Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 13: Darmok Day

Today is the birthday of British actor Patrick Stewart, best known for his role as Jean-Luc Picard the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).

Born in 1940, the son of a career soldier, Stewart became interested in drama at an early age and enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when he was 17. It's during this early training as an actor that he had to change his accent on stage to that of the Received Pronunciation ("Standard English") while maintaining his native Yorkshire dialect when speaking with family and friends.

Although his list of roles on stage and screen are varied and impressive, Stewart will always be remembered for his role on Star Trek. Ironically as an Englishman he had no idea of the importance of the role he was stepping into when he was originally cast in 1987. He soon realized, however, that the American reverence the captain of the Enterprise is virtually equivalent to the British reverence for the throne of England (1).

One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is particularly interesting to students of language. It is an episode from the 1991 season entitled "Darmok."

In this episode the Enterprise encounters an alien race called "The Children of Tama." Captain Picard and his crew are unable to decipher the language of the Tamarians, and as both parties struggle to understand each other, Captain Picard and the Tamarian captain, Dathon, are simultaneously beemed down to the surface of an uninhabited planet, El-Adrel.

Marooned together on the planet, the two captains struggle to communicate. Although they make little progress at first, Picard continues to search for clues to the mystery of the Tamarian tongue.

When the two captains are attacked by a ferocious beast, they team up to fight for their lives. It's during this struggle that Picard makes a communication breakthrough when he realizes that Dathon is communicating abstract ideas via the names of specific people and places in Tamarian history and mythology.

For example, when Dathon says, "Shaka, when the walls fell," he is alluding to a story of failure. Conversely, when Dathon says, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered," he is alluding to a story where understanding and truth are revealed.

Eventually the crew of the Enterprise is successful in beeming Picard back to his ship. At this point he is able to finally communicate with the Tamarian ship and avoid a war that was brewing while he and Dathon were on the planet's surface. Unfortunately Dathon is killed by the beast, but not before Picard comes to the realization that Dathon was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of communication between his people and Picard's. In fact, Dathon attempted to recreate a story from his own mythology by setting up his meeting with Picard. "Darmok and Gilad at Tenagra" is the story of two foes who become friends after fighting a common enemy.

At the end of the episode a new metaphor for mutual understanding is added to the language of both the federation and the Tamarians: "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel."

The "Darmok" episode illustrates the need for imagination when searching for solutions to language barriers. It also illustrates that a language's stories and history can be almost as important as its grammar and syntax. Whether or not an entire language can be built on allusions to stories is debatable; however, there is no doubt that stories are an important part of English. Abstract ideas exist in the mind, but stories put flesh and blood on them, making them concrete. Long before we can read for ourselves, we are told stories and stories are read to us. No one reads us abstract definitions of courage, hope, or wonder; instead, these ideas are clothed in character, dialogue, and plot so that we can see them in action in our minds.

And these stories continue as we grow older, and the stories become embedded in the language as a shorthand means to making the abstract concrete. For example, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis has come to represent the confusion of tongues and the ongoing struggle for communication among people of different cultures and different languages. When you read an article about attempts to translate a language or bridge language barriers, it should be no surprise to see Babel used as a metaphor.

Just as Picard determined the abstract communications of Dathon by understanding the stories of his people, we can search our own literature, history, and mythology for references that have become metaphors for abstract ideas like love, hate, peace, and war.

Today's Challenge: Abstract to Concrete
The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions lists hundreds of allusions, and it neatly organizes them into categories based on abstract ideas and themes. See if you can match up each of the abstract ideas below with one of the eight allusions from history, mythology, and literature listed below:


1. Solomon: The king of ancient Israel.
2. Ozymandias: The imaginary ancient king from a poem by Shelley.
3. Man Friday: The man Crusoe meets on his island in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
4. Dresden: German city on the river Elbe.
5. Styx: The river that flowed through Hades in Greek mythology.
6. Peter Pan: The hero of J.M. Barrie's play.
7. Othello: The main character in Shakespeare's play Othello.
8. Marshall McLuhan: A Canadian writer and thinker (2).

Quote of the Day: To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others. --Anthony Robbins

Answers: 1. wisdom 2. power 3. friendship 4. destruction 5. death 6. youth 7. jealousy 8. communication

1 - Patrick Stewart Network - Biography

2 - The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Edited by Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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