In-universe, I mean.

I understand about universal translators, but how come ship-to-ship communications are compatible, right down to the 3D presentations on their view screens? For example, Janeway talking to Neelix when they first meet, or Seven talking to the Qatai in Bliss, and those are on the other side of the galaxy from the Federation.

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    @LieRyan your aeroplane analogy is flawed in that we have an international agreement on standards for communications managed by the International Civil Aviation Organization. No such agreement could exist from one side of the galaxy to the other. And your dismissal of the 3D question as being budgetary resorts to out-of-universe questions. – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 11:14
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    By your reasoning ICAO couldn't have existed. If a bunch of planets can cobble together to create the Federation, it would be a much simpler matter to cobble together to decide on a standard for communication device. In fact, having compatible communication devices would probably have been a precursor to be able to create an federation/alliance in the first place. – Lie Ryan Apr 21 '14 at 11:20
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    It does stretch the realm of believeability, however, when an alien species that has literally never encountered or heard of the Federation can interact with their computers the way Neelix does...does Neelix ever actually use the computers? – Zibbobz Apr 21 '14 at 13:17
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    @GorchestopherH I agree up to a point, but look at how VHS and Betamax competed initially. Different technologies providing incompatible solutions to essentially the same problem. They were only resolved because of a) the small "universe" in which they existed and b) commercial pressures from consumers for a single solution. Those pressures don't exist when the technologies come from opposite sides of the galaxy with no direct communications between them. – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 14:47
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    Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. – dss539 Apr 21 '14 at 20:49

I guess when you build a warp-capable ship, with the intent to meet other species, you will have some scientist, linguists and whatnot figuring out how to encode a video in a way, most people will understand. I'd guess the number of solutions a intelligent species can come up with is quite finite. If I were the project manager, I'd equip the ship with all of them. So when two foreign ships meet, it is likely that they have at least one solution in common.

As a second measure, I'd write a computer program, that searches for patterns in the incoming signals and compares them to the stuff you expect: Colors, wavepatterns, a roughly humanoid shape in the center of the screen... Then that program comes up with a matrix that translates the signals to a video.

We see barely video contact with a species that never had contact with aliens before. So it's likely, they all considered this compatibility-problem and solved it in this way. Over the time you will discover more solutions on how other species solved this problem and you can add it to your arsenal of communication strategies. After some dozens encounters you will probably have enough solutions to safely assume, that someone on the other side of the universe has at least one solution in common with you.

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    I'd guess the number of solutions a intelligent species can come up with is quite finite. Not really. For example, the common standard for video encoding in modern Earth, YUV, is a technical mess. It's based on the encoding scheme that was developed to allow color TV to be broadcast without being unplayable on black-and-white TVs, and makes very little technical sense if you're not familiar with that particular piece of historical baggage. Who knows what some other species might come up with based on their historical baggage! – Mason Wheeler Apr 21 '14 at 15:31
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    It can be demonstrated that there are an infinite number of ways to represent a video signal, but given the massive computing power of a Starfleet ship and the fact that the aliens are probably actively trying to make their communications intelligible, I think the two sides' computers could probably work something out. – Samuel Edwin Ward Apr 21 '14 at 15:42
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    The problem with this answer is that different species will naturally encode colours differently, because different species will have eyes that are sensitive to a different selection of wavelengths, and without knowing what those wavelengths are it does'nt seem particularly plausible to guess what colour is indicated by any particular representation. – Jules Apr 22 '14 at 4:12
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    @HorusKol Unfortunately the Pioneer plate was used as target practice for a Klingon in Star Trek V. – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 22 '14 at 11:06
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    "a roughly humanoid shape in the center of the screen" - I think that assumption is exemplary for why this answer isn't too convincing: Where's the "center of the screen"? Even if the video frames are sent as an uncompressed raster graphic, pixel by pixel, how do you know where one scanline ends and the next one begins? You can indicate that in the beginning of the data packet - width first, or height first? What's a "likely" aspect-ratio to guess the orientation? But before we get there, how do you know where one number starts and another one ends? How many bits make up one number? – O. R. Mapper Apr 22 '14 at 11:11

I believe this is an in-universe result of a natural trend of technology to converge towards universal interoperability and dynamic reconfiguration.

Early spacecraft (such as Apollo and Soyuz) -- and even modern spacecraft -- require adapters in between their docking ports. In a Voyager episode (Blink of an Eye), a very Apollo-like pre-warp craft docks with the Voyager without any assistance from the crew. While it is not explicitly shown, this is the closest I've seen a Star Trek episode imply that Starfleet vessels are equipped with docking ports that can reconfigure themselves to complement any port presented to them.

I mention docking ports here because they are a good analogy for explaining self-describing communications protocols (the Arecibo message is a very early, crude example). Someday when we venture out into space in the hopes of communicating with other space-faring species, we're likely to have methods to both transmit and decode messages using protocols that first start by describing the protocol itself by some universal means (e.g. numbers, atomic weights, emission spectra wavelengths). We can assume that other space-faring species would follow the same reasoning.

