I’m a fan of Star Trek. Not a huge fan, but a general, if its on and I’m going to watch something I will chose it over most things. I like the universe. But a friend of mine is a bigger fan. While he grew up with it, watched it on a fairly regular basis, I didn’t. I became a TV junkie much later in life, after The Next Generation was over and even Enterprise was on its way out. I never really had that weekly hit of an addiction to a bright and wonderful, yet always dangerous world like my friend did. He lived through the generation of people who watched the show and talked about it. I arrived much later.
I have a habit of watching shows in obsessive fits. I will find a show I like and, if the episodes are available, I will cram as much of it in as soon as possible. I have watched through whole seasons of shows, twenty plus hours, in just a few days. I have run through some actors entire career of being on television shows in the matter of a month or so. Given that, when I approached Star Trek: The Next Generation, I did it in the same way: I crammed episode after episode in as fast as I could.
I watched the show on DVDs from Netflix. This being years and years after the show had ended and the general conversations about it had stopped completely. This show, this Next Generation, was in fact the previous generation. Old News. Yet, I was making my way through the shows a few episodes at a time. I listened to the commentary when available and was gaining knowledge about the universe and show as I went. After a couple of seasons, I started to like it more. It might have been the Stockholm Syndrome of watching so much of it in so little amount of time, but I started to be invested into the shows and the characters various problems. When it was finally over, I was upset.
In all that time, those few months when I was watching through it, nothing comes to my mind better than one episode, my favorite. The episode is called Darmok. It is about two peoples coming together, two captains learning both mutual respect but a common language in the face of an epic struggle. It is fitting then that I watched with this again a few days ago with a friend of mine, this same friend that is, I would wager, more of a Star Trek fan than I am. (He offered to let me looked up what an “angular confidment beam” was in his Official Star Trek Encyclopedia.)
The reasons I love the episode so much, more than any other in that whole series, is that there is a language that is not translated for either most of the characters or the people watching. One of the biggest problems I have with science fiction is the issue of communication. How do you express concepts in another language when the two peoples communicating are based in different biology? So much of the languages of the human race are based in what is around us, our ability to produce sounds and how our anatomy is constructed.
It is not too heretical to say that many religions were started by primitive peoples looking around them and trying to understand the world. There are things at work, world-wide systems that seem very, very complex. Weather patterns seem to change on a whim. Storms come and go. Sometimes the rains come, sometimes not. The fact that many groups assigned the concept of an other, the idea of a deity at work, is not very surprising. If the tribe or other group I am a part of does not understand an issue, then someone somewhere probably does. This other is the god, the deity the actor on the stage that is beyond my own realm of knowledge.
Religions then translated into rules. Rules into laws. There needed to be a way to govern behavior, to make sure that people respected the community they were a part of. Early people said that the gods would hurt those that misbehaved, the modern world punishes people. The concept is the same. There is is a basis for the rules that govern the society and people act accordingly. This is part of the idea of being in a group, something that most societies have had for centuries if not thousands of years. We are almost hard-coded to be part of some group, to have an identity with it. Our genetic and environmental factors mold us a certain way.
There is a limit the number of sounds that a human mouth can make. The number of unique sounds is very large, but it has a hard limit. There comes a point when the number of combinations could be exhausted. The number of languages that exist in the modern world is fairly big but most of them have their roots in a handful of ancient languages that those too had a root from common places. There are a number of fields of study that specialize in how languages change, mutate over time, evolve. Still, it remains that there is a limit to what can be expressed through sound alone.
Abstraction works to fix this. Encapsulation of ideas into sound phrases allows for the encoding and decoding of information without the need for extended periods of sounds to be used. Instead of a long phrase, a couple of sounds paired together provide the necessary connection for the expression of that thought. Of course, now the matter becomes more of a context sensitive issue. In order to understand why those certain sounds are important, one must understand the context, the intended and actual placement of the sounds, in order to understand, decode, the concept that was expressed in that manner. Put more simply, spoken language develops. This spoken form of communication still has its basis in humanity though.
