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So, in Star Trek, across much of the franchise, but especially in the 24th century, we are to understand that the problem of human-alien communication is solved by universal translator - a device built into Starfleet comm badges or other nearby computers that translates what different species are saying. The result is that we, the TV audience, see everyone speaking English, unless they are shown speaking Klingon or French or whatever.

I wonder if there is a Canon reference to human languages on Earth and in Starfleet during the 24th century. On one hand, it is plausible that basically all humans on Earth and/or in Starfleet learn English as part of their education or training and speak it for day-to-day communication in Starfleet, much as a global company today might dictate English as the language of business, globally. Under this interpretation, when we hear French from Captain Picard or Data, that means the character has chosen to speak French, and the Universal Translator has nothing to do with it - it's not translating for them, because they are not aliens. On the other hand, and equally plausibly, all the Starfleet human crew from different parts of Earth could presumably be speaking their native languages and relying on the Universal Translator to appear to us as if they were speaking English, just like the aliens. And, when someone on the show says something and we hear French, it's just the storytelling taking a break from the Universal Translator for dramatic effect.

Which is it? Or could it be a bit of both?

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  • 3
    What about the characters who speak English with a foreign accent? Would the translator do that to be funny? Or does it mean that at least those characters are really speaking English?
    – user14111
    Nov 2 '21 at 1:39
  • Related question: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/34582/…
    – Basya
    Nov 2 '21 at 12:01
  • 2
    @user14111 I'm more interested in how not only can the universal translator translate from any language, it also manages to manipulate the faces of the speakers so that their mouth, lip and tongue movements make them also look to be speaking English. And that doesn't even account for different languages encoding information in different lengths of time. Realistically the UT should make ST looked like a badly dubbed movie.
    – Peter M
    Nov 2 '21 at 13:14
  • @PeterM Yes about it should look dubbed but you need to accept that English is just a simplification for the audience. You can see this in Undiscovered Country during the trial. At the beginning Chang is speaking Klingon and then the perspective switches and we hear English despite Kirk and McCoy holding the translators. (Also I feel it's worth mentioning Real world text converters have become pretty sophisticated about replacing backgrounds.) Nov 3 '21 at 7:49
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Jerry Sohl, one of the early writers on Star Trek: The Original Series, explained that the Enterprise crew members all speak English.

We were originally going to have [each crew member] carry a language translator, which would fit on the wrist like a beeper, and no matter what area of the universe they were in, the thoughts that the people were thinking would automatically be translated into English as they spoke. We got rid of that idea, and assumed that everybody did speak English. It was a lot simpler that way.

The Star Trek Interview Book

An early version of the script for the Star Trek: The Original Series pilot, "The Cage", also indicated that Spock spoke English with the "almost British accent" of someone who learned the language from textbooks.

The only exception to the familiar types represented by the crew, Mister Spock is of partly alien extraction, his heavy-lidded eyes and slightly-pointed ears give him an almost satanic look. But in complete contrast is his unusual gentle manner and tone. With the almost British accent of one who has learned the language in textbooks, he speaks to Winter:

None of this is explicitly stated in canon, but there are scenes throughout the franchise which imply that this is all true. Several examples are listed below.


Star Trek: Enterprise

In this series, the Universal Translator (UT) is depicted as a handheld device roughly the shape and size of a cell phone, which is manually activated when needed (ENT: "Broken Bow").

We see T'Pol handing out UTs to officers just before they're about to embark on an away mission to Rigel X, suggesting they don't normally carry these while on the ship (ENT: "Broken Bow").

ARCHER: As soon as we've tied down, we'll be descending into the trade complex. It has thirty-six levels.

T'POL: Your translators have been programmed for Rigelian. However, you'll encounter numerous other species. Many of them are known to be impatient with newcomers. None of them have seen a human before. You have a tendency to be gregarious. I suggest you try to restrain that tendency.

Star Trek: Enterprise - S01E01 - "Broken Bow" transcript

enter image description here

We again see T'Pol handing UTs to Archer and Tucker, just before a visit to the Vulcan monastery on P'Jem (ENT: "The Andorian Incident").

enter image description here

And T'Pol clearly stated that she was instructed to speak English during her assignment on the NX-01 (ENT: "Broken Bow").

HOSHI [speaking Vulcan]: Ponfo mirann.

T'POL: I was instructed to speak English during this voyage, and I'd appreciate it if you'd respect that.

Star Trek: Enterprise - S01E01 - "Broken Bow" transcript


Star Trek: The Original Series

In this series, the UT is depicted as a handheld device, roughly the shape and size of a flashlight, again suggesting that these things aren't routinely carried around and used on the ship.

It's also specified that the UT translates languages into English, suggesting that the technology isn't yet sophisticated enough to convert one language into multiple other languages simultaneously (TOS: "Metamorphosis").

