The Tamarians are that ST:TNG race that speak only in historical reference ("Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra"). So imagine a conversation like this happening in a Tamarian vessel:

Dude: No matter how I calibrate this emitter, I can't get it within tolerance.
Chick: What modulation frequency are you using on your axion probe?
Dude: 9.3 gigahertz.
Chick: Well there's your problem. At 9.3 gigahertz you run into nonlinearities in the Witten response. Try a higher harmonic, but detune it so you avoid resonance. 18.9 should do.

How did they manage things like this?

  • 4
    They do know mathematics, as it was a number sequence that alerted Star Fleet that they were there at the start of the episode. DATA: The signal is a standard mathematical progression.
    – Xantec
    Aug 21 '14 at 17:53
  • 4
    @Zibbobz: Do you actually speak German? I'd say the historically influenced metaphoric references in German is roughly the same as in English if not less.
    – bitmask
    Aug 21 '14 at 18:38
  • 11
    Is it bad that I couldn't tell if your dialog was a complete gibberish you made up, or an actual dialog from Star Trek episode? Aug 21 '14 at 21:50
  • 16
    They speak Welsh amongst themselves. They only use the metaphor stuff with aliens, so as to be more easily understood.
    – Paul
    Aug 22 '14 at 15:42
  • 3
    A far more interesting question would be "how do the Tamarians teach all those stories to their children in the first place?" Aug 23 '14 at 14:24

DUDE: The beast at Tanagra, Tenga the master of ways, Arbeth stumbles drunkenly
CHICK: Hidden melody, the eye of Axionta DUDE: In the 4th song of Telzat, Subbata stealing seven treasures.
CHICK: Sokath, his eyes uncovered. The song of Telzat curdles the soup of Witten. Ascent of Mount Shicta and sing the 10th song of Gizatn, Kinta the lost child

Or something along those lines. Telzat and Gizatn would have been historical figures that discovered frequencies and how to use them, perhaps would translate to Hawking and Cochrane. The eye of Axionta would be a probe that was created by Axionta. And so on and so forth. In English we already do something similar. Hertz are named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, so 25hz could be Temarianized as 25th word of Hertz. Celsius is named after Anders Celsius, farad named after Michael Faraday, watt after James Watt. My USB is powered by Volt's five rivers(5v), my processor uses 130 of Watts mules (130W), and currently I am surrounded by five of Pascal's legions (10^5 Pa of air pressure).

As Zibbobz observes it could be analogous to German Komposita where individual words are combined to produce larger composite words. Like how Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister equates to "head district chimney sweep". It is also possible that the Universal Translator, unable to represent what to the Tamarian is a single word broke it into separate words to exactly represent their meaning. Also, the German example is made up of common nouns that without context are translatable, but Tamarian is made up proper nouns that don't have consistent meaning across content. So the Tamarian equivalent would be "Foreman Albert the dusted black, sweeping Berlin" without knowing who Foreman Albert was or what it meant by being dusted black all you can do is directly translate the common nouns. And it would have a completely different meaning than "Foreman Albert the dusted black, sweeping London" even though they share everything but the location proper noun. Albert in Berlin phrase would translate to an honorific or job title, where Albert in London would mean bad cockney accents and coordinated dance numbers with chimney-sweeps, or more likely "beauty from a humble source". Without the UT having the cultural reference point of Tamarian Mary Poppins, how could it incorporate the dance styles of Dick Van Dyke into it's translated meaning.

We see Darmok, Temba, and Uzani are all used in phrases that mean contradictory things, so the UT can't extrapolate their meaning from previous usage. It translates all the common nouns just fine, but the meaning of the common nouns that are used to create a sentence have not direct bearing on the meaning of the sentence. In fact the common nouns have little to no use in the sentence beyond reference indexes to the meaning within a story. The closest human equivalent would be listening to Catholic priests arguing in biblical verse:

PRIEST 1: Jeremiah 29:11
PRIEST 2: Acts 17:11
PRIEST 1: But Philippians 4:19!
PRIEST 2: Romans 10:17!
BISHOP: James 1:3
PRIEST 1 & 2: Oh! yes, James 1:3.

Without knowledge of what those names and numbers signify there is no extrapolation of meaning.