It was inevitable, in my opinion, that the dominant measuring system would be based on the idea of ten. Humans generally have ten fingers, ten toes. The ability to mark differences between ourselves and those around us, the delineation of individuality and the basis for measurement would inevitability lead to ways to mark such a distinction. In other words, once you gain the discovery that knowledge exists, you need a way to encode and decode it. That idea that people use their fingers to count things is pretty basic, the objects — digits — attached to the body easily gain a representational association to the concept of each number.
Given how much of our experiences are influenced by who we are and how we communication, it would amaze me if we could actually talk to anything that was alien. Our biology nearly entirely defines how we communicate and the development of language. Our own decimal system is devised and reinforced by our construction. Our anatomy completely defines us. The fact that we produce sounds to verbally communicate, the fact that certain hand signals work as communication is because of the universal nature of the genetic code of humanity. We all generally have the same blueprint, the same design. Bilateral mammal. Homo Sapiens.
All of these ideas come to me as I watch the episode Darmok. While Picard is trying to communicate with the Tamarian captain Dathon, I am relying to my friend that I find all of this highly impossible, that even understanding the use of allusions between the two peoples is pretty laughable. They are just two different. The show has cheated some by allowing the two captains to speak English through their ships. This, while explained in-fiction as the use of the Universal Translator, falls apart once these two captains are on the planet together. Who is translating for them then? Why do they both speak a form of English?
Don’t get me wrong, it is very hard to present something strange to people and expect them to follow it. The reasons shows like Star Trek work so well is that they can take the basic genotype of humanity and twist it in some way to tell a story. They can take the idea of a warrior culture and make alien races like the Klingon. They can take the idea of telepathy and make another race, the Betazoid. Even the species of the week, the enemy or ally in which the episode is based, is only a slight change of the phenotype. Add a scar to the head, maybe an extra arm of leg. It is about taking the human and making it slightly alien. Regardless of the extra bits, it is still played by a person, an actor, and is still very human.
I would even go so far to say that humans cannot think of anything truly alien. We are incapable of producing anything that is not based, at least in part, with what we know and can conceive of with the minds that are mostly the same construction. We can imagine, sure. We can dream. But even our own constructions are based in the biology that we have knowledge of. Put another way, the aliens, should we ever discover them, would have to be majorly different. They would have to be inconceivable to us. Their biology would have to be developed different, their cultures very bizarre.
This assume, of course, that we even recognize them at all. The idea that there could be civilizations similar to the ones that exist or have existed on Earth is pretty improbable. The number of situations that would need to have arisen, the evolutionary branches to even get close to what we have now is mind-boggling. There would need to be a similar planetary construction in order for the conditions to even be approximation to the Earth we know now. Chemicals and elements would need to mix in the right order and in the right amounts. Certain evolution branches would need to both be born and then die at a certain point.
The leaves nothing to the idea that linguistics would be the same and that communication be possible. Assuming even the same makeup, the same general genetic construction or similar body encoding, the ability to understand sounds is something that may help in understanding but be missing. Even very slight changes in the ear construction, or presence of ears at all, can break that communication ability. If the receiver cannot decode the message then the conduit does not work. The probability that sound communication would be possible is very low. Even motion based messaging, hand of body signals, would probably not work with highly divergent anatomy.
Just hypothetically, if the required steps were met and the development of a similar species to homo sapiens developed on some far off world, the chance of culture understand would be low too. Let’s just say that the ability to produce the same sounds and hear the same way was possible. From there, the ability to understand would be possible although still unlikely. Remember that language is based in the concept of context. The languages developed from the cultural changes over time. The context of the grammar and sentence structure is tied to these changes and their developments. To understand the language, you must be able to perceive, decode then then translate the ideas unto something that you are aware of, perhaps one that you already have.
So, the thought that two different sentient species could met in space and be able to communicate with each other is, well, laughable. Just being able to communicate would present such a gigantic barrier to understand between them that the idea of cultural interchange, the ability to understand that one species is using a series of allusions such as what happens in Darmok, is just not going to be possible. Leaving alone the fact that the Universal Translator would be able to give everyone involved English — everywhere they go — the ability to understand the ideas expressed via those inputs is astronomically huge. Darmok, if you will excuse the pun, is science fiction.