This is inspired by, but I don't think duplicates, questions about artificial languages and "secret" "codes".

In crossing geekdoms, the Tamarian language comes from a Star Trek:The Next Generation episode called "Darmok"; from which viewers always recall the phrase "Darmok and Jalad". In the language, they use metaphors, symbolism, and stories to communicate. A classic example is, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered," which means to understand.

Given that, would Comprehend Language work on such a language?

It's not "artificial", it's a fully developed language with syntax and grammar. It's not coded in any way like Thieves' Cant. They say exactly what they mean to communicate.

When they say, "Temba, his arms wide/open," it's literally about Temba and how they held their arms. But the actual meaning is about giving a gift.

The spell states, "you understand the literal meaning of any spoken language that you hear." So would the caster hear literally about a person in a hug pose, or would they get the meaning of gift?

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    \$\begingroup\$ One of my most memorable TNG episodes :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Rykara
    Jan 7, 2021 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you think I’m not going to watch Star Trek just to be qualified to answer this question, you’ve got another thing coming. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2021 at 23:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanielB Please refrain from answering (even in partially in comments) and I don't believe that the UT would work as it would have had to have had unfettered access to their histories in this case which was very difficult because their language was written in metaphor and cultural reference entirely. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jan 8, 2021 at 13:55

2 Answers 2



As your linked post, your description of the spell's literal meaning, and Crawford's Twitter ruling in the comments of the aforementioned post address, this is the realm of allusion. Your spellcaster could translate "Temba, con los brazos abiertos," but nothing further.

...because that's getting into skills' territory

It depends on the exact manner of the language. In the case of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", one would need context for those individuals and places, which might be gleaned from a History check.


Your Intelligence (History) check measures your ability to recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, and lost civilizations.

But there may be different contexts for "Temba, his arms open" vs. "Temba, his arms spread". And linguistically, does it matter whether it's Temba versus John Smith, your next-door neighbor? At this point, it may well leave the realm of historical context and require further interpretation


Your Wisdom (Insight) check decides whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Doing so involves gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms.

Regardless of whether the DM rules that you can truly understand metaphorical language and converse normally, a case can be made for interpreting body language and tone.

But as every Bard knows, it all comes down to Charisma checks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This was the actual reason it was challenging and frustrating for the Tamarian and Federation to communicate because the universal translator was essentially a comprehend languages spell. It translated what they said it did not in any way assume meaning. This and Inner Light were my favorite episodes in TNG. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jan 8, 2021 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth The interesting thing about the whole episode though is that it’s inconsistent with other portrayals of the Universal Translator. You almost never hear culturally specific idioms like you logically should if it worked like Comprehend Languages, except for in this single episode. That implies either that culture is absurdly homogenized in the Federation (yet more dystopia to layer on top of it being a communist state), or that it really does do more than Comprehend Languages but was lacking the needed information to parse the idioms in this one case. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2021 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AustinHemmelgarn Let's chalk that up to a creative writer with some actual problem solving did something great that his/her predecessors didn't consider and it made for a great episode. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jan 8, 2021 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AustinHemmelgarn I remember a specific comment in the episode saying that they're missing the cultural context information needed to understand. It would make sense to me that translating the speech of well known cultures would use a database of idioms, and that most cultures would use few or no idioms in first contact dialogue. The Tamarians are a rare case of needing information about idioms before that information becomes available. \$\endgroup\$
    – Douglas
    Jan 8, 2021 at 19:26


Metaphor, allusion, and idiom may or may not become comprehensible depending on whether they are or are not a lexical item.

The spell gives you "the literal meaning of any spoken language" - it does not give you a word-for-word translation because, in many cases, such a translation would be nonsense. Further, there are words that simply have no direct translation - a word in one language requires an essay in another (or more commonly, if the destination is English it just gets hoovered in).

Once a phrase has become a lexical item, its literal meaning is not the literal meaning of the individual words - it is the meaning of the phrase as a whole.

It's not rocket science, if you throw the baby out with the bathwater you'll find yourself up the creek without a paddle and be unable to wrap your head around it. To make a long story short you need to go back to the drawing board, not cut corners and cut us some slack or else it will get out of hand. Literally.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point but I think the last bit is not addressing "literal" but "figurative" meaning of the language at that point. Reminds me of the episode of Taxi where Alex calls Jim and tries to give him instructions to go to his locker... I am dating myself here though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jan 8, 2021 at 2:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth no. Assuming that you are a native English speaker, every one of those phrases in the last paragraph would have been perfectly intelligible to you for their literal meaning which is unrelated to the literal meaning of the component words. And, of course, in most dictionaries “literally” literally means “figuratively”. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jan 8, 2021 at 2:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am from the Midwest, yes. And I am talking about the definitions before they got bastardized. You didn't literally throw the baby out with the bath water it is an analogy through figurative narrative, just like you are not actually (literally) in a creek... making it a "figure" of speech not a "liter" of speech. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jan 8, 2021 at 2:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth my point is that those phrases are no lexical units - indivisible parts of the language with their own meaning that cannot be derived (directly) from the words. There’s no “bastardization”, there’s just language evolution. Language is an integral part of culture and vice versa. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jan 8, 2021 at 3:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Symphony in Slang \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jan 8, 2021 at 6:19

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