  • 3
    I like this answer the best. Reading trans-literated languages can be very difficult, especially when a lot of idioms are used. That said, why was the universal translator having trouble with Tamarians, but not other languages? Aug 21 '14 at 19:31
  • 10
    Because other languages don't speak in nothing but idioms. The German example is translatable because it is made of common nouns. However the Tamarian version would be all proper nouns like "Albert the dusted black, sweeping Berlin". Aug 21 '14 at 19:36
  • 2
    +1 for making me think units of measurement are awesome again, like when I was but a child. Well done!
    – BrianH
    Aug 21 '14 at 20:59
  • @JDB There are a couple times in DS9 when the Universal Translator messes up Human -> Bajoran and does a literal translation of an idiom. The characters just take it in stride and explain it. I imagine for them it's rather like how we have to sometimes repeat ourselves when there's static on a phone call
    – Izkata
    Aug 21 '14 at 23:29
  • I don't see how "head district chimney sweep" is analogous to the Tamarian way of expressing themselves. "head district chimney sweep" comprises of common words, as you say, and hence is more of a counterexample that is in fact not analogous to how the Tamarians speak. Aug 22 '14 at 7:35

According to the short story "Friends With the Sparrows", the Tamarians use a different language for technical matters:

In fields such as engineering and programming, a musical language was used to convey precise equations, numbers and instructions; thus explaining how Tamarians could effectively operate starships.

Memory Alpha Reference

  • 6
    In other words this author thought of the same problem and came up with a quick nonsense excuse. Which is why we love Star Trek and its Heisenburg compensators.
    – Paul
    Aug 22 '14 at 15:43
  • 1
    It's no more nonsense than the concept of the Tamarians is, particularly considering the author has participated in all(?) of the ST anthologies plus a dozen ST novels. While ST canon is generally considered to only include the episodes and movies, Friends With the Sparrows is as close to a canon answer as you're going to get for this question.
    – Brian S
    Aug 22 '14 at 16:29

This is all inference and guess work. I doubt there is a canon answer. I'll re-watch the episode and refine my answer but I don't think it's possible to move beyond conjecture.

By referencing other times a similar problem had occurred.

The references we saw in the show would likely have been the most broad, widely known stories the Tamarians knew. As I recall, when attempting to translate, the Enterprise computer describe a character as being from folklore of that region of space. They were using the most widely known stories they could in hopes the Enterprise crew would recognize the story and understand.

But just as a specific field on Earth will have technical jargon associated with it, a Tamarian field would have associated stories. Captain Dathon might not know the story of a young engineer who calibrated the emitter too low with dire consequences, but you can bet his engineering staff does.

They didn't speak ENTIRELY in reference.

Speaking entirely in reference would, as you pointed out, be impractical. Sometimes a situation is unprecedented (This would create a new story.) Sometimes you need precision. In which case details would probably be provided in addition to a story. They are clearly able adapt, as they did in the end, by adding "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel." But they would almost probably start from the most relevant story they know and add details from there.

Don't think of it as they can only speak in reference. Think of it being how their mind works. They view everything around them from the frame of reference of their stories.

The No Fun answer

In the end, it's just another cool sci-fi idea that doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. A race that was so mentally inflexible that they couldn't get around the other side not knowing their legends probably couldn't function. At least not at a high enough level for spaceships.

But it's a really damn cool idea, so I'm willing to let it slide!

  • 2
    +1 for covering the other oft-made complaint about the episode: how was folklore from elsewhere relevant to understanding the Tamarian language? I think you may have hit on the intent of the writers, as the Tamarians were clearly trying to facilitate communication, and thus would speak simply, just like we would.
    – trlkly
    Aug 22 '14 at 14:14
  • Speaking entirely "in reference" would indeed make it difficult to teach children how to speak. Meanings would be very ambiguous. Aug 23 '14 at 14:11

Let's imagine a situation where Jack and Jill invent mathematics.

Jack has an apple. Jill has an apple. Jack gives Jill his apple, because reasons. They reference this event as "Jack and Jill at The Hill. Jack, his stomach full. Jill, her hunger great." Perhaps they even reference Temba as they talk to each other, who knows. They shorten this story to "Jack and Jill, lunchtime at The Hill."

One day Jill needs to defend herself against a vampire, because reasons. She has one stick, but requires another to form a cross, which always repels vampires. She references their earlier story to Jack -- "LUNCHTIME AT THE HILL LUNCHTIME AT THE HILL" and points at the stick near Jack. He tosses it to her. She drives off the vampire. Then she gives the stick back.

This situation can spawn many stories -- one of them being "that time we realized that it's helpful to say 'I need two of this thing'" and gets its own label. "Jill, preparing a weapon at The Hill." We've seen Dathon step through a story before -- he does so in an effort to walk Picard through the narrative of Darmok and Jalad -- so we know that Tamarians are not ignorant to the concept of telling a story one scene at a time. Therefore we know they are capable of introspection; a story has a beginning, middle, and end, and each part of it can be used to service communication of specific events.

