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A Little Exolinguistics

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One afternoon in the rec room, I noticed something very interesting, something I just had to follow up on.

I was sitting with Minzaghi and Walsh from the hydroponics lab, planning our next shore leave. It would be on Sirenus IV, the quadrant's favourite tourist destination.

"Come on, Lieutenant Uhura, please!" Minzaghi begged me. "Come with me to the Great Cascade. I can't get anyone to agree to go with me."

"Maybe that's because everyone knows you have to queue for several days straight to see it," I said gently. Minzaghi was one of the youngest ensigns on the Enterprise, and tended to get over-excited about everything.

Most of the alpha-shift crew seemed to be in the rec room. Minzaghi, Walsh and I soon gathered quite a crowd around us. Walsh had been to Sirenus IV before, and everyone was eager to hear his insider tips.

The Captain and Mr. Spock were sitting not far away from us. At one point I looked up from our table and saw the Captain laughing at something Mr. Spock said. Mr. Spock had his head turned towards the captain, as relaxed as he ever will be, and the Captain had his hand on Mr. Spock's forearm.

That wasn't what caught my attention. That's par-for-the-course with those two. What caught my attention was that they were speaking Vulcan.

I had to switch off my translator to be sure, but yes, that was it -- the Captain was speaking fluent Vulcan, and not Modern Standard Vulcan either, but some dialect I had trouble understanding.

He seemed to be saying something about Sirenus IV and fried potato patties, though I had no idea what the connection was. Mr Spock's reply was too quiet for me to hear, but one of his eyebrows was halfway up his forehead, and his mouth had softened slightly in that expression he would never call a smile.

I stared. Did the Captain just make a joke in Vulcan?!

At that point I was distracted by Lieutenant Jebson, who wanted to know if I'd be free for his singing lesson this week.

Poor Jebson has a voice like a bullfrog, but he's marrying an Anacondran, and they sing the whole wedding service, so I agreed I'd do my best to get him up to scratch.

It wasn't until much later that evening that I had time to think about what I'd heard. When and why on earth had Captain Kirk learned to speak Vulcan?

My professional curiosity was piqued. I almost became a linguist, back before I joined Starfleet instead, and I still conducted some field research in exo-linguistics in my spare time.

I had some friends at the Rigelon Language Institute who were working on the question of why people still choose to go to the trouble of learning a language in the era of the Universal Translator. We'd discussed their work in detail, last time I was within sub-space frequency range of them. Captain Kirk seemed like the perfect test case for their study.

I knew there were other things I should be concentrating on just now, namely the exams for Command qualification. I was in the Operations Division, but I wanted to transfer to Command -- and I didn't want to stay a lieutenant my whole career.

On the other hand, I loved linguistics, and I'd published quite a few papers in some of the Federation's top exo- linguistics journals. But if I went too far down that route, I'd end up in some sort of high-ranking but incredibly dull desk job in Starfleet's Communications Research department.

Anyway, about this study on why people rejected the Universal Translator, and actually learned other languages. There'd already been lots of research published on the topic, but mostly about people who learned other Earth languages, usually for family reasons. Non-human languages were so much harder to learn that people didn't. On the other hand, the more different a language was from those that evolved on Earth, the less satisfactory the UT's translation. I'd read an interesting article recently about a guy from Mars who fell in love with a Haolian, one of the species whose language was so different the Universal Translator didn't work.

Humans who spoke fluent Vulcan were almost unheard of, outside of a few researchers in comparative exo-linguistics, making Kirk's ability all the more striking.

Next morning, I cornered the Captain in a turbolift and asked if I could interview him.

"You speak fluent Vulcan, captain, and that's rare."

He looked surprised. "So do you, lieutenant."

That was true, but I could hardly interview myself.

"Languages are my hobby, captain -- not to mention an integral part of my job." Also, he seemed to be far more fluent in Vulcan than I was, but I didn't mention that.

"What would be involved, precisely?" he asked.

