Darmok, Lou Ferrigno, and BitByBit
Yeah, this title is gonna make sense.
I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (nerd factor 3!), and came to an episode called "Darmok" about a First Contact. To provide context, a brief explanation of Star Trek: Star Trek is a sci-fi series set in the far future. Humanity has spread to the stars and found it is not alone. It has allies and enemies, and the galaxy is quite unexplored. Faster-than-light travel is possible. The series follows the adventures of the crew of the Starship the Enterprise. It travels for long periods of time without returning to a base, and is both a scientific and military vessel. One of its chief goals is to contact new cultures in a peaceful fashion, an event fittingly named First Contact.
In this episode, the Enterpise comes in contact with a new species. Using a universal translation device, the captain (Picard) is able to understand the basic grammar and words of any language. However, this new species, the Tamarians, have a language that is largely composed of proper nouns. They repeat a phrase "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" (grammatical conjunctions and prepositions translating more easily than proper nouns), much to the confusion of the protagonists.
As the episode progresses, the Tamarian captain goes to extreme lengths to try to communicate with Picard, eventually teleporting the two of them into a dangerous situation to provide a common set of experiences to explain his language. During the entirety of the episode, my suspension of disbelief became more and more shaky. It seemed impossible that someone could communicate any nuanced concept using such an obtuse language. How could such a ridiculous series of proper nouns be used to convey the commands needed to operate a starship? The episode itself ends in an excellent fashion, but this doubt lingered with me for a while after watching it. Typically, Star Trek has its good and its bad episodes, but at the very least they are internally consistent and somewhat plausible.
After further reflection, though, I realized that this wasn't so unreasonable a way of communicating. I think of the most notorious GSL Terran to never make a Ro8. The Terran who will be remembered forever, whose handle itself has sublimated to a meaning close like unto Maynard. The legendary Prime Terran, the one, the only, the BitByBit. His handle has gained a meaning synonymous with the marine/scv allins for which he was famous. If you are listening to a GSL cast (or hell, any sc2 cast), and you JUST tuned in, if you hear a caster shout "BIT BY BIIIIIIIIIIIIIT1!!!!" you suddenly know exactly what's happening. It's a TvZ. SCVs just got pulled. Shit just got real. It's the quickest way of saying "the terran player is all in with marines and scvs"-- and is cemented into our collective consciousness, an evocative proper noun that tells the story in its meaning.
It became even more clear to me that proper nouns can carry some pretty rad meanings when I was reminded of a webcomic I read (nerd factor 4!) about... dungeons and dragons... (nerd factor 5!) called Order of the Stick. In it, a character's off-hand remark talks about the protagonist getting mad enough to "go all Lou Ferrigno"-- a reference I immediately understood. Something "going all Lou Ferrigno" would certainly be entirely opaque to someone unfamiliar with the 80's tv series The Incredible Hulk, to me it perfectly described the actions of the character, as well as his motivations. It could have been said in another way, but this got the point across in an elegant fashion.
I still wonder if an entire language could be constructed out of such ideas (though it seems clear that the Tamarians have connecting phrases), especially if the common culture of billions is to be connected enough for this to make sense. That being said, even if the whole doesn't make sense, the parts themselves do-- we use them in our own lives. Chinese characters themselves are pictograms, which isn't so unreasonable an analogy to proper nouns representing abstract concepts, and metaphor taking the place of straightforward communication. They ARE supposed to be alien, after all.
And so I'm able to justify the language of the Tamarians, bit by bit.