The Tamarian language makes no sense

I was reminded of this by a recent mention in another thread.

In the “Damark” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Picard is on a planet where the natives (the Tamarians) seem to be speaking an incomprehensible language. Picard’s universal translator is translating everything they’re saying but none of it makes sense.

It turns out the Tamarians communicate entirely by metaphor. They don’t say something direct like “I’m hungry. Let’s eat lunch now.” They will instead make a reference to a well-known story of somebody being hungry and eating and the listener will get the message.

It’s an interesting idea. But let’s face it - it’s impossible. You can’t communicate entirely by metaphor. Because nobody is born with an inherent stock of metaphors. At some point everyone has to hear every story for the first time. The only way you’d understand a reference to Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra is if somebody sat you down at some point and told you the story in direct non-metaphorical language.

So? They might have a separate language for that, a baby-speak that is only used by and to toddlers.

I seem to recall that, in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges mentioned a fictional language that worked along similar lines. At the end of the story (spoiler alert!), the real world “becomes” the fictional one(s) in the story, so I suppose the reader is expected to find such a language plausible.

I agree it’s unlikely as an everyday language, but several real languages have a special “register” used in ritual/spiritual situations (in some cases only by certain people, e.g. shamans), and I could see it occurring in a register like this.

But then I find it really implausible that the guy wouldn’t have switched to that “baby register” when talking to Picard.

Picard’s not a baby? Well look, the guy is a member of an intelligent, starfaring species. It’s practically impossible to imagine such a species doesn’t have the conceptual flexibility to pull off the “trick” of talking in “baby register” to an adult when the adult clearly (like a baby) has no familiarity with the metaphors involved.

This is the case with the Ascians in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The adults speak only in Little Red Book-like aphorisms.

Maybe they do not learn the stories the metaphors reference in order to learn the meaning of the phrases? Imagine the baby crying and the parent says “awwwwwww, metaphor for being hungry” and then feeds the baby. The baby learns the metaphor means they need food.

Now, how they learn the stories themselves is a separate question, as clearly they knew the stories as history as well as language in that episode as well.

Bless them, they tried.

That’s what I was thinking of :smiley:

I haven’t seen the episode in question, but I can imagine this: President Obama finds himself talking to an foreign dignitary. For some reason the translator is absent or unable to translate (there was a screw-up at the office and they sent a translator for the wrong language, say).

The foreign dignitary speaks some limited english - but since he learned it from watching children’s programming on TV, his vocabulary is horribly childish. He says Baa-Baa for sheep and Brrm-Brmm for airplane.

Would it be safe for Obama to switch to a “baby register” to talk to this person? I don’t think so. Even if the foreign dignitary would be quite happy to politely chit-chat for a while in baby-talk, Obama would face horrible back-lash from his own people for “insulting” the foreign guest. Better to awkwardly speak polite, standard english, and wait for the translator, I think.

I always figured that the Tamarians we saw were the “upper class twits”—albeit with a bit more drive and character, admittedly—of their society, using a “courtly language” even when it was to their disadvantage, even if other members of their civilization (like the guys stoking the boilers in the engine room) spoke something more understandable.

How they got the meanings behind the language plowed into their heads in the first place, who knows. Telepathy, demi-brainwashing, technological information uploads…maybe simply the “baby talk” theory, but social, cultural, or religious taboos or psychological blocks prevent them from using it.

And they did have a written language, that we saw—perhaps due to a quirk in neurology, that’s where most of their language is based, and spoken language is more of weird kind of auxiliary cant. Like someone communicating by perfectly miming the finger positions, swipes, and taps on a smartphone interface that both “speakers” could perfectly imagine.

On top of everything else, if you use a metaphor that often then it eventually stops becoming a metaphor and becomes literal.

Really, the episode just highlights all of the problems with the universal translator to begin with.

It could be that they, at one time, had a “normal” language, and it evolved into a metaphorical language. The metaphors work exactly like words, so no reason children can’t learn “aromas of the Great Banquet” instead of “I’m hungry”.

But if the metaphors work exactly like words, then why didn’t the universal translator treat them as such?

My thoughts exactly. If everything is a metaphor, then how does the translator figure out the literal meaning of the words? If the metaphor functions as the equivalent of a word, then the translator should just use that word.

The idea only works if the metaphorical language is based on an already known language, where the literal meanings of the words are known in advance.

And how did Data find the legends of Tamarians? Who’s been doing folklore studies on their planet?

Languages evolve but they have to be taught anew to each child from the ground up. So if Picard on Tamaria is a metaphor in your language, at some point you have to sit a child down and explain to them that who Picard was and what happened to him so that they understand that when you refer to Picard on Tamaria, you’re talking about a situation where somebody doesn’t understand what’s being said.

One thing occurs to me - they could have avoided this issue by making the Tamarians a race of childless immortals. That way you could argue that they had all once had a normal language but forgot that language after they starting talking in metaphors. And there would be nobody new around that needed to be taught.

I think this was the point. You can understand the words of a language but not understand the idioms being used.

I like this idea.

That would make great sense. Thinking of how conversations between friends devolve into in-jokes after only a few years, imagine what centuries could do.

Which makes no sense if they speak solely in metaphors.