Star Trek And Language Skills

In a Star Trek The Next Generation episode called "Darmok," the Enterprise encounters an alien Tamarian ship in orbit around the planet El-Adrel. Captain Picard of the Enterprise attempts to communicate with the alien Captain, whose name is Dathon, via the universal communicator. As all Tamarian communication use allegory and metaphor from their folklore, misunderstandings abound. One key phrase used by the Tamarians is "Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra" and Captain Picard and his first officer attempt to explore its meaning. Picard and Dathon transport to El-ADrel's surface where they attempt to communicate.

Picard concludes that the Tamarian language is based on metaphors from Tamarian history and mythology. "Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra" refers to two Tamarian warriors who met at an island and who had to cooperate to defeat a dangerous beast dwelling there. It turns out that El-Adrel is the home of its own powerful and monstrous creature and the hope is that the Federation and the Tamarian people can become friends by jointly killing the monster on El-Adrel.

Darmok And Jalad At Tanagra

Non Linear Communication

Before you can really understand langauage or the grammar of langauge, you must have a sense of the whole. For many students, grammar is a vague, often pointless set of rules they just have to learn. The purpose is not clear to many, even late in the high school years. Students frequently complain that they didn't understand the purpose of grammar rules until they took courses in another langauge and realized that to speak that language, they had to understand the grammar. For many students English grammar is so innately understood, that there is no need to appreciate that it is a viable structure.

In the Star Trek The Next Generation episode "Darmok," the language of the aliens is based on analogy and metaphor and is not, apparently, a complete grammar system. One could raise many questions about the validity of such a language. How, for example, is knowledge of the culture or mythology transmitted to the young anyway? "Darmok" illustrated the problems that occur when using metaphors others are not familiar with. And how about dealing with specifics? Is the culture rich enough to provide an analogy for every situation? Could such a culture develop space travel? Would "James Dyson during testing phase" be enough to tell someone that there is a problem with your vacuum? Maybe not, but if you want to view langauge from another perspective, then this Star Trek episode might help. Unlike Morse Code or the Braille system, this is not another way of expressing letters or words, but a whole new approach to language - however unworkable.

Pros And Cons Of Communicating Solely By Analogy

Why not explore the limitations of communication only by analogy? Here are some to get you started:

  • It's often the case that different people attribute different meanings to the same event. "Jack and Jill went up the hill" might mean one thing to you, and another to me. Any communication using that phrase is open to misunderstanding.
  • It's hard to communicate specifics using analogy.
  • Metaphors will only be understood by those who are familiar - a little like colloquialisms.