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I just spotted this on reddit today :

I've only watched the newer episodes (from 2005-Present) and I don't believe this question was ever answered, but I just thought of this -- The Doctor mentions that you can hear aliens speaking in your language because of the TARDIS, so, does that mean that The Doctor hears everyone speaking in Gallifreyan? Or does he actually know English?

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How would he make puns if he don't know English? –  DavRob60 Sep 4 '12 at 14:09
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Or speak pseudo-French: Allons-y! –  Daniel Roseman Sep 4 '12 at 14:36
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for the record, I think that bitmask's answer is correct if you skip the entire second paragraph :) –  Michael Edenfield Sep 4 '12 at 20:31
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The Doctor has stated (in A Good Man Goes to War) that he speaks "everything". Including "baby" and apparently even "horse". –  Beofett Sep 25 '12 at 21:15
    
also as we saw in the episode "A Good Man Goes To War".. The TARDIS doesn't translate Gallifreyan ( Amy tried to read something on the Doctor's cot but couldn't and then River explained.) –  Adeetya Nov 7 '13 at 12:42

10 Answers 10

up vote 24 down vote accepted

No. ... Well, at least the Doctor speaks English fluently. In Blink, the Tenth Doctor is entirely separated from the TARDIS. Not only in space, but also in time. He can still communicate with Martha and a total stranger (Billy Shipton) who ends up in 1969 (this takes place about 22 minutes into the episode).

If we accept that the Doctor speaks English on a native-level, he would speak both Gallifreyan and English roughly equally well. When the TARDIS decides to "translate" she must choose a source and a target language (yes she does, it's not like with a babelfish -- if she doesn't, the question doesn't make sense to begin with). How does she do it? The source language is trivial in both directions as it is determined by the person who speaks, but the target language is tricky; she would have to probe the respective minds of all potential recipients of a given broadcast and figure out which language would be preferred. Since we assumed that the Doctor speaks at least English and Gallifreyan equally well, the TARDIS would have to consider both languages. If the source language is English and the target language is "English or Gallifreyan, don't care which" any sane translation device would choose the language with the greatest ability to convey the original meaning with all its nuances. Obviously, English would be a tremendously better choice.

Hence, in all likelihood, the Doctor hears English untranslated.


As a corollary, we can extrapolate that he then would also answer in English, as it's the most natural thing to do if you're addressed in English. This leaves the question open in which language the Doctor would initiate a conversation with a total stranger, but I suppose he would also choose English if the recipient can be assumed to speak English.

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except this goes all wonky in the Fires of Pompeii when Donna say things in Latin to an ancient Roman and the TARDIS translates it to "Celtic" (basically, primitive English). (not that your answer is wrong but your analysis I think misses lot of Doctor-Who-like bizarrness.) –  Michael Edenfield Sep 4 '12 at 18:54
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@MichaelEdenfield: Not quite right. It makes perfect sense. She addresses him in a very weird accent in a language that she obviously doesn't know well. The TARDIS has to assume that she intended to garble, and translated her broken and mispronounced Latin accordingly. The merchant then, guessed that this must be Celtic, as he couldn't understand her. –  bitmask Sep 4 '12 at 19:00
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In "The Stolen Earth", the Doctor speaks Judoon without needing translation. It's safe to say the Doctor is fluent in many languages and only requires his TARDIS's translation some of the time. –  Blazemonger Sep 4 '12 at 19:33
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@MichaelEdenfield: Translating language is by all intends and purposes the same as translating intent (no pun intended). Anything that translates verbatim meaning of words is a poor translator. Language is a carrier of ideas -- nuanced ideas. If you use a foreign word in the middle of a sentence, it feels out of place and you most likely did it for a reason (even if subconsciously). A translation must carry this nuance. –  bitmask Sep 4 '12 at 20:44
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"But now you're saying the TARDIS knows the difference between "Latin phrase in English" vs. "Latin phrase in Latin", or knows that the speaker "intended" to speak in a foreign language" - Why is this hard to believe? Even humans can tell this difference, and the TARDIS is assuredly smarter than humans. –  user1030 Sep 5 '12 at 11:01

Given how many writers have been involved with Doctor Who and how long it's been running, it's fairly common for stuff like this to be rather inconsistent.

That being said, the Doctor can at minimum recognize other languages, because in "The Girl in the Fireplace," he knew not only that Madame de Pompadour was speaking French but what period French she was speaking. So, unless the TARDIS is telling him that in addition to translating, then he's fluent enough in French to recognize dialects from different time periods. And given how often he's dealing with English speakers, if he's fluent in French, he's bound to be fluent in English.

Also, in "The Sontaran Stratagem," he was correcting Luke Rattigan's grammar, which would definitely indicate that he's fluent in English (and probably more fluent than your average native English speaker given how bad many people's grammar is).