"It would be about differences you perceive between what the Universal Translator renders from Vulcan to Federation Standard, and your own understanding based on your study of the language, and whether that's what motivated you to learn a language that's notoriously difficult for humans." I took a deep breath, and pressed on. "You'd also take a standardised test to measure your proficiency in the language, and answer some questions about how you came to study it. It could be really interesting! Do you know how few humans speak Vulcan, captain?"

He seemed to be suppressing a smile. I guess my enthusiasm was showing.

"All right, lieutenant," he said. "How about twenty hundred hours the day after tomorrow?"

"Thank you, captain!"

I spent my next off-shift preparing for the interview. I started a degree in linguistics and communication at the University of Nairobi before transferring to Starfleet Academy, and I'd kept up to date in the field since then.

I sent Kirk a standardized test in Golic Vulcan. He did well on it, though he was clearly far more at ease with the spoken than the written language.

Two days later, we met in my cabin for the interview.

"Ready, captain?"

I switched on the recording device. I'd prepared some opening questions to lay the ground.

"When did you start to learn Vulcan?"

"Six years ago."

I calculated in my head. That put it right in the middle of our first five-year mission.

"And what was your primary motivation?"

He looked thoughtful, like he was going back to that time years ago in his head.

"Well, I suppose I'd had a certain interest in Vulcan culture for a while already, but there was one particular incident that triggered things. I visited Vulcan with Lieutenant Commander Spock, and attended a... let's call it a private family ceremony. The universal translator did a very poor job of helping me follow what was going on."

"So would you say the translator played a major role in your decision?"

"Not only that. At the time I was reading a lot about Vulcan history, social anthropology, that kind of thing. Starting to take an interest in the language was part of that."

"Even though the computer can provide a perfect translation?"

He laughed.

"Perfect? I wouldn't call it that. If it's an geological text on Vulcan's plate tectonics, certainly, the UT does an excellent job. Think of words like... 'lithosphere', for example, or 'earthquake'. They've got exact scientific definitions. They can be unambiguously translated into most languages."

His own enthusiasm was showing through now. People always thought of James Kirk as a man of action. They forgot just how intelligent and well-read he was.

"So far, so good," he went on. "But if it's... Vulcan love poetry, for instance, or a book discussing subtle differences in different strands of Vulcan logic... that just doesn't translate. You try to read it in Federation Standard and you'll only get about half of what the author was trying to say."

I was stunned by the idea of Vulcan love poetry. I had to force myself to concentrate on the topic at hand.

"So would you say you mostly wanted to learn Vulcan in order to read it?"

He shook his head.

"No. Nuance is just as important in conversation. There are situations where... well, you just want to know exactly what someone means."

He was wearing a tiny smile now.

"Can you think of any specific examples?" I asked.

He thought for a moment.

"Well, there are at least two ways to say "Welcome to our home" in Vulcan," he said finally. "One is just a formalism, but the other is a genuine expression of... logical satisfaction in welcoming a visitor. The Universal Translator can't distinguish between the two."

I had no idea he'd been spending so much time on Vulcan. Maybe all the rumors about him and Mr Spock were true after all. And then some! I hid a smile. The thought of the two of them together made me very happy. I'd always been convinced they were made for each other.

But I could hardly ask the Captain about that now. I went through the last few questions I'd prepared, before thanking him for his time.

Kirk got to his feet. Before he left, he added, "By the way, Admiral Litmet asked me to start thinking about next year's promotions list. I'd like to include you, but you still need qualifications A2 and B5, I think?"

I stared in surprise.

"Think about it, lieutenant."

The cabin doors slid shut behind him, leaving me with plenty to think about.

On next year's promotions list! I hadn't hoped for it so soon. I'd have to work hard on my qualification exams, and pass them sometime in the next six months.

Of course I still wanted to write up the article on this interview too. Then there was Ensign Xanthia's birthday party to organize next weekend... And I'd have to fit all that in around my regular shifts on the bridge.

It would be a busy few months, but I could do it.