Listening

By Nomad
May 2009

Summary: Uhura listens, and learns.
Spoilers: Movieverse only.
Disclaimer: Characters, settings and concepts belong to Paramount and many others; borrowed for entertainment value, not profit.


By fifteen minutes into his very first lecture, more than half of the class have already determined that they hate Mr Spock.

Uhura has scribbled six pages of notes, and provisionally granted him the position of her favourite instructor so far. By the end of the two-hour session, she's sure of it.

It's his precision that's so wonderful. Her other instructors, however great their skill with language, colour the words they teach with their own interpretations, structuring words into artificial groupings that suit their culture's own values. The words for sun and rain and snow are taught together, because on Earth they are all weather; the fact that in another culture, perhaps two of them are weather and the third a transcendental religious experience is merely a footnote to the vocabulary list.

Spock teaches the language by its speakers' own internal logic, making no allowances for human ideas of structure or how many new terms it is reasonable to learn at once. It makes the other cadets swear and grumble about the impossibility of following along, and whisper mocking words about Vulcan logic.

It teaches Uhura more than a whole year of reading textbooks that were written for humans by humans.

It teaches her a lot about the Vulcan language, too, even when Spock isn't speaking it. Concepts that slipped by her, frustrating, elusive, all fall into place as she listens and watches and learns how he structures his thoughts. She longs to engage him in true conversation, but asking him to speak with her wouldn't yield what she wants; it would just be another iteration of the problem with her textbooks, Vulcan speech repackaged to suit human needs and expectations.

What she wants is to know him well enough that he would choose to speak with her.

But that seems awfully presumptuous, so instead she practices her Vulcan with Gaila. It's something of an exercise in frustration, since Vulcan lacks established turns of phrase for most of the things that Gaila enjoys saying in other languages. Like most of Uhura's classmates, Gaila approaches translation like a substitution cipher, trying to hammer another language's words into the right shape to replicate her meaning.

With a lot of rote memorization and slow trial and error, that approach will eventually allow for communication. But Uhura knows it will never yield true understanding. To truly know a language, you cannot simply force it into the shape of what you want to say; you have to listen to its speakers and understand what they would want to say.

As each class passes, her classmates whisper and joke more and more about the things Spock doesn't feel or express.

As each class passes, Uhura learns to read them all in the subtle language of his pauses and small shifts of mouth and eyebrow.

Sometimes, she watches him in class, and thinks, I understand you better than anyone else here will ever try to.

Sometimes, she feels like he's looking back and thinking the same thing.

End