In Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5 Episode 2 ("Darmok") we are introduced to an alien race called the Tamarians who communicate entirely by metaphor.

The concept is that all communication is done using folk stories. Captain Picard eventually realized this and was able to communicate with the Tamarian captain.

However, I was wondering how the Tamarians would go about teaching a metaphorical language to their children? Children would not have the frame of reference of Tamarian folklore so how would they teach it without either using more metaphors (which also wouldn't be understood) or a completely different language (which would defeat the purpose).

Obviously Captain Picard, as an educated adult, was able to understand the language but that was only because he only understood the concept of folk stories and metaphor from earth culture. A child growing up in Tamarian society wouldn't have this prior knowledge.

  • 24
    They bring the kids to a planet with an invisible energy monster and they either learn the language (like Picard) or they die. Only the strong and smart survive.
    – Xantec
    Mar 20, 2012 at 13:46
  • 11
    The first words of my Boy was "Darth Vader at the end of Empire Strike Back".
    – DavRob60
    Mar 20, 2012 at 13:51
  • 14
    Is it just me, or is the memeization of the internet turning us into Darmok?
    – SWeko
    Mar 30, 2012 at 9:19
  • 6
    Even though the episode calls it metaphor, they are really speaking using literary allusions
    – user517674
    May 13, 2012 at 7:07
  • 5
    bonus question: how did the Enterprise crew "learn" the story of Darmok and Jalad if the story of Darmok and Jalad was only told via references to earlier stories about other people?
    – KutuluMike
    Jul 19, 2012 at 14:23

7 Answers 7


Although some great answers were provided here, none of them really 'did it' for me in terms of conclusively answering my original question. So, I decided to seek out an answer outside the realms of Stack Exchange. Eventually, via a private email exchange with a Phd linguist (a non-Trekkie who declined the option to register on SE but said that I was welcome to post what he wrote) gave me the following answer:

A metaphor involves using language for non-literal meanings. This presupposes that literal meanings exist and are known, so a purely metaphorical language could not exist. If everyone only used metaphors, then these would become the literal meanings (this can be seen from examples of changes in meaning to words such as 'toilet' - originally a bag for clothes, the meaning shifted to the act of getting dressed, which again shifted to a metaphorical euphemism for the room you shit in; with such frequent use to refer to the room this is now the literal meaning). All language use is based on the social acceptance of arbitrary pairings of sequences of sounds (or symbols) with objects/activities etc. In many cases, one particular pairing is taken as the default or literal pairing and then any uses of the word to refer to other things is taken as metaphorical. An example of this I was thinking of investigating a few months ago is similar to that for 'toilet'. Metaphors are generally used in 2 different ways: poetic (All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players etc.) and everyday (for example, one metaphorical grouping for the idea of happiness is 'up' e.g. I'm feeling up; That boosted my spirits; My spirits rose; I'm in high spirits; That gives me a lift). The everyday metaphors are so pervasive that we don't think of them as metaphors any more (at least if we're not being facetious). This has sparked a whole new area of linguistics where researchers analyse everyday metaphors to gain insights into underlying thinking and is most often used to analyse political discourse. I attended a talk where the metaphors of Nigerian politicians were analysed leading to the conceptual view of the politician as a builder (based on 'build the economy' 'the foundations of the nation' etc.). All of this seemed to be reading too much into language use so I started looking into the etymologies of some of the words analysed. 'Foundation' for instance was used for founding an organisation before it was used for houses, so the building use is actually the metaphorical one historically. Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that any frequent use of a metaphor becomes literal, and with only so many comprehensible ways of making metaphors for a given concept, the metaphors would have to be repeated and so not be metaphorical any more. So, my first argument would be that the episode is based on an invalid assumption - communication entirely by metaphor is impossible.

On a more technical level, it's unclear whether the language should be considered as using metaphors. There's only one example on the Wikipedia page, but this seems to concern the distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary force of statements, rather than metaphors. If someone comes into your room and says 'It's hot in here', the locutionary force (or literal meaning) is a statement about the temperature. However, you will be thinking about why the person said that and (depending on the circumstances) might interpret it as 'Can you turn on the air conditioning?' - the real intent behind the statement or its illocutionary force. "Temba, his arms wide" is interpreted as having the illocutionary force of 'You are willing to share'. The problem I have here is how the universal translator would work to translate the statement as 'his arms wide'. If there is no dictionary available which gives literal meanings, the translation system would have to work on matching phrases (at least initially not divided into words) with what happens in the context in which the phrase is used through probability. If 'his-arms-wide' (pronounced 'ekifantup' or whatever) is often used in contexts where sharing follows, then the translator would translate 'ekifantup' as meaning 'you are willing to share', not as 'his arms wide'. This has implications for your actual question - how would children learn? There is increasing evidence that children act as probability analysers in interpreting the input they receive (it's only when adults analyse language that we look for rules), so with enough exposure a kid would behave like the universal translator should and take 'ekifantup' as meaning 'You are willing to share'. The metaphorical meaning will have become the literal meaning, and the previous literal meaning will have disappeared (as 'toilet' meaning 'getting dressed' has except in old novels). So you are right in saying that children couldn't learn a purely metaphorical language, but the reason is because it wouldn't be a metaphorical language any more.

