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In TNG: Darmok, Picard learns how to communicate with the Tamarians, who speak a unique language composed of snippets from their great epics. For example, "Shaka, when the walls fell" denotes failure. It's as if people spoke entirely in quotations from the Iliad and Odyssey. In another answer on the subject, Tyson of the Northwest pointed out a human analog, where priests sometimes cite Biblical verses to each other without bothering to quote them in full.

I would like to know where the writers of Darmok got the idea of an allegorical language for this episode. In particular, were they influenced by Jack Vance's 1973 novel, The Asutra? In this novel, aliens called the Ka speak exclusively in quotations from their species' tragic epic, which is called the Great Song. One character explains,

"The Great Song recounts the history of Kahei through symbolic sounds and sequences. The Ka communicate by singing themes of allusion, and you must do the same through the medium of a double-flute. The language is logical, flexible, and expressive, but difficult to learn."

This seems similar in concept to the Tamarian language, though the Ka epic is expressed in music rather than articulated sounds. Was The Asutra a source of inspiration for Darmok?

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    Why compare to something so obscure, when there's a widespread modern analog, the internet meme? The Tamarians are just the original memelords. – Kai Jun 2 at 23:54
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    It's an interesting comparison, but Internet memes barely existed in 1991 when Darmok first aired. According to Wikipedia they became common in the mid-90s. Anyway, sources of inspiration can be obscure to one person and not at all obscure to the next. Jack Vance was one of the most popular SF authors in his day. According to ISFDB he is currently the 11th most often viewed author (isfdb.org/cgi-bin/stats.cgi?13). – Invisible Trihedron Jun 3 at 0:17
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    I wasn't implying internet memes inspired the episode, just that I think it's a really common form of speech that's rather similar to the episode. I'm plenty aware that the episode predated memes, as I watched TNG as it first aired, and the earliest widespread memes weren't anything like today, where certain communities really do communicate online with memes to such an extent that people who don't know the memes need it translated. – Kai Jun 3 at 0:32
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    Example: buzzfeed.com/andyneuenschwander/… – Kai Jun 3 at 0:41
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    Yes, that is similar to what Ciardi said so many years ago. I was intrigued by the fact that different writers chose the same theme of rigorously allegorical communication, and I am also intrigued by the fact that an answer was so quickly at hand in the interview of Menosky. I recall reading a novel in which human beings were trying to learn alien languages in order to join the interstellar culture, but found it challenging because these languages were so metaphorical and the metaphors weren't based on anything human. So the idea has been "kicking around awhile," to use a metaphor. – Invisible Trihedron Jun 3 at 1:14
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According to an interview with Star Trek Magazine, the show's co-writer Joe Menosky came up with the idea of a metaphor-based language from two key concepts; the linguistic notions of John Ciardi (that every single word has a storied etymology that must be understood before a translator can accurately translate a work into another language) and the "imagistic shorthand" used in Ancient Chinese speech and writings (where short phrases are used convey meaning that is unfathomable to people who hadn't been brought up to understand what the speaker is alluding to1)

Change of direction

“Fortunately, Michael went off to see ‘Dances With Wolves’ and came back to the office completely taken by the scene of Kevin Costner and the Native American by the fire, where they try to communicate with each other. He told me he wanted, ‘Two people, on a planet; they don’t speak the same language, but after a great struggle they finally break through to understanding.’ And I said, ‘I can do that.’ So I threw out the original script, kept the title and came up with the story Michael wanted. If he had not seen 'Dances With Wolves’ that weekend, ‘Darmok’ would never have reached the screen, and I may well have been out of a job.”

One of Joe’s first practical problems was developing a form of language that Picard wouldn’t be able to understand. In STAR TREK the crew happily travel around the Galaxy encountering countless races who appear to speak English; this is explained away by the use of the universal translator an almost magical device that can instantaneously translate any language. Somehow, Joe’s aliens would need to speak a language that baffled the technology.

“Our understanding of the universal translator at the time was pretty vague,” he says. “No episode had unambiguously established what was going on, and nobody on the staff had it worked out. I assumed it used a vast database, with hundreds of thousands of languages and some sophisticated knowledge of deep grammatical structures common to all humanoid life forms.

“The problem I had in terms of story was that I wanted Picard and Dathon to actually speak to each other, rather than try to communicate through gestures or miming. But what the alien was saying had to be meaningless to Picard, or else the story Michael wanted me to tell could not happen. I needed an informing concept. The poet and translator of Dante, John Ciardi, once wrote ‘every word is a poem’ 2 - meaning that if you look into the history of any word you will always get back to a metaphorical image.

“I combined that notion with the kind of imagistic shorthand sometimes used in ancient China: like ‘Viscount Yi.’ If you don’t know that Yi was a minister at the court of a madman and what he did to survive, then you don’t know what that phrase is supposed to convey. So that was the scheme I came up with; the Tamarians speak exclusively in metaphoric shorthand, based on their own history and their own myths. And if you don’t know those stories then you don’t know what they are trying to say, even if you understand each word in isolation, which is all the UT could give you.”

Star Trek Magazine: December 2002 Volume 3 Issue 8


1 - In much the same way that from the Western tradition might say "it's Pandora's box" to allude to a situation with unknown but almost certainly bad consequences, referencing Hesiod's Works and Days.

2 - Technically speaking, Ciardi said "every word is at root an image, and poetic images must be made of words" not "every word is a poem" but the meaning is basically the same.

  • Technically speaking, Ciardi said "every word is at root an image, and poetic images must be made of words" not "every word is a poem" but close enough. – Valorum Jun 2 at 20:18
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    That is a stimulating answer. It's possible that Vance was also inspired by Ciardi. We know that he was aware of other work in linguistics, e.g., the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis when he wrote The Languages of Pao (1958). – Invisible Trihedron Jun 2 at 21:24
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    @Valorum: Re inspiration, the question was worth asking; it is interesting and sometimes useful to know where ideas come from. I've read Sapir, Whorf, and a lot of Vance, but not Ciardi. I have a long list of publications to my credit, but they are in paleontology. Linguistics was an early love that continues to inspire. Anyway, I was pleased that you did, in fact, have an answer, and I don't mind having a wrong hunch. That happens frequently in science! – Invisible Trihedron Jun 3 at 12:32
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    I agree with @InvisibleTrihedron - this is a stimulating answer! The quoted material piqued my curiosity, so I asked about 'Viscount Yi' over on History – bertieb Jun 3 at 12:33

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