December 21st, 2006

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Science fiction; the Universal Language-Muddler....

Yesterday I recommended the Tensor's discussion of the linguistics in the "Darmok" Star Trek episode [at ], and was rewarded with a batch [a flock? a passel? a mess? a bunch?] of excellent and interesting comments; thank you.

For me, the part of the Tensor's discussion that most drew my attention was this sentence:

"What's more, the UT evidently does partly work, which means it's successfully reading the Tamarian's minds—so when the captain thinks, 'Failure!', but says (in Tamarese), 'Shaka, when the walls fell', why would it produce a gloss of the spoken sentence instead of, you know, a translation?"

The Tensor is absolutely right that "Shaka, when the walls fell" doesn't constitute a translation, and it's a telling point. A morpheme-by-morpheme rendering of a sentence in Language X is often extremely interesting, especially to linguists. Michael Farris posted an example of one of those linguicritters in a comment; it went like this:

"Subject-first-person-plural-exclusive-subject propose-indicative object-sentential firstperson-plural-exclusive addition-coordinate second-person-plural-include-not-present meet-sequential-habitual-hortative goal-subject-previous-index-transfer-reciprocal object-non-tangible-experience-knowledge goal-sentential subject- first-person-plural-inclusive-internal-reciprocal acquire-unrealized knowledge."

Imagine that as a line of dialogue on an episode of Star Trek; imagine the ratings if more than one or two lines like that were inflicted on the viewers. It would have been an interesting plot, especially if it had resulted in someone in the crew saying "Good heavens! That's not a translation, that's a morpheme-by-morpheme rendering of the utterance! Back to the drawing board with that so-called Universal Translator!" But that didn't happen. [She says wistfully.]

That sort of rendering is a useful tool for producing a translation, and one of the most useful tools for teaching grammar and linguistics, but for a linguist of my denomination it doesn't qualify as a translation. A translation of an utterance of Language X into Language Y is, for me, the equivalent utterance in Language Y -- the utterance that a native speaker of Language Y would use in the same context.

It's interesting and instructive to know that the literal rendering of a Navajo utterance (leaving out a lot of the pieces that Michael Farris included in his example) is "The horse was animaling-about with me" and that the literal rendering of a Hopi utterance is "I was using the horse to move about with" and that the literal rendering of a French utterance is "I was being at the horse" -- and so on. But in every one of those instances, the translation of the utterance into English would be the utterance a native speaker of English would use in the same context: "I was riding a horse." [The context is in response to the question "What were you doing yesterday afternoon?", when the person answering the question has spent the previous afternoon on horseback.]

I agree with those of you who say that all of this is irrelevant to whether you enjoyed the "Darmok" episode or not, and I agree with everyone who says that Star Trek's writers were only being practical and moving the story along. Quite right. But calling the gizmo a Universal Translator was, in my opinion, a mistake. It needed a name like "Universal Communication Aid" or something of that kind, just to preserve the idea that Star Trek was science fiction rather than a fairy tale.
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Conestoga podcast

In an installment of my report on Conestoga 2006 back in August [at ] I mentioned having done a podcast, and there were comments asking for the link. At that time, it didn't exist. But this morning I got an e-mail from Chris Merle saying that the podcast has been posted to the Net, with this link --

and with a direct link to mp3 file -- .

I sincerely hope I didn't say anything in that podcast that any of you would find offensive. I don't remember, and my computer isn't equipped to let me listen to it to find out. It was live and unrehearsed, and I got so interested in the discussion I was having with Elspeth Bloodgood that I completely forgot I was being recorded. If I offended anyone with anything I said, I apologize; please let me know what you object to, and I'll do my best to explain what I meant and why I said it.