  • 11
    So in other words, he's basically saying it is a literal language to the Darmok people, but appears metaphorical to us because the universal translator pulled up the wrong dictionary. Their words must be identical to another language the Federation does know about.
    – Izkata
    May 13, 2012 at 16:05
  • 3
    I suppose it depends on which theory regarding the universal translator's functioning you prefer to believe. I've always thought that 'our' computer talks to 'their' computer and some sort of digital lingual/cultural exchange takes place with huge amounts of data flowing in both directions in a challenge/response format. Eventually, the 2 computers decide what each others' languages are like.... except in this case where the 2 computers obviously just confused the hell out of each other!
    – Joseph
    May 14, 2012 at 2:05
  • 2
    There've been two different (but not opposed) in-universe descriptions of how the UT works, and neither one says anything like that. TOS-era mentions something about brain-pattern matching, then somewhere in TNG (and vaguely mentioned in ENT) it mentions mapping concepts that are common to most/all intelligent species (I believe the TNG reference was in the Sheliak episode, The Ensigns of Command). The TNG description is what I'm referencing above.
    – Izkata
    May 14, 2012 at 3:05
  • This is a brilliant response. I am sad that the entire premise of my favorite episode is predicated upon a malfunctioning UT, though. Jul 16, 2013 at 14:02
  • 1
    All this "it's the UT's fault" ignores the fact that Federation (and thus, Federation linguists) knew about the Tamarians ("Children of Tamar" is such a non-subtle name) and their language, and didn't manage to crack this in 100 years. Dec 25, 2016 at 19:10

The Ascian language in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is a much better fictional reference for such a language, since in a fairly discursive novel rather than a TV episode he can go into much greater depth, and your question is specifically addressed there (the answer being that children grow up speaking more or less normally but learn to restrict their conversation and understanding to the approved platitudes as they grow up).

  • 1
    I didn't think this question could be answered without pure speculation, but by bringing up a specific fictional example you answered it. +1! Mar 20, 2012 at 16:51
  • It's interesting that the Wikipedia article for the Ascian language makes reference to Darmok but from what I just read, I don't really see the similarities.
    – Joseph
    Mar 23, 2012 at 7:16

Actually, two important points to start out with:

  1. The Tamarian language is based on analogies.
  2. It's not that Tamarians' native speech is purely analogy based, it's just that the universal translator (UT) has trouble converting the analogies to meanings.

A metaphor: "My love is like a red, red rose" (this can't be reliably used to explain what love is to someone who has never experienced it)

An analogy: "A quail egg is about 1/3 the size of a chicken egg and moldy-tasting" (this can be used to explain a quail egg to someone who already knows chicken eggs and mold taste).

Analogies help us abbreviate really long concepts into convenient little labels. For example:

"We will not tolerate this sort of McCarthyism", or "He totally did a Kanye West during the presentation."

While this is a very efficient form of communication between those who agree what the labels stand for, no translator (human or machine) will be able to translate it unless it knows the cultural history of the speakers! Star Trek's UT will identify these labels as proper nouns and not translate them.

Tamarian children most likely learn the slow way, using their language primitives (which they absolutely must have, as your linguist correctly points out). But as they grow older, they leave behind baby talk and probably find it difficult to switch (in fact, they may not even realize that they're doing it, or they would switch to language primitives when talking with alien races).

  • 1
    What I meant to say about metaphors and analogies was that: metaphors are about qualitative similarities between completely different things (roses, love). Analogies are about similar things that have qualitative differences (chicken eggs, quail eggs).
    – HNL
    Mar 28, 2012 at 8:24
  • It's not just the UT, it's the whole of Federation linguistics. Dec 25, 2016 at 19:12

The Tamarian language is explored further in the short story "Friends with the Sparrows" (from the TNG anthology 'The Sky's the Limit'), where Tamarian children learn the stories behind the allusions through highly structured play and repetition. (It also introduces the idea that there is a musical language the Tamarians use for more technically exact work, such as mathematics and starship-building.)