So this aspect of the story represents, conceptually, 'one thing needing one more thing' or 'one plus one'. And perhaps "Jill, retiring her weapon" can be giving the stick back; returning what's rightfully someone else's; it can also be 'one minus one'.

From these humble beginnings spring the basics of mathematics. The necessity of communicating "two plus two" comes after enough repetition and refinement of the original process of doing so, as in the progressive story of Jack and Jill at the Hill.

The nature of the language of the Children of Tama encapsulates referencing complex situations to convey a message. There is little difference between describing such a rich series of events, or a drudgery of wasted effort, and a complex mathematical procedure.

For example -- I could say "Descartes, his line on a graph." and we could (potentially) understand the process as a reference to y = mx + b. The math needed to do the work would have been conveyed previously through other educational process; just as we cannot start children with slope-intercept form in kindergarten, so too would a member of the Children of Tama require reference. But, as illustrated, it only takes one instance of "that time we did that thing" to convey basic math (1 + 1, 1 - 1) and the rest is simply an issue of repeated exposure and history. The story of Isaac Newton and the apple allegedly gave birth to his theory of gravity; if our culture's stories were adapted to speak to the Tamarians, this story could be referenced during conversations of physics. "Newton, when the apple fell."

We assume the precision of our conversation is in the specificity of each word, or each sentence, but really our language is replete with its own built-in imagery -- we just don't lean on it quite as Tamarians do.

None of this is canon of course, but it is simply meant to describe that it is not impossible or beyond simple scrutiny to see that it's just a question of linguistic building blocks. (Besides, you didn't ask for canon, you asked "how could it be so?" and this is one such method.)

  • 1
    Very interesting answer, +1.
    – BenjaminJB
    Aug 21 '14 at 20:26
  • 3
    Indeed, interesting, +1. It does beg the question, though, why the universal translator would have any problem with that. Why (or possibly how) can it recognize that the phrase "Descartes, his line on a graph" is composed of single words with a single meaning such as "his", "on" or "graph" - where do they come from, does the Tamarian language have such non-metaphorical words after all? Wouldn't the UT rather (well, assuming it could possibly work for all other languages we have encountered on ST) figure out that the "word" "descarteshislineonagraph" is the Tamarian term for a straight line? Aug 22 '14 at 7:44
  • That would require a lot of subtlety. Even forgetting the 'magic' of instant lang-to-lang communication, it would need to know when the contents of the language were meant to be *re-*reinterpreted. While the Enterprise's computer does an incredible job of managing context, how should it know that an entity is speaking in metaphor? Identifying by race? Phonics? Suppose a Tamarian learns Klingon; would she be bound to communicate via stories of Kahless? When does "Temba, his arms wide" mean "I offer what I hold" or "I offer a nearby item" or "take what's in the cargo bay"?
    – Stick
    Aug 27 '14 at 2:31

This is discussed at length in the short story "Friends With the Sparrows" from the EU anthology "The Sky's the Limit".

Broadly, alongside their the normal speech, the Tamarians use pitch and intonation, gestural and body-language cues (as well as writing) to communicate specific meaning. When it comes to complex science, they literally sing maths to each other.

It fascinated her to study Sofia Borges’s work on the Tamarian language. Deanna recalled Picard describing how he had divined the meanings of Dathon’s phrases from context, tone, and body language. The Tamarians, it seemed, did the same on a much deeper level. As with Mandarin or Betelgeusian, variations of meaning and syntax were communicated through pitch. Body language and gesture conveyed other specifics much like a sign language. Borges’s insight had enabled the revision of universal translator protocols to record these tonal and gestural cues—often too subtle for most humanoids to read—and gain a fuller translation as a result. She’d also recognized how integral their written language was to their communication, particularly where mathematics, science, and engineering were concerned. Though the emphasis was different, the Tamarians saw writing as an extension of their normal communication. Their language was one of symbols and images, and that had always included physical symbols, whether ritual objects or written markings, as much as verbal or gestural ones.

One of the most intriguing things was how closely their mathematical notation was tied to their musical notation. Borges had recordings of Tamarian engineers and programmers literally singing equations and instructions to one another. Even in ordinary speech, numerical information could be conveyed through the pitch of a Tamarian’s vocal harmonics, though it could be hard for human ears to discern the nuances. (This answered the infamous question one linguist had posed to illustrate the apparent limitations of Tamarian as a practical language: “Mirab-his-sails-unfurled factor what, sir?”)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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