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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reference This! (or, Darmok Revisited)

(FOS will no doubt correct any misspellings in this post.)

Although our relationship has ended, we can forever take comfort in the good times we enjoyed.  Or, "We'll always have [Paris, but feel free to insert an appropriate place name for your specific situation]."

Your destination may be reached by sticking to an easily marked path.  Or, "Follow the yellow brick road."

The situation has become intolerable, and I would very much like to leave.  Or, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

(Digression: The Solipsist has it on good authority that, despite its near universal recognizability, the above phrase was never actually spoken on "Star Trek."  It was always some variation, generally along the lines of "Three to beam up."  Nevertheless, like "Play it again, Sam," another misremembered classic, the phrase has entered the pop-culture lexicon, unlikely to be expunged or revised.  End of digression.)

One of the Solipsist's favorite episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (that's TNG to aficionados) is entitled "Darmok."  In this episode, the Enterprise is sent on a diplomatic mission to establish an alliance with the Dathon.  The Dathon are amenable.  The problem is that, despite the miraculous technology of the universal translator (the device that answers the eternal question: "Why does every alien race on Star Trek speak English"), the Dathon are completely unintelligible.  When Captain Picard attempts to begin a dialogue in true ambassadorial mode (and when Patrick Stewart is being ambassadorial with you, you've damn well been ambassadored!), the Dathon respond in what seems to be non-sequitur gobbledygook, saying things like, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra."  It SEEMS like English, but it doesn't MEAN anything.

But of course it means something.  Over the course of the episode, Picard comes to understand that the entire Dathon language is based on reference and metaphor.  "Darmok" is a sort of founding myth of the Dathon--all members of their society are brought up on the story of Darmok, and all spoken communication is composed of references to the myth.  Picard manages to piece together the gist of the story and so is able to bridge the gaps in understanding.

The Solipsist was thinking about this episode, and he wondered, if English were patterned on the Dathon tongue, what would our founding text be?  The Bible obviously springs to mind, but its religious overtones would alienate some language learners.  Shakespeare?  Too dead, too white, too male.

No, our universal text would have to be composed from that most universal of texts, popular entertainment.  A case could be made (and hardly disproved) that any emotional state and almost any tidbit worth communicating could be conveyed through reference to famous movies and TV shows (and now, possibly, video games, too).

The film "You've Got Mail" alludes to this phenomenon, when Tom Hanks' character explains that, to men, the answer to every question can be found in "The Godfather":
"The Godfather answers all of life's questions.  What should I pack for my summer vacation?  'Leave the gun, take the cannoli.'"

What other films could provide fodder?  Herewith, the Solipsist presents the first entry in his "Guide to Dathonian English":

Not surprisingly, "Casablanca" is a treasure trove.  In addition to the aforementioned "We'll always have Paris," you've got:

"Play it [again], Sam"--I'm feeling blue.  Cheer me up.

"Of all the gin joints in all the world. . . ."--Oh, crap!  Him/Her!

"Gambling in Casablanca!  I am shocked, shocked!"--Expressing mock outrage at a mildly unsavory situation that everyone has known about forever and is disinclined to do anything about.

"Round up the usual suspects"--To make a show of doing something about a situation that, again, no one really wants anything done about.

"This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship"--I've gained a newfound respect for you.

"Wizard of Oz," of course, is useful, too:

"We're off to see the wizard"--Our project has begun.

"If I only had a brain/heart"--Expressing (mock?) remorse at one's intellectual/emotional shortcomings.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"--Suspend your disbelief.

How about "Jerry Maguire"?

"You had me at [hello, but feel free to insert your own favorite word/phrase]"--indicates the moment at which a beloved object becomes beloved, i.e., the moment of swoon.  May also be used ironically: "You had me at waterboarding!"

"Show me the money!"--Fairly self-explanatory.

Individual quotes scattered throughout the film world will prove useful, too:

"I see dead people"--I have a problem/something is happening to me that I don't really understand, and I don't think anyone can help me with.

To which a nice reply might be, "Help me to help you" (Jerry Maguire, again--a surprising number of familiar and semi-familiar quotes from such a recent film.)

The Solipsist will continue filling up the handbook, but he needs your help.  Please send along your favorite quotes from pop culture, along with their practical translations.  It may take time, and it may be difficult, but the Solipsist is calling on you to sacrifice for the greater good.  After all, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one."

1 comment:

  1. "I'll have what she's having."

    This reference to Sally, who has just faked a massive orgasm in the diner with Harry, is spoken by a woman at the next table.

    It means: whatever that happy/excited/satisfied/orgasmic person is on, I want a part of it.