On rare occasions, he appears to have spoken directly in an alien's language, and the companion doesn't understand either him or the alien (e.g. "The Planet of the Dead" with the fly people), which would indicate that he's fluent in their language. The companion may not have understood in this particular case, because the TARDIS was on another planet, but the lack of the TARDIS hasn't stopped companions from understanding in the past either, and I'm pretty sure that there have been other occasions where the Doctor has spoken a particular tongue without the TARDIS' help in the old series if not the new. In either case, the Doctor definitely speaks other languages without the TARDIS' aid from time to time.

On even rarer occasions, he hasn't understood something (e.g. he didn't understand the writing on the wall in "The Impossible Planet" because the TARDIS couldn't translate it), so clearly the TARDIS is doing some translating for him and not just his companions, but I think that it's fairly clear that he's fluent in English as well as other languages, though who knows how many.

But again, it's not like this sort of thing is consistent. The first time that automatic translation was even mentioned was with the 4th Doctor, and even then it was a "gift of the Timelords" and the TARDIS wasn't mentioned at all. It wasn't until the spin off novels that it was suggested that it was the TARDIS which did it (something which they carried over into the new series). Prior Doctors have had occasions where they didn't understand languages or writing (rare as it's been). It's just that it was more convenient for everyone involved to have all of the characters speaking English. It wasn't until much later that they felt the need to explain it, and as with many Doctor Who explanations, the explanation is ripe for being contradicted by future episodes if it's not already contradicted by previous episodes. As great as Doctor Who is, it's not the type of series that has consistent in-universe explanations for things. It's just been going too long with too many people involved, many of whom clearly didn't necessarily care all that much about continuity.

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Also, in "The Sontaran Stratagem," he was correcting Luke Rattigan's grammar, which would definitely indicate that he's fluent in English (and probably more fluent than your average native English speaker given how bad many people's grammar is). Not necessarily! If the TARDIS translates the intent in the language, we might also assume that it would translate the grammar mistake. The Doctor could have been correcting him in Gallifreyan. –  Blacklight Shining Jan 17 at 5:06
    
@BlacklightShining Possibly, but only if Gallifreyan contained the same grammar construct, which is unlikely. The various languages on Earth vary wildly with regards to what correct grammar is - and each language can vary over time as well. An alien language would vary even more. Some languages do have similar grammars due to their shared origins, but that wouldn't be the case with an alien language such as Gallifreyan. We can't say for sure that English and Gallifreyan wouldn't have similar grammars, but it's unlikely that they would, so it's unlikely that the mistake is translatable. –  Jonathan M Davis Jan 17 at 5:18
    
Ahh, I was a bit clear. I meant that the translator might be inserting a grammar mistake in the translation—it doesn't have to be the same grammar mistake. –  Blacklight Shining Jan 22 at 22:52

I've always thought of the effect being as the Bablefish is described in H2G2: you don't hear (or read: in the impossible planet the Doctor pointed out that some written words were not translated) the communication in your own language but you just understand - the meaning of the words is dropped into the relevant part of your brain and interpreted directly. The meaning is transferred but the specifics (the words) are not translated. Of course a simple brain like ours might not cope so well with that so it would do one of its self defense tricks and store in memory that the message did arrive in your native language (much like "false memory syndrome" elsewhere which leads us to believe fervently that some false detail was in fact true) so to us the effect is the same.

A more complex brain may be quite aware of what is happening though, and be able to learn the translation from one language to another directly so the Doctor may "absorb" languages that way to the point where he can use them without the TARDIS' assistance.

Punning in English would suggest very strongly that the Doctor is in fact speaking English directly, not some Gallifreyan dialect or more universal language, as a play on words can be very difficult to translate between languages or even local dialects of the same language (for instance localised slang can completely change the meaning of words in certain contexts). OF course depending how deeply the TARDIS understands the destination brain and input languages some humor could be translated to at least a rough equivalent, or it could implant a general impression in your head like "what was just said was a joke about the physical appearance of their leader, this is very funny" and leave your brain to decide how to react to that in the absence of specific domain knowledge.

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The words in the Impossible Planet weren't translated because they were older than time and the TARDIS literally couldn't translate them. It was actually a big thing, and treated as such - implying that the TARDIS had translated essentially everything else Rose & the Doctor had read. –  Jeff Sep 4 '12 at 21:03

The Doctor speaks everything, as mentioned in a few episodes ie Planet of the Dead *A good Man Goes to War* and others, as well as stated by several of you. On top of The Doctor the TARDIS has a translation matrix that translates everything except Gallifreyan as mentioned by both The Doctor and River in The Pandorica Opens and A Good Man Goes To War respectively; and the language spoken by the Devil in The Impossible Planet. However, in The Christmas Invasion the TARDIS does not translate the aliens' tongue when The Doctor is incapacitated and Rose says it must be him that is actually translating and not just the TARDIS. Which begs the question in Fires of Pompeii why he can't translate what Donna is saying from Latin into Latin. However as I am watching the original Doctor Who series I noticed he does not speak everything and has to work out how to translate it, although many times everyone just happens to know English including cavemen and Native American Indians in the first season. I do not know when he learns "everything," but I am only on the 3rd Doctor in the originals.

