Last year I did a short post about the allusive Darmok language used on an episode of Star Trek. I should have waited, because the Tensor has done a thorough analysis that will leave you convinced the idea wasn’t even half baked. His conclusion:

It’s not that a language made up entirely out of allusions is unworthy of fictional exploration. Raphael Carter suggests Tamarese is similar to the language of the Ascians in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and I wonder if either of these might have been inspired by the four-character idioms that famously give students of Chinese so much trouble. But stories about such a language-of-allusions just don’t fit into the Star Trek universe because it can’t be squared with the Universal Translator.

See his post for details, which you will enjoy if you (like the Tensor and myself) are an aficionado of both sf and language—speaking of which, see this post at The Millions if you’re interested in my books-of-the-year recommendations, one of which is Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. (Note to self: must read Gene Wolfe’s novels.)


  1. Allusive. Good word. Sort of like elusive and also sounds the same.

  2. Oh, please. One of the two most universally admired TNG episodes is ‘not even half-baked’?
    First, it’s a TV SHOW, not an encyclopedia entry: the show’s objective is to entertain. By intriguing, the episode is clearly a sterling success.
    Second, the whole thesis of the episode is the ability to communicate via metaphor. Applying an analysis that faults the episode based on internal sf logical faults is the equivalent of dismissing the episode due to the premise of faster-than-light drive.
    Third, if we accept the idea of communication via allusion, via metaphor, then we can clearly recognize a meta-level to the premise of the story. Picard and the alien captain did not discuss Darmok and Enkidu AT ALL. The references that Picard heard and that the alien heard were not at all the references we see in the episode. The writers, as they do in any future-oriented SF, can only translate their concepts of not-now into expressions we grasp allusively as now.
    The episode is not merely baked, it is a triumph of he souffle-maker’s art.

  3. michael farris says

    Actually the Darmok _language_ (as a language) seemed pretty amenable to the UT.
    But Darmok ideas about appropriate modes of communication was what stymied the mostly human crew of the Enterprise.
    And right here on Earth we get plenty examples of that where understanding the words and how they’re put together does not give the non-native user enough information to understand the message.

  4. FWIW, the languages of the Ascians is clearly based on the Chinese quoting from Mao’s “little red book”, not on four-character idioms (which Wolfe probably didn’t know about at the time).

  5. mike: The attack is not on the show itself but specifically on the idea of the language and the communication problems supposed to result therefrom. And if faster-than-light drive had been thought up specifically for one episode of Star Trek and been hailed as a brilliant invention and people kept writing about what a great idea it was, it would be perfectly in order to devote similar care to pointing out that it was impossible.

  6. It interesting that a sci fi writer could make this kind of thing novel and alien enough to include in his work. Maybe it is intriguing and foreign to people on the edge of the scientific community. Other people take it for granted. Chinese bloggers are working with allusions these days to get past filters, the way courtiers and bureaucrats did for centuries to get past the censors. And in Ireland this kind of conversation is a folk art. The English seem to like it too.

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