Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were meeting in the captain's quarters, sharing their misgivings about the upcoming mission. After all the qualms had been expressed and examined, McCoy sighed. "Well, I guess we're done here, and I gotta get ready for my weekly meeting with M'Benga." He rubbed the back of his neck wearily. "I still think we're buying a pig in a poke with this next mission, but it sounds like we can't get out of it."
Spock pursed his lips. "We are attempting to survey an area of space where several ships have disappeared, not purchasing any variety of swine."
"Ha," McCoy said. "Just goes to show you don't know everything." He winked at Kirk and left the room.
As soon as the door had shut behind McCoy, Kirk turned to Spock. "Why do you do that?"
Spock tilted his head to one side as he looked at his captain. "Specify."
Kirk put his hands on his hips. "Why do you pretend not to understand idioms? You speak Standard better than anybody on the ship; I know for a fact that your vocabulary is larger, and you also speak it grammatically, which hardly anyone else does. Plus, your father is an ambassador, and your mother is a schoolteacher. There's NO WAY an ambassador and a schoolteacher failed to take the opportunity to raise their son bilingual. You've been speaking Standard since you learned to talk, and I KNOW you understand all of the common idioms ... though a few of McCoy's more esoteric Southernisms may go by you, since they go by me."
Spock looked away, and Kirk could tell that he was embarrassed, though probably no one else would have noticed. Spock said, "It was not my intent to deceive you, Jim; it is such a habitual part of interacting with humans that I failed to consider that I should forego it when in your company."
Kirk regarded the Vulcan sternly. "But WHY is it a habit? When and why did you start doing this?"
Spock looked down, and his voice took on a reflective tone. "My mother and I had a long discussion before I left for Starfleet Academy. Although I had visited Earth many times before – both for my general education and to visit my human relatives – this would be the first time that I would be alone on Earth, and my mother was concerned."
Kirk looked surprised. "Concerned about what?"
"She pointed out that Vulcans look far more like humans than either Andorians or Tellarites do, and she said that this similarity in physical appearance would lead most humans to believe that Vulcans should think and behave as humans do."
Kirk smiled. "And you sure don't."
Spock exhaled audibly. "We do not. My mother was concerned that human cadets might become hostile towards me if I did not behave as they expected."
Kirk shook his head. "I still don't get how pretending to misunderstand idioms comes into the picture."
"I am getting to that. You are undoubtedly aware that most cultures realize that foreigners have different ways, and that foreigner is as much of a social role as it is a place of birth."
Kirk nodded. "Yes, of course. The Command track at the Academy had a lot of tips for how to take advantage of the foreigner social role when making first contact, since foreigners are almost always held to different standards of behavior than native-born people."
Spock said, "Foreigners are typically assumed to be unfamiliar with local customs and to have different customs of their own. Foreigners are typically exempted from many of the more subtle or complicated rules of behavior, to the point that they are often allowed to speak frankly about mildly taboo topics or are exempted from the expectation that they will participate in the exchange of favors that undergirds much of civilization."
Kirk smiled. "I think I'm beginning to understand."
"My mother attempted to convince me to speak with an accent, but I refused. She thought that I would need to give fellow cadets the constant reminder of an accent in order to be accorded the greater behavioral latitude permitted to foreigners, whereas I thought that my Vulcan appearance would be enough."
"And then you got to the Academy..."
Spock sighed. "And then I arrived at the Academy and discovered that the vast majority of human cadets did not understand Vulcan standards of comportment and misinterpreted nearly all of my behavior."
"And that's when you started pretending to misunderstand idioms?" Kirk asked.
Spock nodded. "It is. But it is not the only adjustment I made to my behavior. I began speaking about human-Vulcan differences periodically, to remind my classmates of my difference and to educate them about Vulcan culture. I professed to misunderstand every appearance of emotion, even though as someone raised with a human mother, I have been exposed to human emotions since birth and understand my mother's emotions quite well. I also shortened my hair so that my ears would be more prominent, making my Vulcanity more evident."
Kirk sighed. "I'm sorry you had to do all of that to be treated decently, even at the Academy. Our goal is to explore new worlds and befriend new people; it's disheartening that so many Starfleet officers still judge everyone by human standards."
Spock shook his head. "On the contrary, Jim. Judging by one's own standards is the default behavior of all people in all places. It is a tribute to Federation ideals and to Starfleet training that so many people manage to rise above such provincial behavior at least some of the time."
Kirk smiled. "Well. We're going to keep rising above our provincial standards on THIS ship, if I have to knock some heads together to do it!"
"Jim," Spock shook his head. "We are also attempting to rise above the violence of our primitive forebears."
Kirk gave his Vulcan friend a devilish grin. "You rise above in your way, Mr. Spock, and I'll rise above in mine."
Spock's eyes lightened in the way that meant that he was amused, and Kirk clapped him on the back, then said, "I understand the idiomatic meaning of 'pig in a poke,' but I wish I understood the literal meaning. How can a pig be IN a poke?"
Spock cleared his throat. "'Poke' in this instance has nothing to do with the verb 'to poke.' As a noun, 'poke' is an archaic term meaning 'bag' or 'sack.'"
"Oh! Yes, that makes a lot more sense." Kirk looked teasingly at his first officer. "So not only have you been pretending not to understand idioms all these years, but you understand them even better than I do!"
Spock looked mildly embarrassed. "It was not my intention to lie, Jim, but merely to activate the foreigner social role."
Kirk smiled. "Well, I'm glad we had this little talk. Come on, let's go mind the store. And don't tell me you don't know what that means, because I know you do!"
Spock inclined his head graciously and followed his captain to the nearest turbolift.
1. I think the REAL reason why Spock misunderstands common idioms is because Dorothy Fontana didn't create the details of Spock's background – that ambassador father and schoolteacher mother who would have wanted to raise him bilingual – until the episode "This Side of Paradise," by which time Spock's misunderstanding common idioms had already been established as a part of his character. Gene Roddenberry had originally wanted Spock to speak with a British accent, suggesting that he had learned English from tapes, but Leonard Nimoy didn't like the way this worked in practice, so he dropped the attempt to speak with a British accent.
They were making TOS at breakneck speed, and they didn't have time to think through the implications of everything in the way that fans have had time to do in the fifty years since TOS began. So, yes, I know that officially Spock speaks English as a second language, not as a native. I just think that the background given him makes this wildly unlikely, so I'm inventing a bit of backstory for him to make it all consistent. Because that's the kind of thing we fan fictioneers do. :-)
2. As most of you know, "to buy a pig in a poke" means to sign up for something without knowing important information about it. And Spock's explanation here is correct; "poke" used to mean "bag," and anyone who bought a pig that was covered by a bag wouldn't be able to see what they were buying, not even whether it was actually a pig.
3. It's true, what Kirk and Spock say here, that in most cultures "foreigner" is a social role given to those who weren't born into the culture. Foreigners are usually held to different standards than natives of the culture are; astute foreigners sometimes use this to do things that native-born members of the culture are not permitted to do. For example, Ruth Westheimer – better known as "Dr. Ruth" – was a sex educator in the United States during the 1980's. She had a heavy German accent that made it clear that she wasn't American, and she used the "foreigner" social role to talk about sex in public with a degree of frankness that had been rarely seen in the US before her.
4. I have a chronic illness that leaves me non-functional more days than not. I will try to respond to any comments I receive; unfortunately, my good intentions are frequently thwarted by my poor health. (I do read them all with great attention, even when my health doesn't permit me to reply.)
5. Sadly, I don't own Star Trek. How come no one ever gives it to me for my birthday? :-)
6. Thanks for reading!