Baboon Pirates

Scribbles and Scrawls from an unrepentant swashbuckling primate.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"Darmok And Jelad At Tanagra"

The Future Is Sooner Then You Think

The title is from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called 'Darmok'.  It's a reference to a repeated line by an alien captain throughout the episode.  The aliens, called the Tamarians, speak solely in metaphor.  Each phrase condenses a brief snippet of their history, and by this shared knowledge, they can communicate.

The problem is, if you don't know their history, you're not able to comprehend the meaning behind the phrase.   It's like if I said "Carl Spackler with the ball washer!"  If you've seen the movie 'Caddyshack', you immediately think of Spackler saying "I see you, Mrs. Crane, you lean, mean little monkey woman!" as he pumps away.  If you haven't seen the flick, you're just shit outta luck...

This is the dilemma faced by Picard in the episode, and he eventually deduces enough of the meaning to break the ice with the Tamarians, so to speak.

After the episode aired, me and a couple of Trekkie buddies used to argue for hours over the logic behind the plot.  Could a language evolve to consist only of metaphorical phrases?  How did you maintain the grammar and sentence structure without the ability to freely use nouns & verbs? How much help would ST's "universal translator" be?  Are the Damarians borrowing another language's words and substituting their own meaning?

As I said previously, the arguments went on for hours.  I was dabbling in linguistics at the time, quick to wave around the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and linguistic determinism.  My buddy Boo-Boo was a polymath at Rice U., multi-lingual and ready to throw down with structuralism and epistemology.  You could also dip your wick in the mixing bowl of semiotics, existentialism and structural anthropology.

So, why bring all this up?

Because it occurred to me that we're the Tamarians.  Or, we could very easily become them  We've got a good headstart at replacing a sizeable chunk of our spoken and written language with networked memes.

F'rinstance, try these on for size:

Each one is a snippet from pop culture, or has become one thanks to the Internet.  Each one has a backstory, and a shared meaning.  Not every internet user will be familiar with all of them, (or even most), but if you spend time on message boards, chat rooms, humor sites and so on, the meanings are as clear as if I'd posted something like this:

So, I propose that instead of "Temba, his arms wide!" or "Shaka, when the walls fell!", we instead have "Shut up and take my money!" and the wisdom of Good Guy Greg.