(Spock is working on the Universal Translator. It is basically a metal tube nearly a foot long, that can be held in the hand.)

COCHRANE: What's the theory behind this device?

KIRK: There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life. This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas and concepts it recognises, and then provides the necessary grammar.

SPOCK: Then it translates its findings into English.

COCHRANE: You mean it speaks?

KIRK: With a voice or the approximation of whatever the creature is on the sending end. Not one hundred percent efficient, but nothing ever is.

Star Trek: The Original Series - S02E02 - "Metamorphosis" transcript

enter image description here

And when Uhura's mind was wiped by the Nomad space probe, she had to relearn both her native language of Swahili and English (TOS: "The Changeling").

Why the need to relearn English, if the UT is used on the ship as a norm? And how did Chapel know when Uhura was speaking Swahili?

(Uhura is sitting up in bed, and reading from a monitor.)

UHURA: See the dog. See the dog,

CHAPEL: Sound it out.

UHURA: R, r, run!

CHAPEL: That's it, Uhura. That's very good. Now try the next one.

UHURA: The dog has a, The dog, (something)

CHAPEL: Not Swahili, Uhura. In English. The dog has a ball. See? B, ah, ll. Ball. Now you go ahead.

UHURA: (Swahili, then) The dog has a ball.

Star Trek: The Original Series - S02E08 - "The Changeling" transcript

Also, when the Enterprise received a transmission from the Melkotians, it was heard in different languages -- seemingly, each individual's first language -- by various members of the crew (TOS: "Spectre of the Gun").

If it's normal for Starfleet officers to hear words spoken by others in their own first language, then why do they react as if this is unusual and noteworthy? And why does each officer conclude that the message was transmitted in Vulcan, English, Russian, or Swahili, as opposed to it being translated into those languages?

MELKOT [OC]: Aliens, you have encroached on the space of the Melkot. You will turn back immediately. This is the only warning you will receive.

SPOCK: Vulcan, Captain.

KIRK: English.

CHEKOV: It was Russian, sir. Every word.

UHURA: No, Captain. It was Swahili.

KIRK: Interesting. Telepathy.

SPOCK: Unquestionably. Most impressive.

Star Trek: The Original Series - S03E01 - "Spectre of the Gun" transcript


Star Trek: Voyager

By this point, UTs were built into Starfleet combadges, and were clearly capable of translating a language into multiple other languages simultaneously. Apparently, they could even enable people speaking different languages -- and not wearing UTs themselves -- to understand one another, provided they were in the presence of a Starfleet officer (VOY: "The 37's").

JANEWAY: I know this must be very strange for you.

NOONAN: Who are you? What is going on here?

NOGAMI: I demand you release me immediately.

JANEWAY: Please, if you'll just listen for a moment, I'll try to explain.

NOGAMI: You are all speaking Japanese.

HAYES: (the farmer) Sounds to me like you are speaking English.

JANEWAY: It's because of a device we have.

(Janeway points to her combadge.)

JANEWAY: A universal translator. It allows us to talk to each other even though our languages aren't the same.

Star Trek: Voyager - S02E01 - "The 37's" transcript

However, when Tuvok and Paris were stranded on a planet located within a 'subspace sinkhole', and their UTs were explicitly offline, they had no difficulty understanding one another. The same wasn't true of Noss, an alien woman they encountered there, who initially spoke gibberish from their point of view. Only the Doctor could immediately understand and communicate in her language, as a UT was written into his programme.

This episode clearly suggests that Tuvok and Paris were speaking a common language. It doesn't follow that the common language was necessarily English, but given all the other evidence I've highlighted, I'd submit that that's almost certainly what it was... especially as several Vulcans have been shown to be multilingual, whereas Tom Paris never has been, so far as I can recall.

In later scenes, Noss spoke in what sounded like crude English, with the Doctor still occasionally interpreting for her, suggesting that she was gradually learning whatever language was used by the Starfleet officers (VOY "Gravity").

(On a red-soiled, rock strewn desert planet, a young woman hunts for large spiders. She sees a small spacecraft land, and goes to see what she can salvage. She is at the helm console when Paris returns. She points a weapon at him and shouts.)

NOSS: Tu be veg!

PARIS: Er, sorry?

NOSS: Sen. Neeba sen.

PARIS: Either the universal translator's offline, or I hit my head harder than I thought.

[...]

TUVOK: No doubt Voyager has begun a rescue effort. The Doctor?

PARIS: His mobile emitter was damaged during the crash. With a little luck, I might be able to repair it and bring him back online.

TUVOK: Make it your top priority.

[...]

TUVOK: Progress? (Referring to the mobile emitter.)

PARIS: The optronic relays took heavy damage. I'm bypassing the primary circuits. Come on, Doc. I know you're in there.