To use yet another analogy from computers -- plug-and-play devices that don't require drivers.

  • +1 Why didn't Gene Roddenberry say this in the first place! – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 15:15
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    Plug and play devices only work because they are designed to conform to predefined standards. – Mr.Mindor Apr 21 '14 at 22:38
  • as an aside, the Arecibo message is a horrible example. Teach one binary encoding in your numbers 1-10 then switch to a different binary encoding when presenting actual information.... – Mr.Mindor Apr 21 '14 at 22:41
  • @Mr.Mindor, the Arecibo message was meant to be an illustration of the concept, not an example of actual technique, hence the adjective "crude". Plug-and-play too, is analogy that is not to be taken literally. If you prefer a more factual example, deciphering ancient texts without a dictionary is one. – HNL Apr 22 '14 at 7:12
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    @Mr.Mindor don't forget how long PnP took to go from being snarked at as Plug and Pray due to widespread failures to the current situation of it (mostly) just works. – Dan Neely Apr 22 '14 at 15:36

I'd argue that the entire premise of the question is flawed. In-universe, we see a considerable number of episodes about the Enterprise having issues communicating with alien species, either due to equipment incompatibility or Universal Translator failure (or a combination of both).

Out of-universe, all species seem to be able to communicate easily because watching a linguist and an engineer trying to combine IT systems for 3/4 of every single episode would be intensely dull.

Roddenberry established the idea that all species would have common communication systems in the original pitch for Trek;

We establish a "telecommunicator" device early in the series, little more complicated than a small transistor radio carried in a pocket. A simple "two-way scrambler", it appears to be converting all spoken language into English.

Jerry Sohl, the script writer for the "The Corbomite Maneuver" (the first regular installment of Star Trek, following the pilot episodes "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before") explained further;

"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."

Coming up with a new language or a new IT system for each episode would be expensive, time-consuming and frankly unnecessary to the plotlines.

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    Unhelpful, as you concentrate on language translation (which I specifically excluded from my question) and even for that partly rely on out-of-universe arguments. – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 11:17
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    @user13500 Even unencrypted, we have dozens/hundreds of encodings for video that are not compatible with each other – Izkata Apr 21 '14 at 11:38
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    @Izkata: Then do not encode it, raw stream, or use encodings that do not give low entropy. We have hundreds of encodings, but they have advanced warp drives, replicators, subspace communication, tranceiver arrays, spectrum communication etc. One have to assume they use advanced mathematical models to analyse data for pattern recognition. If one then also send on thousands of bands and use thousands of formats and encodings the likelyhood of an advanced system would be able to translate at least one is plausible. – user13500 Apr 21 '14 at 12:11
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    @user13500: any representation is an encoding. There is no such thing as a "raw stream". Those "advanced mathematical models" cannot exist, and that is mathematical law. – nomen Apr 21 '14 at 18:12
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    @user13500: You are missing the point. Your DAC will have an encoding of the numbers as binary numbers in it. And that encoding is not unique, or even "likely". Put it this way: there are 2^8 encodings of the set of numbers 1 to 2^8. You are talking to somebody with a degree in mathematics, by the way -- not that I am arguing from authority, but it is mathematical law. – nomen Apr 21 '14 at 21:17

On the first few episodes of DS9, the Federation has recently gained control of a Cardassian space station (Terok Nor, or as they rechristen it, the titular DS9). You might wonder if Cardassia and the Federation are not even close to being allies why they would have a compatable terminal layout that either species could use.

In fact, they don't. and in the early episodes, we see O'Brien doing a complete system overhaul constantly. They even mention how unintuitive the control layouts are on the station.

That being said, we do see starfleet officers occasionally take over or work with non-federation consoles. But it's also known that some federation officers are versed in multiple languages - which would allow them to interface with those consoles without problem.

As for Neelix, well, he probably just learned how to use the console to do what he needed it to do. Voice commands (universal translator) would suffice for most of the duties a ship cook would have, and he probably picked up more than a few more complex commands during his tenure as 'morale officer'.

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    Good points, well made. I still smile when I remember Scotty's comment aboard the stolen Klingon ship (The Voyage Home) not being about the technology but about reading Klingon. – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 13:31

I agree with Einer and Richard's answers, but there's one point they miss. Interspecies communications systems would work much the way the internet works today across international and especially interlingual borders. Hard work and transfer of technology.

  1. As Einer points out, you'd design your output to be as easy to understand as possible, and program heuristics to understand the other species' (hopefully) simplified output.
  2. As Richard says, in the extremely common circumstance where that barely works, it's a starting point. Engineers and linguists on both sides of the divide roll up their sleeves and get to work.
  3. Each new species' distinct technological and infological innovations would spread across the interconnected interspecies community. Also known as: "Hey, look at how they solved this technical / data issue. That's pretty nifty, let's learn how to do that. Hey species X, check out what we learned from species Y. It's better than the way you taught us, let's use that."