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I feel like it's important to remember that in one of nine's first episodes, Rose comments that he has "A Northern accent", and he replies that "lots of planets have a North". Now this could imply one of at least two things; Either

1.He has a Northern Gallifreyan accent and thus the TARDIS translates into a Northern English accent

Or

2.That he does indeed speak English, and just so happens to also speak it with a Northern English accent.

The latter, I think, makes more sense, since he has the same accent no matter what country on Earth he's in. Of course, this could just be because we're hearing it how his companions are hearing it, and not how others (for example, Americans) hear it. That would then imply that, no matter what language he's heard speaking, on what planet, the TARDIS makes it so that he's speaking that language with that country/planet/etc.'s equivalent of a "Northern accent". So for example, in America, he could be heard by Americans speaking with an accent from either one of the Northern border states, New England, or even Canada or Alaska.

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In "The Stolen World" when the TARDIS didn't translate what the doctor said I assumed there was no English translation, at least not a perfect or practical one.

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As the TARDIS does not translate Gallifreyan, he had to have learned at least one non-Gallifreyan language to communicate once he stole the TARDIS. After all, his own granddaughter attended a human school in 1963, and was shown interacting seamlessly with her teachers. And at this point, learning the language of primitives would be a complete waste of time in the Doctor's opinion. It is likely that they first used a common universal language, like how we use Latin to convey meaning that is somewhat understandable to non-English speakers.

I would assume that he didn't have to learn English, because of whatever the TARDIS did to translate for his companions/kidnap victims, but he must have at some point in his first two lives, in case of emergencies, which came in handy when his people broke his TARDIS (possibly including the translator) and exiled him.

I can only assume that accents don't really make much of a difference to the translators, as long as the vocabulary/syntax remains the same- which is how aliens don't seem to have accents (relative to the RP-speaking target audience), but humans who speak Modern English retain their accents, like Tegan or Peri. This is in fact, exactly how the Universal Translators in Star Trek work.

I would assume that regeneration can affect the Doctor's accent as well, based on the fact that his vocal cords change too. This would explain the inconsistencies in accents.

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In one of the Doctor Who novels, "Dead of Winter," The Doctor says,

"And I haven't had to learn English."

He may have been joking, but this was one of the official novels, so I don't think so.

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If I remember correctly, it is in the episode "The Parting of Ways" That the doctor says he can speak five billion languages. He says 'speak,' so obviously the TARDIS isn't translating for him. Also, the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS several times: In 'Blink', he and Martha are both trapped in 1969 and he can still speak English. In 'The Girl in the Fireplace', he is temporarily trapped in France, and can still carry out a conversation with Reinette Poisson. He also can tell what period type of French she is speaking, while Mickey can't tell the difference and insists that it's English. (none of the companions seem able to recognize the translation, but the Doctor does). In "the Lodger," when he is separated from both Amy and the TARDIS, he can speak English still, as well as "speak cat" (or at least he says he can speak cat). There are a few episodes in which he speaks the language of another alien and it is not translated for us as the audience to hear, like when he speaks Sycoraxic in "The Christmas Invasion," that bug language in "Planet of the Dead," and Martian in "The Waters of Mars." Also in "Planet of the Dead," Lady Christina speaks a full sentence in French in reply to his Allons-Y, and he seems to understand it. And one final point, Allons-Y and Molto Bene and the few other things he says in another language are not translated into English, so he isn't saying it in Gallifreyan and having it translate; he also pronounces Allons-y incorrectly (It should be \,a-lo(n)-'ee\, with a nasal 'n') - whereas the TARDIS would most likely translate it with correct prononciation.

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When the doctor is tricked onto the asteroid he hears the other Gallifreyans who the asteroid killed calling to him.

At the very least his crib is written in it.

However, it is obvious he is fluent in English. He can almost speak to the beast that he, Amy and Vincent fight.

However, if the Gallifreyan are so advanced it would make sense he understands and speaks the language he is using(otherwise it would create major problems).

When you learn a language there comes the time when you think in that language and no longer translate in your head.

He is fluent in most languages although how I do not know.

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Welcome to Science Fiction and Fantasy StackExchange! You get down-vote because your answer did not answer the question. From the question, "The Doctor mentions that you can hear aliens speaking in your language because of the TARDIS", but does the Doctor need the TARDIS to translate everything for him? –  DavRob60 Mar 20 '13 at 13:22

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