I’m not entirely sure why this occupied my mind this morning, but it did, so I thought I’d type it up.
My dad’s favorite episode ever of Star Trek: the Next Generation was one in which Picard findshimself stranded on a planet with an alien he can’t communicate. It’s not that they don’t share a common language; as is the case in most episodes of Star Trek, everyone and everything speaks the Queen’s English (or Starfleet’s English).
No, the problem is that while the alien’s individual words might be decipherable, the underlying meaning of them is not. The reason is that the alien speaks in nothing but literary analogies alluding to myths from his own culture. Without having a grounding in the culture of the alien, Picard can make no sense of koan-like sayings, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.”
Eventually, Data and the trusty Enterprise computer figure out where this alien comes from and provide Picard with a Wikipedia-esque understanding of the characters and situations the alien makes reference to, and this allows communication to take place. Picard even creates his own version of this language, using phrases from his own culture's repository of literary allusions, such as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.” Not only does this newfound common language of analogy allow Picard and his companion to defeat a monstrous beast that attacks them, but to forge a bond between themselves and their cultures.