(The EMH solidifies.)

EMH: I'm guessing we hit a snag.

TUVOK: An accurate assumption.

NOSS: Rev den ut. Ut rev?

EMH: Tun sank. Ton rev ut teem sayd.

PARIS: You speak her language?

EMH: A universal translator was written into my programme.

Star Trek: Voyager - S05E13 - "Gravity" transcript

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I can list a few examples of mentions of the English language in TOS. Since I am most familiar with TOS I will limit my examples and discussion of what language crewmembers speak and how they communicate with outsiders to TOS.

In "The Man Trap" The Salt vampire meets Uhura:

UHURA (to crewmen) The door to my quarters still rattles when it opens. Would you stop by and see if you can do something about it? Thanks, Bobby. (Green changes into African crewman) Crewman, do I know you?

CREWMAN: In a way, ma'am. You were just thinking of someone like me. I'm guessing of course, but you do look a little lonely.

UHURA: I see. So naturally, when I'm lonely I think of you.

CREWMAN: Ina cuvanea mwanamke turee.

UHURA: Una kafeeri Hur. You're Swahili?

Later:

SULU: He, whatever, was probably your crewman, too, Lieutenant.

UHURA: He must have been it. You know, I would have remembered a crewman like him.

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/6.htm

And the audience would naturally assume that if the allegedly Swahili dialog actually was in Swahili the dialog spoken by the actors in English would have been spoken by the chracters in English. Though of course there is no proof that is the case.

The language the Starfleet members speak in "The Squire of Gothos" in not specified, but there are clues:

KIRK: Not yet. Put it on stun, not to kill, DeSalle.

TRELANE: DeSalle, did you say? Un vrai Francais?

DESALLE: My ancestry is French, yes.

TRELANE: Ah, monsieur. Vive la gloire. Vive Napoleon. You know, I admire your Napoleon very much.

KIRK: This is Mister DeSalle, our navigator. Doctor McCoy, our medical officer.

Mister Sulu, our helmsman, and Carl Jaeger, meteorologist.

TRELANE: Welcome, good physicianer and honourable sir. (bows low)

SULU: Is he kidding?

TRELANE: Und Offizier Jaeger, und der deutsche Soldat, nein? (gives a little Prussian salute then marches around) Eins, zwei, drei, vier. Gehen vir mit dem Schiessgewehr.

JAEGER: I'm a scientist, not a military man.

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/18.htm

All other dialog in the episode is spoken in English by the actors. It is natural for the English speaking audience to assume that that the characters are speaking in English, but there is no proof. Certainly they are not speaking in French or German the rest of the time.

In "Arena", the Metrons transport Kirk to a planet to fight the Gorn Captain, saying:

METRON [OC]:You will be provided with a recording-translating device, in hopes that a chronicle of this contest will serve to dissuade others of your kind from entering our system, but you will not be permitted to communicate with your ship. You will each be totally alone.

And on the planet:

(Standing on rocks, silhouetted against a clear blue sky, Kirk makes an entry on his recorder for posterity.)

KIRK: This is Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. Who ever finds this please get it to Starfleet Command. I'm engaged in personal combat with a creature apparently called a Gorn.

(We see that the recording is also being transmitted and translated by the Gorn's device too)

And later:

(The bridge crew watch as enlightenment dawns and Kirk goes off in search of his other mineral discoveries.) GORN [OC]: Earthling! Captain!

KIRK [on viewscreen]: Who is this, the Metron?

GORN [OC]: This is your opponent, Earthling. I have heard every word you have said.

KIRK [on viewscreen]: All right. What do you want?

GORN [on viewscreen]: I'm weary of the chase. Wait for me. I shall be merciful and quick.

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/19.htm

And they continue to talk for several more lines.

And as far as I can remember this is the only example in TOS where aliens are shown using a translator device to communicate, though of course some may use translator devices which are not mentioned or shown.

In "Space Seed" when Khan is briefly conscious on the Botany Bay:

(Kirk uses something metal in his hand to break the glass and open the compartment. The man is slid out on a trolley, gasping and awake. He tries to speak.)

KHAN: How long?

KIRK: How long have you been sleeping? Two centuries we estimate. Landing party to Enterprise. Come in.

Later, in the Enterprise sick bay:

(Khan sees a display of old medical instruments on the wall, takes a scalpel, and is back in bed when McCoy walks in to check on him. As the good doctor leans over, Khan grabs him by the throat and holds the blade to his neck.)

MCCOY: Well, either choke me or cut my throat. Make up your mind.

KHAN: English. I thought I dreamed hearing it. Where am I?

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/24.htm

In "The Changeling" Nomad "erases" Lt. Uhura's memory, or at least messes it up badly. Considering how rapidly she is reeducated, I guess that she starts to remember as she is taught, instead of relearning everything from the beginning.

