In Star Trek: The New Generation there is an interesting linguistic episode in Season 5 called Darmok. In this episode, our heroes come across a language spoken by the alien race of Tamarians, in which everything is expressed through idioms, and these are in turn based on Tamarian stories and myths. For instance, when they want to express that something didn’t go well, they invoke the reference of the hero called Shaka and the story in which the walls of his city fell. In the episode we even get a comparison to human languages: something like “Juliet on her balcony” would express an idea of romance. An illustration of what goes on in the episode is nicely captured by the two videos below (have a look if you haven’t watched this episode). Besides the pure fiction and some original creativity of the screenwriters, what I find especially interesting in the context of linguistics is trying to pin down the differences between such a language and actual human languages. And most importantly, by comparing them, we can also explain why such a language could probably never exist, at least not among humans, given the characteristics we associate with Homo Sapiens.

The most important difference between the Tamarian language and human languages is the fact that human languages all have syntax. In all languages of the world, smaller units, such as words and morphemes, can be combined into larger unites and these can form even larger units, for example sentences. In the Tamarian language, only idiom-type phrases exist, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Shaka, when the walls fell”. One obvious contradiction here is that, if they already have some verbs and prepositions to form these idioms, how come those cannot be combined to form other expressions? But following the intention of the screenwriters, let’s assume these smaller elements can only appear in other idioms, while not being productive on their own. So, in contrast to the Tamarian language, human languages have a generative power of creating any number of sentences from other smaller parts, and this is the core of what syntax is. The grammar rules of our languages are productive because they can equally well be applied to any new words that might come into the language, and they are also flexible, as they can change to accommodate to possible new requirements within the language. The Tamarian language, on the other hand, is the exact opposite, with a finite number of idioms that each express a part of some mythological story. In other words, their language is bound to the ideas and events of those stories. The assumption of this episode is also that Tamarians cannot even imagine a world outside of what is described in those stories. As Data explains in the second video, their identity is defined by this shared mythological knowledge. And even in this area, we can see why human language is productive in comparison. We constantly acquire new knowledge, and we need to have the means to communicate it to others, who do not yet possess the same knowledge. This is probably the most important factor that led to the success of our species, working together and specializing in different areas, while sharing the outcomes of our work. If sharing the same knowledge was a prerequisite for language, just like with the Tamarians, then our languages could have been as simple as theirs.

Another interesting point of departure here could be to think whether from a perspective of a (purely fictional) alien species more developed than us, our planet and our environment could be equally limiting to our experience as the mythology is to Tamarians. Could there be even more productive and more syntaxy languages out there in the universe?

I used the Darmok episode recently in my class to discuss with my students the nature of syntax in human language. I think it’s a great example of how grammatical structure is productive, and it easily leads to deeper discussions about the nature of language. Do you know of any other examples like this in fiction? Let me know!

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