Language is firmly linked to communication but, just like there is more than only communication to language, communication also involves a lot more than language.
A classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Darmok features an incident involving the crew of the USS Enterprise and a starship of Tamarians, a civilization previously uncontacted by the Federation. Science-fiction is a genre heavily influenced by contacts of civilization in our own history, with aliens alternatively playing the part of destructive colonists (The War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Edge of Tomorrow) or threatened indigenous people (Avatar, District 9). The Star Trek episode Darmok is not an exception.
Being a linguistics-heavy episode, it is no coincidence that it was one of our favourite episodes of the series when me and my sister watched it in the 1990s. In the fictional universe of Star Trek there is a universal translator, a technology that delivers instantaneous translations of any alien language, either known or unknown, as people speak. The science-fiction mechanics of such technology aside, the universal translator allows for the series to depict interactions betweens all sorts of aliens without being bogged down by mundane language barriers. In Darmok, the writers took this concept to reflect on language and communication in a way that made it one of the most highly regarded episodes of Star Trek: TNG.
In a nutshell, the Tamarian language can be decoded without problems by the universal translator, just like any other language. However, communication with them is still not possible because Tamarians speak by using almost exclusively references of historical and mythological episodes. After being stranded together on a deserted planet, captain Jean-Luc Picard and the Tamarian captain experience events similar to those in a Tamarian legend. In the end they are attacked by an alien beast and work together to slay it. Wounded in the fight, the Tamarian captain dies hearing the Gilgamesh epic from Picard. Back on the Enterprise, captain Picard is able to use his new knowledge of Tamarian mythology to successfully establish communication with the Tamarian crew.
The way it’s depicted in the series, Tamarian language is completely unrealistic. However, the central idea will surely resonate with people that have tried to communicate with someone that not only speaks a different language, but also comes from a culture with little shared cultural background. Twenty-five years ago, David Moser famously made this reflection on communication between Western and Chinese people:
[When Americans communicate with French people] we share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history — which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that’s in an American’s head.
Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can’t drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn’t know who Santa Claus was.
In my experience working with Amazonian indigenous communities, I sometimes feel that there is a certain Darmok effect at play, which I’m sure is also percieved in the reversed direction. This is stronger when talking to the older generation, especially in communities where contact with national Brazilian society is recent enough that the older members in the community were already adults when contact took place. A feeling that, despite apparently understanding most words said in a conversation, there is something else that I should know in order to properly understand.
Many people in the communities that I have worked with have experienced certain elements of Western culture in a very narrow and specific setting and context, ranging from their experiences with certain facilities (hospitals, airports) or technologies (firearms, construction materials, electricity) to their exposure to fictionalized depictions of the American Old West and kung-fu flicks. More often than not, there is a struggle to pinpoint a common ground when having certain conversations, to make sure that what’s said and understood on both sides overlaps as much as possible.
In the reverse direction, things are just as complex, if not more. Those of us who grew up with Western clichés about native Americans and specifically native Amazonian peoples need to overcome a similar cultural and communicative gap when interacting with such a community for the first time. Even past the initial stages, there are always episodes i which I feel that I’m missing an important piece of a shared cultural subtext: alimentary taboos, discussions about sickness and witchcraft, the fluid identity of jaguars as both mere animals and mythical creatures, my sense of exoticism towards the animals that are hunted as game or kept as pets next to the everyday familiarity that the same animals have with my hosts in the village.
One thing is for sure. Communication is complex and complicated enough without being faced with Tamarian language, and one way or another humans are drawn to understand each other and to find ways to bridge this gap.
Moser, David. 1991. Why Chinese is so damn hard. Sino-Platonic Papers 27. 59–70.