(Uhura is sitting up in bed, and reading from a monitor.)

UHURA: See the dog. See the dog,

CHAPEL: Sound it out.

UHURA: R, r, run!

CHAPEL: That's it, Uhura. That's very good. Now try the next one.

UHURA: The dog has a, The dog, (something)

CHAPEL: Not Swahili, Uhura. In English. The dog has a ball. See? B, ah, ll. Ball. Now you go ahead.

UHURA: (Swahili, then) The dog has a ball.

And again that indicates that the normal working language on the Enteprise is English.

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/37.htm

In "Metamorphosis", when they meet Cochrane:

COCHRANE: You speak English. Earth people?

And later:

(Spock is working on the Universal Translator. It is basically a metal tube nearly a foot long, that can be held in the hand.)

COCHRANE: What's the theory behind this device?

KIRK: There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life. This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas and concepts it recognises, and then provides the necessary grammar.

SPOCK: Then it translates its findings into English.

COCHRANE: You mean it speaks?

KIRK: With a voice or the approximation of whatever the creature is on the sending end. Not one hundred percent efficient, but nothing ever is. Ready, Mister Spock?

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/31.htm

So the universal translator translates into English, which should thus be the main language on the Enterprise, and perhaps on all Federation Starfleet vessels.

I note that the UT looks a lot like the cylindrical communicator/translator devices the Metrons supplied to Kirk and the Gorn Captain in "Arena". Is it actually Kirk's device, did Starfleet reverse engineer Kirk's device, or is it just a coincidence that they looked similar?

"Metamorphosis" is the only TOS episode where their universal translator is mentioned. Universal translators in the subspace radio and the shipwide com system might be used other episodes, or maybe not.

It is possible that many of the Enterprise crew also speak a widespread language used for inter species communication, and that some of their communications with nonhumans on the Enterprise and off it is that language, as well as many aliens with previous Federation contact knowing and speaking English.

And it is possible that some advanced aliens have their own universal translators and use them.

In "Bread and Circuses" when they meet natives of the planet:

FLAVIUS [OC]: Don't move! Hands in the air!

SPOCK: Complete Earth parallel. The language here is English.

And:

FLAVIUS: Are you trying to be funny?

SPOCK: Never. Colloquial twentieth-century English. An amazing parallel.

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/43.htm

And no doubt there is a story why the people in this province of a Roman Empire on a distant planet speak mostly English instead of and/or along with Latin, but that is never mentioned in the broadcast episode, and perhaps never considered by the creators.

In "Spectre of the Gun" when they approach the Melkotian planet:

MELKOT [OC]: Aliens, you have encroached on the space of the Melkot. You will turn back immediately. This is the only warning you will receive.

SPOCK: Vulcan, Captain.

KIRK: English.

CHEKOV: It was Russian, sir. Every word.

UHURA: No, Captain. It was Swahili.

KIRK: Interesting. Telepathy.

SPOCK: Unquestionably. Most impressive

http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/56.htm

These examples show that the Enterprise crew have several different birth languages, but the workling language on the ship is English. So when actors portray crewmembers speaking English to each other, the characters probably usually are speaking English to each other.

Since TOS probably happens about 2 or 3 centuries after the 1960s according to clues in various episodes, the characters probably speak a future dialect of English which is translated in the 20th century English so the viewers can understand it better. And in some cases I suspect that the writers have transleted future English into 20th cnetury English rather badly and inaccurately. Especially when talking about scientific theories.

When actors portraying crewmembers and aliens are shown speaking English together, the characters may actually be speaking English with each other or some sort of very widespead space language translated into English for the sake of the audience. And possibly there are examples of both practices.

An alien translation device is shown being used in "Arena", and a Federation universal translator is shown being used in "Metamorphosis". Those might be the only two examples of the use of translation devices in TOS. Or possibly there are other uses of translation devices which are not mentioned or shown in ways that make their purpose obvious to the viewers.

And though the normal use of English as the working language on the Enterprise seems to be firmly established in TOS, methods of communication with outsiders, especially those encountered for the first time, is not explained so well, and it is uncertain what languages are used in many cases, o rhow often the universal translator is used.

And since the total number of Star Trek productions is about 10 times the number of TOS episodes, there could be a dozen times as many examples of evidence from other Star Trek productions as I have mentioend here.

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To expand on the answer by LogicDictates, it just needs to be added that Universal Translator is part of all Federation communications protocols. It is thus quite possible that most of the people learn just one language and let machine do the rest.

And since UT - as per quote from Kirk in linked answer - is picking up on other data, too, it is highly intuitive and adaptive and it is very good with estimating when the translation is required at all, too.

Obviously.

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