The Information: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

Gallery sitting has finally afforded me time for my Summer reading.  Today I began “The Information” by James Gleick.

Chapter 1.  Drums that Talk

The first chapter of The Information discusses both the development of Morse Code and the communicative mechanisms behind the “Talking Drums of Africa.”  While Morse Code is essentially an alphabet, the drums in this story are based on the up-tick and down-tick of spoken language.  This was very exciting to read as I realized the nature of a language that’s founded upon intonations rather than the sounds of syllables.  In other words, when we ask a question in English (and many other languages) there’s an up-tick at the end of our sentence. The intonation signifies only the purpose of the statement, not the actual statement.  In the languages used by these particular African groups, up-ticks can be used to change the meaning of a word entirely.  For example, “lisaka” is a puddle whereas “lisa-KA” is a promise.

This language makes it possible to communicate via up-ticks and down-ticks alone, therefore one can develop a technique for drumming with up-ticks and down-ticks.  However, a problem arises as many words share the same pattern of up-ticks and down-ticks.  How is this problem solved?  This is where Star Trek: The Next Generation fits in.

In Darmok (quite possibly my favorite Star Trek episode, ever) Captain Picard is beamed to a planet by an alien species to share an adventure with the captain of the alien vessel. Marooned on the planet, Picard is left to decipher his new colleague’s language.  This language is rooted entirely in metaphor.  Based on mythologies and historical figures, if one does not know the back story, one cannot understand the language.  This is an interesting method of maintaining a historical and social lexicon as it’s ingrained in the fundamental communication of a people (or species.)

Bringing this conversation back to the “Talking Drums of Africa,” the use of metaphor is extremely important in deciphering what word is actually meant by the series of up and down-ticks.  Rather than simply saying, “A healthy baby girl has been born,” the drumbeat will dictate, “The mats are rolled up, we feel strong, a woman came from the forest, she is in the open village, that is enough for this time.”  As you can see, the language becomes dependent upon context.  The individual words are clarified by the complete grouping of words.  Much like a slot machine, one must wait until each word option falls into place at the conclusion of a statement.

In yet another pop culture reference, I’m reminded of Ralphie’s decoder ring in A Christmas Story.  The message isn’t completely clear until one has received, and deciphered all of the components.

Anyway, in my self-indulgent nerdery, I couldn’t help but equate an amazing academic discussion to my junior high school intellectual development nourished by Star Trek and sentimental storytelling. Likewise, I think Ralphie’s enthusiastic code-breaking, only to find a “crummy commercial” is very topical.  It seems today we must rely on ourselves to find and create puzzles to solve. Unfortunately, there’s a motive behind nearly every puzzle.  If we hope to communicate clearly and effectively,we must look to those who simply want to communicate, not those who hope to convince us.  This is the ultimate goal of the Tamarian captain when he beams Captain Picard to the planet beneath the orbiting starships.  The goal is to share an experience, and ultimately to open a line of communication.  I hope I’m not being too naive in thinking we can still make the distinction between requests and offerings.

For more information on the Tamarian language (from Star Trek TNG) see the this link: Memory Alpha

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