m. c. de marco: The Accidental Conlanger

Shaka, When the Walls Fell: Allusive Languages

This comic at Abstruse Goose has inspired me to leap far ahead into the experimental languages chapter in order to discuss Darmok and Ascian, two allusive languages.

In the fifth season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” Captain Picard struggles to communicate with the alien Tamarians, whose speech consists of pithy kennings like “Shaka, when the walls fell” and “Mirab, his sails unfurled.” (These, and every other line in Darmok, are collected in Raphael Carter’s Darmok Dictionary.) The Universal Translator is no use in deciphering Darmok, so Picard has to learn this allusive language the hard way. By the end of the hour the kennings have been traced to Tamarian myth and Picard is able to avert disaster by swapping kennings with the aliens.

The plot is impeccable, but the technobabble Data spouts to explain the origins of Darmok is not. The trouble is that the kennings are being spoken in some other language which the Universal Translator then translates for us. “Shaka, blah blah blah” becomes “Shaka, when the walls fell.” How is it that the Tamarians, with their allegedly special alien ego structure, can assemble phrases in the underlying language but cannot communicate with Picard in it?

“Darmok” has no good answer to this question, but the suspected ancestor conlang, Ascian, does. In The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe, the restricted, allusive language of the Ascians are attributed to taboo. Ascians speak only phrases out of a fantasy version of Chairman Mao’s little red book, such as “The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows.” These utterances are interpreted by the listener depending on context and other cues. (A few phrases with translation appear in an appendix to the Darmok Dictionary.)

The entire exchange is enough to convince the reader that such a language could be spoken, but then even Darmok was sufficient for that. Ascian trumps Darmok with a convincing reason that an allusive language would be spoken when an underlying normal language is (or was at some point) available. Taboo is a powerful force; the extreme strangeness of Pirahã has been attributed to it, and it should be a consideration whenever you want to impose a language on your characters that no sane person would ever agree to speak.

October 16, 2008