Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Linguist's bad joke or Accidental Prophecy?

Dear Gene,

I was browsing through Touchstone Magazine and happened upon a meditation occasioned by the DesiLu-era Star Trek episode The Mark of Gideon— you know, the one1 that seeks to contradict my Sci-Fi-Coolness Test, and fails on account of starships can move people and space is huge...

Raedy's Touchstone piece circumstantially connects Mark of Gideon with that dear encyclical Humanae Vitae, to which it seems to allude by popular caricature. And musing on this notion ­— that popular discourse takes place not on the level but by indirection, by repetition of stories misremembered... I was suddenly reminded of the Paramount-era Star Trek:The Next Generation episode, Darmok.

Darmok is a story that Linguists and Psychologists love to tear apart, on the grounds that If a "Universal Translator" is supposed to parse the Underlying Semantics via the Universality of Grammar, and If These Particular Aliens are actually communicating something other than the folktales when they quote their folktales, Then the Quotations are the actual Words that will be Translated, so they should come out sounding like ordinary conversation.

The preceding dismissal misses some important technical technological questions: for instance, if we know that "Darmok" is the name of a hero of legends through several solar systems, then we also know that What These Aliens are speaking sounds very like a language we already know (can you distinguish Romulan from Vulcan?). The "Universal" Translator decides that it is one of these understood languages, and then gives us the translation as if from that language. If the Translator didn't do that, if it were (like Douglas Adams' Babelfish) a mind-reading device, then spies would be immediately found out: no-one could ever talk in word-code... no-one could ever lie.

But more: what Gideon makes clear by being itself a bad example is that when we ponder and argue, often enough it is not in words-as-such and logic, but in long narrative and brief allusion, in innuendo and heartstring play. We already suffer Darmok Syndrome.

Scott King, in Neutralia



1) there are others that ignore the sci-fi coolness principle altogether... what can one do?

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