Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

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In his blog Dave has mentioned work on metaphor based command languages; a sort of short form of communication capable between people who share a common understanding of the metaphors used.

Now, I think I understand the point enough to offer up two examples of both the advantages to being able to use metaphor to communicate as well as the often utter lack of comprehension by people who do not understand the metaphor. The title of this post being an example.

The title of this post is a line of dialogue from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode is titled Darmok. The wikipedia entry is good description of the episode. Fundamentally the Enterprise encounters a race which speaks entirely in metaphors based on their folklore. That means that when the aliens speak the crew of the Enterprise can understand every word they say using the Universal Translator…but they can’t understand anything of what they mean. Without knowing the the folklore references the language is essentially meaningless to outsiders. As you might imagine, this makes it extremely difficult for the two races to communicate.

The Star Trek reference shows how difficult it can be to understand metaphor based communications. Another science fiction reference gives us the other side of the coin. In Neal Stephenson‘s latest novel, Anathem, his main character, Fraa Erasmus, is saved from a mob by a group of martial arts experts from an area called the Ringing Vale. After the fight is over Fraa Erasmus has the following conversation with Fraa Osa of the Ringing Vale:

“The mob turned against you–you staged a false retreat and drew them into a trap–then you made them panic.” More smiling and nodding. Fraa Osa simply was in no mood to wax eloquent about any of this. “And how long did you have in which to devise this plan?” I asked him.
“Not long enough.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There is no time in an emergence to think up plans. Much less to communicate them. Instead I told the others that we would emulate Lord Frode’s cavalry at Second Rushy Flats, when they drew out Prince Terazyn’s squadron. Except that the canal edge would substitute for the Tall Canes and that little square would take the place of Bloody Breaks. As you can see it does not take very much time to say these words.”
I nodded as if I had some idea what he was talking about–which I didn’t. I couldn’t even guess which war he was alluding to, in which millennium.

Actually the example from Anathem is an example of how extremely efficient the metaphor based order was for the people who understood the metaphor and how meaningless it was to those who didn’t. I can see the value and look forward to learning more about the concept.