“Darmok,” the 102nd episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a longtime favorite among both Trekkies and linguists. Case in point: the first time I saw it wasn’t on TV but in a linguistic anthropology class at the University of Minnesota. In the episode, Picard and the Enterprise crew encounter the Children of Tama, who speak entirely in metaphors and references—a system that stumps the Trek world’s universal translator, which can only translate the literal meaning of the words.
Last month, I was in Chicago for the American Copy Editors Society conference, where I attended (among many other great talks) a session on conlangs led by Sea Chapman. Unsurprisingly, “Darmok” came up during the presentation—so unsurprisingly, in fact, that Chapman had a prize ready to hand out to the first audience member to mention it. It led to some impassioned conversation about the episode and the Tamarian language among the audience members, including fellow conference presenter James Harbeck, an editor trained in linguistics, who made this great point: “Language doesn’t work that way, but memes sure do.”
As an editor, I think a lot about the ways things like texting and Internet speak have affected language. Despite what some people might think about editors, most of us aren’t stuffy academics clutching our pearls over the horror of people using “lol” and ignoring grammar rules online. At that same conference, editors from BuzzFeed showed PowerPoint presentations filled with GIFs, and Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski talked about the lexicography of phrases like “thirst trap” and “dumpster fire.”
I’d never thought about the connection between memes and “Darmok” before, but in a classic case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I saw a tweet by Lux Alptraum later that day referencing the exact same thing.
ME, AT 9, WATCHING DARMOK: How could a culture communicate in entirely in pop culture references? That doesn’t make sense!
ME, 35: kanyesmile.gif
— Lux ?? Alptraum (@LuxAlptraum) April 28, 2018
It stuck in my brain, and I got in touch with Harbeck to talk more about it. “The Darmok and Jalad episode bothered me when I first saw it years ago because that’s not a plausible fully functioning language,” he told me. “The first thing that struck me when I watched it—I believe I saw it the first time it aired—was ‘How do they learn it?’”
It’s a fair point: how do you learn the references the first time if you have no language to describe them besides the references themselves? According to Memory Alpha, a short story in the Star Trek anthology The Sky’s the Limit later explained that Tamarian children learned the stories by seeing them acted out. But even if that’s enough to get the point across, you’re still missing ways to talk about certain really specific or concrete things. As Harbeck put it, “How in hell do you build spaceships or innovate in any real way if the language is made only of these lexicosemantic icebergs?”
More plausible, he says, would be if the references used in the episode weren’t meant to be the Tamarians’ entire language but something like a ceremonial register—for example, a type of language only used for diplomacy. This would definitely be more similar to the way we use memes, since they’re only a part of our language and not an entire language in and of themselves. Just like you need to know the story of Shaka for “Shaka, when the walls fell” to make any sense to you, a lot of memes won’t mean anything if you don’t have the background. Most also have their own syntax and format conventions—and when a corporate social media account gets them wrong, the failed attempt ends up in /r/fellowkids (whose name is itself, of course, a meme reference).
For more insight, I reached out to “Internet linguist” Gretchen McCulloch, who specializes in the language of online spaces—her book on the topic, Because Internet, is coming in 2019 from Riverhead Books. She agreed that a language made up only of references isn’t too likely. “I don’t think it’s a terribly practical language to exist,” McCulloch says. “It’s not terribly good for communicating new ideas, or communicating things you don’t already have an idiom for, whereas one of the things that is key for language is that it’s compositional, which means you can put together smaller pieces to talk about something you’ve never seen before.”
That said, it’s clear to her why the idea is so appealing as a fictional story line. “I think the reason the Darmok episode makes for compelling television is that it draws on something that we do already and just takes it to a more heightened extreme,” she says. “You could say things like ‘A bird in the hand,’ and you don’t even need to say the full quote. . . . It has a very Darmokian flavor to it.”
McCulloch adds, “I think there’s a tendency to overstate how much of this is uniquely Internet based.” Memes, she points out, are really just an extension of an existing type of communication into another medium. “People used to quote different things. People used to quote a lot more Bible references, and now you can’t necessarily assume that the average Western person is familiar with the majority of the Bible or is familiar with Shakespeare beyond the Shakespeare that’s made its way into everyday conversation.”
Still, at least anecdotally, it seems like memes have taken this type of communication a step further—turned it up to 11, you might say. It’s true that people can and do have whole conversations in references or quotes (most of us had friends in high school who could throw Monty Python quotes back and forth forever, or were those friends ourselves), but that’s generally for the sake of the quotes themselves or enjoying shared knowledge of a fandom rather than for the purposes of actually communicating information. In these contexts, it’s in some ways more like playing questions in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead than it is like Dathon talking to Picard.
Although the same is often true for online conversations that happen entirely in image macros or reaction GIFs, people also use this format to communicate new information and unique ideas. There are limits, of course—just like with Tamarian, it’s hard to get particularly specific or concrete about things unless you happen to have the pitch-perfect reference for your particular context, and someone else understanding you usually relies on their knowledge of the memes you’re using. On the other hand, some memes, especially reaction GIFs, make sense even if you don’t know the source material. You don’t necessarily need to be a Simpsons fan or to have seen the 1994 source episode to get what the GIF of Homer backing away into the bushes is saying. Unlike Tamarian, in some cases this can actually make it easier rather than harder for people who speak different languages to communicate; even if they don’t understand each other’s spoken language, they can get the visuals.
Another big difference between referencing a quote and using a meme is that a lot of memes are meant to be changed to fit their own context. That’s not to say you can’t tweak a quote to fit your own purposes—just ask any news editor who has ever written a headline playing on “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”—but many memes are created specifically for that purpose. “Memes are constantly being modified. That’s the real point of a meme: it combines a cultural reference with new content that makes a different reference,” Harbeck says. “It accomplishes what Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, called bisociation: creation by finding the intersection of two different things. What they’re doing in the ST:TNG episode is really more exactly like throwing around quotes.”
McCulloch also notes that “Darmok” isn’t the only sci-fi story with a similar concept. China Miéville’s 2011 novel Embassytown, for one, features a people who (among other unique characteristics) make extensive use of similes, but it goes a bit further than Star Trek. In Miéville’s story, the Ariekei’s language doesn’t allow for lying, meaning that all similes have to be based on real events—leading to the bizarre practice of recruiting people to stage “literal similes” when someone decides they need another stock phrase to express what they want to say.
In the real world, whether it’s memes, idioms, or Monty Python quotes, it seems like a safe bet that making references will stay firmly embedded in our language and culture indefinitely. Just remember: the Internet isn’t ruining language—it’s helping it evolve.
You can hear more from James Harbeck on his blog, Sesquiotica, or follow him on Twitter at @sesquiotic. Gretchen McCulloch (@GretchenAMcC) cohosts the monthly podcast Lingthusiasm, which is also on Twitter at @lingthusiasm.