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The Linguistics of Star Trek

Place: the final border! These are the trips of the company of the ship of the star. The relative continuous mission: In order to explore the new disowned worlds. A new lifespan and new civilizations to choose.
For greasy hinfahrt, where nobody went beforehand!

The linguistics of Star Trek are almost as problematic as the physics of Star Trek and the biology of Star Trek. We're asked to believe that they have a "universal translator" machine that smoothly translates the (in real time) the spoken words of a language it's hearing for the first time, spoken by people who presumably have a non-human brain structure under those bumpy foreheads.

Presumably this universal translator isn't scheduled to be invented by Earth technology, because we've definitely got more than a few hundred years of work to do. You would think that translating between human languages, especially in writing, would be much easier -- something our primitive machines could do by the beginning of the 21st century, right? Let's see just how well they can actually do.

According to Star Trek (First Contact), the first words spoken by the first alien to openly set foot on Earth are going to be

Live long and prosper.
Those are spoken in the Vulcan language. I forget whether they are supposed to be unerringly translated into English and other human languages by superior Vulcan technology, or whether the backward Vulcans have to wait for us to invent the universal translator. If that's the case, they may have a long wait. Right now, an attempt to automatically translate those words between two human languages (English to Japanese to English) yields
You have lived, it is long, it prospers.
At least he didn't say
Take me to your leader.
which, translated from English to a relatively closely related language (French) and back, becomes
Carry me to your starter.
Via Spanish and Korean, it becomes
It must in its tape starting and go.

Now, German is about as close to English as you can get, and yet

Greetings, people of Earth.
comes out as
Greetings, people of mass.
and some cultures are sensitive about their weight.

It's amazing how much confidence Katherine Janeway -- as the Captain of a lone Federation starship trying to get her crew home safely, and constantly making first contact with new aliens in the Delta Quadrant -- places in her universal translator. She counts on it to faithfully translate her every nuance into the speech of aliens it's speaking to for the first time. Even in introducing herself, it's obvious that she has no doubt that any alien civilization that has invented the warp drive must run their ships with a quasi-military hierarchy and have a word equivalent to what "captain" means in her language.* We can assume it has a special dictionary entry for the Federation phrase "star ship," so that the translator doesn't have trouble figuring out which of the five meanings of the English word "star" applies, or confuse the noun "ship" with one of the twenty-seven Ferengi verbs meaning "deliver to a customer" or "release a new product to market."

Let's see what those aliens are really hearing when a typical Janeway greeting ("Power down your weapons, or we will be forced to open fire") is translated:

It is a captain Katherine Janeway of the Voyager ship of the federation asterisk. Drive its arms down, or they will force to open the fire to us.

In the unlikely event that aliens can figure out what she means, she may well hear a reply like

We will be extensive and the possibility where we will injure it does not carry the weapon which is.
or, if they keep it simple,
To us there is not a weapon.
unless the universal translator does a better job with the language than Systran does with Korean at translating "We carry no weapons which could harm you." or "We have no weapons."

It's amazing they made it home alive, especially without leaving more carnage behind than they did.

* Of course the word "captain" has a translation in every human language. Those cultures that don't have a concept of "captain" are human enough to grasp that basic primate concept, and were introduced to the word by, er, visitors from other cultures.