As for Chinese, it actually can be sounded out--or rather COULD be sounded out--the vast majority of Chinese hanzi are made up of a semantic component (commonly called the 'radical', which gives a hint to the character's meaning) and a phonetic component (which indicates another character which has/had the same pronunciation). However, shifts in Chinese pronunciation over the centuries have left this orthographic device sadly outdated. This was a problem even in ancient China, however--by the time of the Han dynasty, a lot of ancient poetry no longer rhymed when read in that day's Chinese. Yet another pronunciation guide was in use at the end of the Han dynasty, known as 'fǎn qiè'. In a fǎn qiè, two characters are written--the initial sound of the first character is paired with the final sound of the second to give the original pronunciation of a character whose pronunciation has shifted. Still, just having the pronunciation won't get you any closer to a definition on its own--but it IS enough to get you to the proper dictionary entry (and the Chinese were compiling dictionaries almost 3,000 years ago, so this idea of 'Knowing how to pronounce it is good enough for now--you can look it up when you get home' is evidently one that is deeply entrenched in the language, lol).

While each hanzi has its own meaning, each one also has a literary history--an element of the written language which is much closer to the Tamarian language than what I think Cici James meant. Becoming a Chinese Literati meant years upon years of reading ancient texts, studying the Analects, memorizing poems, etc. in order to learn the historical usages of every Chinese character--somewhat like memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary, and then memorizing every reference in the OED, in order to have the most complete understanding of a word possible. Then, when a Literati was writing a letter or an essay or some such and they were looking for just the right word to convey their meaning, they could choose based on the past usages of the characters knowing that their readers would also be familiar with that past usage, and that the intertextuality would add great depth to each character. Literary Chinese is filled with such allusions and intertextuality, since even prose writing was approached with the same attitude and care as writing poetry. Without the close study and knowledge of past works, however, all of that depth and nuance is lost; the writing is still comprehensible, but flat (and leaves modern lay readers wondering why an author would choose to use X character when Y was available).


It would have to be demonstrated in a non-verbal fashion, say, as a play, with the verbal symbols then assigned to what had transpired. I would expect that a culture like that would have structured play for children that inculcated these metaphors at a young age.

All language is metaphorical - the difference between our perception of language and theirs is that they lack, at least in the context of the episode, the more concrete concepts. It's possible that they actually have them in their language, but don't share them with strangers or in a formal situation, unto the point of death.

  • This is an interesting answer and certainly on my shortlist of two accepted answers.
    – Joseph
    Mar 23, 2012 at 7:20

The short answer is that I don't think it is possible as described (entirely based on metaphor - well, without them being a designed race with base concepts built in) . For the long answer, maybe you could argue that it is similar to the generations of programming languages, with Tamarian children starting out by learning the base pieces of language, the words, their meaning, like an instruction set, and then as they mature, they begin to learn the higher level language constructs (metaphors). Behind the scenes, their minds still break things down, but they do not consciously use the lower level constructs any longer. Maybe an adult Tamarian is completely insulated from the lower level. There would be some interesting cultural tradeoffs in such a society. Anyway, interesting question.

Notes based on other comments and answers: For me, the problem of saying they don't have base concepts is that the episode recap specifically mentions there being an island named Tanagra, which means that the phrase "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" may have a metaphorical meaning, but there is also a place called that. The high level metaphors are clearly built on top of fundamental pieces of data. It needs to be explained how both can exist, and while I'm not sure that my answer does that, I'm pretty sure that you can't gloss over this detail.

  • This is a good answer and definitely on my shortlist of accepted answers. Your description of how the children learn makes sense. I suppose in a way, even us humans are isolated from the "lower level" (as you put it) in language learning. I guess that's why children are able to pick up new languages effortlessly yet adults struggle so much.
    – Joseph
    Mar 23, 2012 at 7:22

For a more in depth but still accessible version of the previous answers' discussions of language and metaphor, please see pop-sci author/linguist Steven Pinker. He did a great TED talk on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_language_and_thought.html

All languages employ metaphor and symbolism. It's just that some are more efficient than others, affording different languages their strengths and weaknesses. German is an exact language. For better or for worse, its use of multi-compound nouns allows precious room for creative interpretation. Japanese is at turns vague and patently metaphorical (hence the haiku form's eminence), or distinct and exact (Japanese has more specific terms for groups of objects - think "a gaggle of geese" or "a murder of crows" - than any other language). Chinese characters convey the same information to Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, even if they can't understand each other's spoken language.

I've thought a lot about this classic TNG episode over the years, and the question I've always wanted to ask is why the Tamarians would develop such a cumbersome language? But then again, an accident like modern English may be just as lacking is elegance (see Bill Bryson "The Mother Tongue").

So to really answer the question, I'd look at Chinese, which is the closest comparison to Tamarian that I have any familiarity with. Chinese relies on pictographs/symbols/characters to communicate meaning, so you have to learn (i.e. memorize) individual characters (both written symbols and spoken tones) in order to understand them. You may combine individual characters to pack more meaning into a word or phrase, but if one character is unknown to you then you're out of luck. Unlike English or Latin-based languages, where you can "sound it out" or guess at meaning by comparing an unknown word to familiar ones with similar roots, Chinese requires strict memorization for true literacy. In this sense, Chinese is very like Tamarian - without a comprehensive vocabulary, you're basically up sh*t creek, or Captain Picard stranded without a communicator.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.