicalities of the language, but the theme of finding common ground with someone with a completely different perspective is what the main focus of the episode is. It’s still interesting to look at in terms of differences in language though. The assumption of the Federation that the universal translator could translate any language is reminiscent of how we can think of languages in simple terms. I’ve often come across the assumption that to learn a language you just need to learn long lists of words, and what they sound like. Which can work in a very limited sense, until you run up against grammar, and idioms where knowing the individual words of the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean knowing the meaning of the expression as a whole. Imagine teaching someone the meaning of the verb to look, and the preposition after, and then expecting them to understand the phrasal verb to look after.
Even if a universal translator could be programmed with the meaning of idioms (and online translators like Google Translate, while still far from perfect, are much better in that regard now), what about the specific cultural aspects of language? How do you translate words for feelings that we don’t have in English? How do you get across the specific cultural and historical factors that provide specific connotations to words and phrases? Of course that’s not always impossible, so translation will always miss something of the essence of the original language.
So while we can learn much of a language purely academically, to really get to the heart of it, you need to get out there and use it, which isn’t always easy of course. But “Darmok” also, perhaps unintentionally, demonstrates this too, with Picard figuring the language out through seeing Dathon use sentences repeatedly, in context.
Don’t worry though, you probably won’t face anything as stressful as fighting an invisible monster on an alien planet using only primitive weapons.
(You can find the episode on Netflix in most regions)