Today's Blog Written by
Ryan Schaars, Hunter College
The second episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Darmok, provides and interesting example of communication and metaphor. I suggest watching the entire episode as it is very good, however, for the sake of space I would like to look at 3 small segments of the episode. In this episode, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise are sent to investigate a message from an alien race. This race has been encountered before however, earlier starship captains described them as incomprehensible. The universal translators translate the language into English, however, it is not the words themselves that are incomprehensible, but how they are putting the words together, and, what I would term (and becomes apparent later in the episode) is the frame of reference in which they are speaking. Picard’s mission is to attempt to communicate with them and establish formal relations.
First Contact: 0:00 mins – 4:10 mins
The first time the Tamarians speak the lack of understanding of the Enterprise’s crew is evident in their facial expressions. Notice how the Tamarian captain repeats himself more slowly and articulately. This is a technique that is used when people of other languages are confronted with misunderstanding or when adults talk to children. I’ve noticed Americans tend to speak to anyone with an accent in this manner, as an adult speaking to a child that does not understand. When Picard first speaks to the Tamarians, they too are equally confused. There is however, still some communicative understanding. When the Tamarian first officer begins to laugh after Picard speaks, the tone of Tamarian captains voice becomes stern and admonishing with a harsh gesture toward him. Even though we do not understand what he is saying, backchannel cues like facial expression, gesture, and tone give us an idea of what is happening.
The following exchange between the Tamarian first officer and captain provide these same cues. Even without knowing what they are saying, they are clearly frustrated about the lack of understanding and attempting to understand why they can’t successfully communicate, and the first officer seems to be suggesting things the captain does not agree with and again reprimands him. Note that after the Tamarian captain brandishes his knives and beams Captain Picard and himself to the planet, the crew of the Enterprise automatically assume hostile intentions. Brandishing weapons in our culture is an aggressive move, however, in the Tamarian culture, this may not be so.
Eureka!: 23:52 mins – 25:00 mins
I found this small exchange between Picard and the Tamarian captain fascinating. A little earlier in the episode, Picard begins to have a very small understanding when the Tamarian captain does not want to kill him, instead giving Picard the second knife. I found this moment interesting because Picard finally discovers why he cannot understand the Tamarians. They speak in metaphor. The only way Picard was able to understand was to be placed in the exact situation that the Tamarian captain is referencing. Because we understand language in literal terms, the literal situation itself was needed to illustrate what the Tmarian captain was saying.
I also found it interesting that even when under immediate threat of attack, when they finally understand each other, they stop being concerned with the beast and become elated. Communication between two people that do not understand each other is upsetting, frustrating, and angering. It is such a simple concept necessary to our social existence, and when we can’t do it, we become incensed. As conscious and social creatures, one of the most important things to us is to be heard and understood. The elation the two captains feel, and the exclamations they make show how important understanding other people and being understood is to us. Even the possibly deadly creature becomes less important than the joy of an understanding between two people that could not communicate.
Frame of Reference: 28:00 mins – 29:27 mins
Here we get an explanation of how the Tamarians speak. They are highly abstract and use narrative imagery to communicate. The narrative imagery comes from their own mytho-historical accounts. The lack of communication, it seems comes from our lack of a frame of reference. I feel this relates to our analysis of culture and language. Some misunderstanding in our own world does not come from the words used, but the way in which our language can reference things in our own culture. The first examples that come to mind are idioms. Idioms can be difficult to translate because they are colloquial metaphors. Think of the idiom “not playing with a full deck” when referencing someone that lacks intelligence. We understand the ‘playing’ refers to a game and ‘full deck’ means a game of cards. When one does not have a full deck of cards, they cannot play the game successfully, which translates to, when someone does not have enough intelligence they cannot function successfully. This would be completely lost on a culture that did not play card games. In fact, they would not even know we were talking about cards when referring to ‘deck’. Someone may assume we are talking about a ship’s deck, or a wooden balcony deck. In terms of language and culture, one needs a frame of reference. The frame of reference for the Tamarians being their myth and history, something the Enterprise crew does not have.
This episode provides fantastic insight into culture and communication. It shows us a culture that speaks strictly through metaphor and narrative imagery. The only way to fully understand the Tamarians is through understanding their culture. Culture and language are firmly intertwined. We use narrative imagery as well, however, it is not our sole form of communication. Much misunderstanding of communication in our world comes from not understanding the cultures that are communicating. I, however, agree with what captain Picard stated in the beginning of the episode (during the first clip): “In my experience communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure”.