Yes, this sort of stuff really bothers me sometimes.

So I’ve been thinking about Star Trek.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about character names in Star Trek.

There are a few things that have always annoyed me about Trek’s character naming conventions — like how Vulcan males used to always have five-letter names that started with S and Vulcan females’ names always started with T’P. They changed that up a bit, which was okay.

Then there’s the annoying tendency to give Ferengi names that are single-syllable English words (like Quark and Nog).

And then there’s the pointlessness of having virtually every other alien culture written as a unified race so that all the names sound alike. Because clearly only humans developed with so many languages and sounds. And that’s actually starting to get toward my thought processes about Star Trek names. I’m sure this sort of thing extends into other science fiction as well, but Star Trek is probably the best known example of this sort of thing.

The original Star Trek briefly explored the idea that aliens could have names that were impossible for humans to pronounce.

Leila Kolomi: You never told me if you had another name, Mr. Spock?
Spock: You couldn’t pronounce it.
–episode “This Side of Paradise,” 1967

…but this always bugged me, because I can’t pronounce some human names correctly. I have a lot of trouble rolling my R’s for Spanish names like Ricardo, for example. I struggle to accurately reproduce the half-F half-H sound that leads off Japanese names like Fumiko. And despite practicing, I’m never sure if I’m really saying the Vietnamese name Nguyen quite right. So instead, I pronounce them like most other Americans: RickARdo, Foomiko, and Win. And don’t even get me started on Bushman names like !Xabbu. That exclamation mark indicates a click. I guarantee most Americans would just call that guy Shabbu.

So why wouldn’t Spock at least pronounce it himself? (Other than the obvious out-of-character answer that Nimoy was human with human physiology and if a human couldn’t pronounce it then obviously Nimoy couldn’t.) And realistically, I’ve never heard of any part of Vulcan vocal physiology that would make it literally impossible for a human to reproduce a sound, or at least to make a reasonable proximity.

Leila Kolomi: You never told me if you had another name, Mr. Spock?
Spock: Hhghaaaghnedhtor’rzhuonei.
Leila Kolomi: …So, Spock Henderson?
–episode “This Side of Paradise,” as I might have written it, 2012

I mean, that’s what we do, right? We make it something comfortable for us. At Ellis Island, we took names and Americanized them so that we didn’t have to struggle with pronunciations of foreign languages. I’m not saying we were right or wrong to do it, just that we did it.

Agent: Name?
Immigrant 1: Padraeg O’Laoidhigh.
Agent: Ok, Patrick Lehigh, move it along. Next. Name?
Immigrant 2: Juan Carlo de la Barca.
Agent: John Charles Barker.
Immigrant 2: No, es Juan Carlo…
Agent: Keep it moving, John. Next. Name?
Immigrant 3: Yuri Andreivich Mikhailov.
Agent: …what?
Immigrant 3: Yuri Andreivich Mikhailov.
Agent: Andrew Michaels. Next. Name?
Immigrant 4: Ling Bao Wo.
Agent: …Yeah, no, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to go back to wherever you’re from.
Immigrant: No, please. Please.
Agent: …Fine. You’re Steve Thompson.
–Ellis Island, as I imagine it.

Then there’s also the fact that Star Trek has those universal translator thingies that sort out the meanings of words from context and repeated use, which is why everybody speaks English. (There are tons of holes in this, but just let it go for now. You’ll sleep better.)

Well, virtually every name has a meaning that can be expressed in other words. For example, my name “David” means “beloved.” A couple friends of mine have a last name that means “of the ravens’ woods.” It seems to me that the aliens in Star Trek probably created names the same way. So why, when they meet a new alien race, doesn’t it somehow translate their names?

Kirk: Greetings. We come in peace. I am Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.
New Alien: Flerble mengle nungy patootoob skrexix.
Universal Translator: Greetings. I am Beautiful Morning of the Eastern Plain, of the Star Cruiser Monstrous.
Kirk: Should I call you Beautiful Morning??
New Alien: Nungnung hooba piki vulmooska mengle shtoba mengle.
Universal Translator: Captain Supplanter Tea Church, there is something wrong with my translator. It is suggesting that you want to call me ‘Beautiful Morning,’ but my name is Beautiful Morning.
Kirk: Supplanter?
New Alien: Hooba mifo?
Universal Translator: You said your name is ‘Supplanter’?
Kirk: It’s James.
New Alien: Zenpo qual.
Universal Translator: That’s what I said.
Kirk: …this is too confusing. Open fire.
–“Who’s on Earth?”, unwritten episode

And what if the naming conventions aren’t the same from those other aliens? What if they don’t name their kids based on words that originally referred to geographical features or positive personal traits? What if their taboos are completely different from ours?

Kirk: Greetings. We come in peace. I am Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.
Newer Alien: Phasdoiaadflk asdfhv uwuwuwuw.
Universal Translator: Greetings. I am Captain Noisyfart Splatterpants of the Space Transport Crustyjunk.
Kirk: …Fine. You’re Steve Thompson.


This entry was posted in Thinky Thoughts, Words, Words, Words and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Yes, this sort of stuff really bothers me sometimes.

  1. joanna says:

    What’s crazy is, I don’t think Star Trek’s Universal Translator makes any sense at all, but Douglas Adams’ Babelfish? Perfect solution.

  2. Lummox JR says:

    Aye, the babelfish or translator microbes would solve this. But frankly on the whole, Star Trek would have been a lot better if it was more like Farscape. Actually so would every other show.

  3. hellohilary says:

    I hate to burst your bubble, but I HAVE to point out that not very many names were actually changed at Ellis Island. It’s really quite a large myth.

    Read this…

    There are plenty of other article similar to this one, I just couldn’t find them really quickly.

    But *WORD* on the rest of your post.

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