There is an inherent feedback loop, where knowledge gained from 2. and 3. helps one improve your output and heuristics in step 1., and of course step 2 would get easier with every addition to that knowledge base.

  • Commercial interests and a certain amount of NIH attitude will work against your 3rd point, but your first point sums up the practical aspects of why, on balance, it would work. – ClickRick Apr 21 '14 at 20:13
  • @ClickRick I think those will only slow the transfer of tech and ideas, not stop them. Also, remember that espionage is one of those "commercial interests". Think about today, and piracy in countries who don't share patent laws. – Travis Bemrose Apr 21 '14 at 20:46
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    @RonSmith Too late. I edited it. ;-) I actually had meant to include it originally, and forgot to mention it explicitly by the time I finished typing the list. – Travis Bemrose Apr 21 '14 at 20:55
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    I figure, by the time of TNG, they have enough of a database that the computer is able to tweak the algorithms 99.9% of the time without any human intervention. That's why they can just approach pretty much any alien ship and communicate without even thinking twice about it. – Ron Smith Apr 21 '14 at 20:59
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    @RonSmith I'm also a programmer. In code, feedback must be explicitly specified. In life, the nature of time - things that happen in the past affect things happening now and in the future - makes feedback (in the very general sense) ubiquitous. – Travis Bemrose Apr 21 '14 at 21:00

To fill in a bit beside comments.

Your question regarding technological compatibility in communication with alien species does not exclude linguistic analysis but is in the core of it.

For one they would scan a wide specter of electromagnetic waves, filter out noise, record patterns and then start to decipher. There would likely be a rather sophisticated chain of software (or probably hardware) for pattern recognition. As one recognize an artificial signal this would be filtered trough various modules to try to tune in on a likely representation via converters.

Here the linguistic part is at the core. As one are able to generate translators one should also be able to recognize patterns which are translatable / has linguistic properties. (And sometimes it would not be possible.) One would perhaps end up with n candidates, and then it would be up to technicians and communications officers like Hoshi Sato to fine tune and try to isolate the correct specimen.

I do not recall exactly episodes, but there are some examples where they do this operation.

Over time the systems would be more and more sophisticated as one encounter new languages and communications models. A self learning system with some hard core programmers to overhaul and tune.

One would also tune ones own signals to accommodate the ones used by other aliens. Sometimes one manage to decipher the signals received and as such one can immediately do a reversal and send signals using same pattern. Other times it would be the other way around: the aliens would adjust their transmission to accommodate what they have managed to decipher.

For systems one use oneself one would clearly not use algorithms with known flaws and bugs. NHL has a very good point in regards to self-describing communications protocols. Such a system would be built from ground up with one goal in mind, and not use flawed and outdated algorithms or specifications.


The self-learning capabilities of a computer system with a dedicated support staff, enough processing power, and a large enough data set could probably overcome most difficulties with the video encoding itself. The actual exchange of information is likewise solved by the finite means which communication could be passed: there are only so many wavelengths of light, so many types of radiation, so many methods which can employed to pass information from one starship to another at reasonable speeds.

A better question would be why all aliens have eyes, or have cameras, or have eyes and cameras that see in a comparable wavelength to our own. No computer could take raw video feed and translate it into colors the human eye can see if the proper wavelengths aren't in the feed. If encountering a species never seen before, which only sees in infrared, would they design a camera that sees outside of the infrared spectrum? If they didn't, then a Federation ship could only guess at what color the alien's skin is, etc.

Taking the premise that these species want to communicate, it is a good bet they would indeed have cameras capable of "seeing" in many wavelengths. But if they don't have eyes, would they even build cameras in the first place? If they are warlike (Kazon, anyone?), why would they willingly show potential opponents anything which could be analyzed to find weaknesses?

There is the additional concern with all aliens having vocal cords- virtually every species encountered can make noises discernible to humans. A universal translator solves part of this dilemma, as it could filter unheard frequencies to what the human ear can hear and translate the language to English, but only if the alien species makes noise to communicate at all.

Additionally, very few sentient species are not humanoid in the Star Trek universe. This could only come about with planned evolution or seeding planets with common ancestors. I read something about the latter being used to explain the Star Trek universe, but this begs the question of why there are so many superficial differences between species but not radically different ones which could have evolved as well.

At some point, we must realize concessions were made to make Star Trek possible. Actors are humanoid, audiences relate better to visuals than floating voices without video and prefer sound in space despite how little sound can move in the near-void, etc etc. Still, fun to consider.


Because any species that has developed warp drive, will also have developed subspace radio. "To echo an old saying, it's the only game in town." TNG Technical Manual page 98.

Once a subspace signal is identified, it is a simple matter of filtering out the voice data, which is then passed to the universal translator. Most alien signals sent through subspace radio, can therefore be deciphered.

Think of it like ordinary radio: you can receive foreign stations, even though they may be using completely different equipment, all you've got to do is learn their language to understand what they're saying. Even though they may have completely invented and built their own system, you can receive their signal and decipher it.

Because it is the only way it works, the technology will have some form of inherent compatibility.

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