Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dalek translation

There are some interesting Sapir-Whorfy things happening in the latest season of Doctor Who.

As we all know, Daleks are bubbling lumps of hate in Mark 3 travel machines. The organic part is wired to the machine part, and controls the machine through thought. It seems that when a Dalek's machinary tries to interface with a non-Dalek, it can only interpret the thoughts in Dalek terms.

In The Witch's Familiar, Clara is hooked up to a Dalek travel machine, and whatever she says is repeated in a Dalek voice.
(NB The DALEKS voice is always a tiny fraction behind CLARA's. Also we only hear CLARA if we’re INSIDE the DALEK. While outside the DALEK, we just hear the DALEK voice.) 

But Clara and the Dalek don't always say the same thing.
MISSY
Now say your name.
DALEK
Why?
MISSY
Just say it.
Inside the DALEK.
CLARA        DALEK
Clara.          Dalek.
CLARA frowns. What?
MISSY
Try again.
CLARA                    DALEK
Clara Oswald.        Dalek. Dalek.
MISSY
One more time!
CLARA.                                DALEK

(Visibly frustrated now).        I am a Dalek. I am a Dalek.

I am Clara Oswald. I am Clara Oswald!
...
MISSY
Say “I love you”. Those exact words - don’t ask why, just do it.
CLARA            DALEK

I love you.            Exterminate!
...
MISSY

Say “You are different from me.”
CLARA                                     DALEK

You are different from me.            Exterminate! Exterminate!
The machine is translating Clara’s English into Dalek, and Dalek has no way to say certain things. So are Daleks prevented from saying these things by their machines? Or are the organic and machine parts of the Daleks joined to form one mind? Thinking about how Dalek language must work gives me a headache of Embassytown proportions.

do Daleks just want to befriend other races, but their translation machines don't have the vocabulary?

This leads to a tense moment when the Doctor confronts the Dalek that Clara is trapped in, and she can't tell him that she is inside. She says her name, but the Dalek just says "Dalek".
THE DOCTOR, insensibly, raising the gun, levelling it at the DALEK.
THE DOCTOR
Is Clara dead?
Inside the DALEK:
CLARA.                                                     DALEK

I’m Clara, I’m not dead, I’m right here.     I am a Dalek. I am alive.

 Those words cause a savage look of anger to cross THE DOCTOR's face.
Inside the DALEK:

CLARA (cont'd)                               DALEK (cont'd)
I’m your friend. Your friend!             I am your enemy. Your enemy.
THE DOCTOR steps forward, jamming the exterminator against the eyepiece.
CLARA (cont'd)                                                  DALEK (cont'd)
No, please, not don’t.                                              Mercy. Mercy.
... and THE DOCTOR pauses. What?

Frowns. What??
THE DOCTOR

... you shouldn’t be able to say that.
DALEK
Mercy.
THE DOCTOR
That word shouldn’t exist in your vocabulary. How could Davros have taught you that?
DALEK
Mercy.
This makes the Doctor think about how the Dalek machinery was able to say "mercy". Daleks can't understand mercy, therefore they can't say the word:
THE DOCTOR

When you were in the Dalek, you made it say “mercy”. It shouldn’t have understood the concept, it shouldn’t have been able to say it. How did a tiny piece of mercy get into the DNA of the Daleks?
That's right, there is no word for "mercy" in Dalek. I bet they have a hundred words for "exterminate".

And the fact that the Dalek said a word it should not have known is all the Doctor needs to know in order to go back in time and teach a young Davros that concept. Is there a purer expression of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Of course, we've known about the Daleks' vocabulary limitations since 1975:
DALEK: All inferior creatures are to be considered the enemy of the Daleks and destroyed.
DAVROS: No, wait! Those men are scientists. They can help you. Let them live. Have pity!
DALEK: Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank. Exterminate!
And then, in the very next episode, Under the Lake, four alien letters can rewrite your brain:
DOCTOR: Everything we see or experience shapes us in some way. But these words actually rewrite the synaptic connections in your brain. They literally change the way you are wired.

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