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Trek vs Languages // did you know Worf speaks Russian?

October 1, 2014

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This is a drum I’ve been beating for some time, but it’s a pretty huge flaw in Trek, at least to me.

What languages are being spoken? Why don’t we hear more of them? How can they read or write English if they speak different languages? Does Kira translate everything on the monitors from Cardassian into Bajoran? Why does everything seem to be in English? Why can’t they show Kira looking at a station report in Bajoran just once?

I guess it’s not that big a deal, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity. Remember Darmok? Remember that episode of ‘Enterprise’ where Scott Bakula’s translator broke down and he couldn’t understand the human-looking alien woman?

I like this kind of drama and, really, I wish there had been more of it. As well as more explanations given about how the universal translator actually works.

I mean, let’s look at this logically.

The Universal Translator is accessible to everyone on Earth, it seems. That means it’s unnecessary to learn another language except your native tongue.

Right?

Why do people learn English as a second language?

Some might do it for fun or because they love the culture, but I know from personal experience of teaching in Japan and Hong Kong that most of my students learn it because it’s useful. Not just useful, it’s vital, assuming you want to travel to other countries in the world.

Why are people queuing up to learn Mandarin now?

Same reason, mostly.

So if, in the Trek Universe, the universal translator makes second language learning irrelevant, what languages are all the characters speaking to each other?

Let’s take DS9 as an example:

Sisko

The guy’s American so he speaks English, so there’s nothing much weird about that. He’s learning Bajoran, or how to read and write it so he can decipher those ancient prophecies, but we never hear him say any.

Why did they never show him having a lesson? That would’ve been a nice touch. Maybe around Season 4, when he started to like the idea of being the Emissary. Ah well, it’s not that important.

Major Kira

She must speak Bajoran, though she rarely slips into her native tongue like the Klingons or the Romulans do.

Hang on…

Why do we not hear Bajoran when she talks to Kai Winn? They’re both Bajoran, they must be speaking Bajoran, there’s no one else around listening to them…so why are we hearing English?

I don’t know. I really don’t. Apart from the fact it’s an American TV show and they’re the people who re-made the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden, with Swedish characters speaking English with a weird-fake Swedish accent. Also Memoirs of a Geisha, all Asian characters, all in English. Are subtitles really that bad?

Odo

This guy [blob?] must be good at absorbing all languages as he’s a changeling and that’s what they do, though he must be more used to Cardassian and Bajoran having lived among them for so long.

Actually, thinking about it…how you can absorb a language? Does it even make sense? You can physically mimic something, yes, but how can you replicate and know the meanings of a language system?

Guesswork?

I wish Odo had explained this to someone…it would’ve been one of the first questions I would’ve asked him…why did no one else think the same? Garak perhaps?

Worf

Ah, Worf…this guy is the one that really makes no sense at all, not unless they do some pretty major filling in of his childhood e.g. did he go to a Klingon language school?

The facts are these: Worf was rescued from Khitomer as a child…I think he was 2-3 years old…so he would’ve spoken baby Klingon up to that point. My Mum was born in Malaysia and stayed there until she was four, speaking Malay as her first language…now she can barely speak a word. Worf surely must be a similar case.

Then he was raised in Minsk, Belarus, which meant his native language would’ve become either Russian or Belarusian. It would be very arrogant to assume everyone would speak English as a first language in the 24th Century, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll assume that, when the universal translator was invented, people just stuck to their native language and forgot all others.

Worf had no access to other Klingons throughout his childhood, and went to the Klingon homeworld once when he was a teenager, I think. He did study Klingon a lot, and there were probably many resources for him to use at that time, but surely, without speaking to real Klingons, his Klingonese would’ve been a bit off…or not even fluent. I mean, I can learn Cantonese from a tape or podcast, but it’s not the same as speaking to a real person who’s native in that language.

So…why did they never show Worf’s Klingonese being a bit shit? It would’ve worked thematically too, as he would’ve been seen as even more of an outsider.

Just one scene, that’s all it needed…one Klingon asking him why his words sounded so funny…

Also, would Worf really be able to speak English so fluently? Is he even speaking it in TNG or DS9?

Logically, if everyone speaks their native tongue then he must be speaking Russian or Belarusian.

How great would it have been if he had slipped into Russian every now and then?

Quark

Quark speaks Ferengi, but seems capable of reading Cardassian and probably some other languages too.

Like in that episode ‘Little Green Men’, where him, Rom and Nog crash in Roswell, 1947 and their universal translators don’t work [at first]. From this episode, we know that everyone speaks their own language at all times, and it only takes one universal translator to be understood i.e. the 1947 humans don’t need one to understand Ferengi as long as Quark has his translator turned on.

So why the hell can Klingons slip back into Klingonese whenever they like? That’s what it always comes back to. How?

I’m not sure what my point is now…

I guess I just wanted to say, isn’t it weird that Worf’s first language is Russian?

Anything else?

The Breen

Probably one of the best story choices in DS9, countering the ludicrous allotting of screen time to Vic Fontaine and his show tunes…I love the idea that we can’t understand what they’re saying. It works, I think, on two levels:

1] It adds to the sense of mystery of the Breen…big men in metal suits who made a Klingon fleet disappear without explanation.

2] The responses of Damar and Weyoun make you realise they’re quite abrupt as a species…possibly even swearing, which is something Trek can never allow. It’s a nice way to circumvent these restrictions, and Ron Moore would go on to do something similar in BSG, with the ‘frack’ substitute.

Children of Tama

I’m done with these guys. Nice episode concept, but doesn’t make an inch of sense.

Garak

Can speak Romulan and Klingon and probably a few other languages too, though it’s not clear why he needed to know those languages. Picard and Data didn’t need to know them when they infiltrated Romulus…

Dax

Trill, though I’ve never heard her say any. I guess, like most other Starfleet graduates, she speaks English too.

Starfleet graduates

Do they have to learn English? Why should English function as the language of instruction for an institution that is supposed to encompass over 200 worlds and treat each one equally?

Actually, what is the difference between Starfleet and the Federation? Is Starfleet just the human space exploration outfit? If so, why do so many aliens want to join it?

Morn

Who knows?

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