Thursday, 26 May 2016

Where does the word “TARDIS” come from?

According to the very first episode of Doctor Who (“An Unearthly Child”) Susan “made the name up” from the initials for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. So if this is the case, why do the Time Lords also call them this? When TARDISes were invented, what did the inhabitants of Gallifrey call them, and why don’t they still use that word?

This thorny piece of continuity has frustrated Doctor Who fandom for probably 30 years or more now, with varied opinions from “it doesn’t matter” to wild theories involving Susan having been born at the very dawn of Time Lord history and therefore being the original coiner of the word “TARDIS.”

Well I’m here to tell you that’s all rubbish, and there’s a far easier way to explain the whole thing.

Firstly, the clues are all there. Susan tells us she has made up the word from the initials. Initials of English words. "TARDIS" is an acronym of words in the English Language, and Susan is speaking English when she says it.

Think of the word “CERN”. This is a French acronym, created in the French language from the French words "Conseil EuropĂ©en pour la Recherche NuclĂ©aire". Now this translates into English as “European Council for Nuclear Research”, so why don’t we refer to CERN as “ECNR”? That’s what the English acronym made up from the initials of the English words would be. We don’t. Instead we have added an acronym made up from words in another language into our language – English.

So let’s assume the Time Lords have a word in their own language for the device that we know as a TARDIS. It could come from an acronym of Gallifreyan words for Time and Space Travel, or it could be a word similar to our own “Television” (which comes from the Greek for “Far Sight”), but it is irrelevant where the word comes from. Whenever Time Lords get together and speak in their own Gallifreyan language, they use this word, and Susan (being Gallifreyan) knows it as well.

But when we meet Susan she is speaking English, which (like the Doctor) she has obviously learned on her travels. (Hang on...what about the TARDIS translation circuits, I hear you ask?  Sssh! I'll get to that later!) So what word do we hear when she talks about the Time/Space ship that she flies around in?

Well she can just say the Gallifreyan word. Or she can translate it into the English version of its derivation, in the same way as an alien might translate our word “Television” into his own language version of “Far Sight”.

Or she can make up her own word, in the same way as we could have referred to CERN as “ECNR”. Which is what she tells us she has done. “TARDIS” is an English acronym made up from English words that describe the function of the Time machine invented by her race.

Let’s take another example. In the film Avatar, the N’avi use the word “Toruk” to refer to the largest airborne predator on their world, and they further say that this means “last shadow”. They are of course speaking English at this point, so we can assume that if you wanted to say “last shadow” in N’avi you would use the word “toruk”.

English characters in the film also use this word to refer to the creature, but let’s imagine a N’avi child that lives among humans and speaks English fluently. She might one day decide that instead of using the N’avi language word for the beast, she would like to make up her own word. So she comes up with the acronym “SWITSAY”, which she says she has made up from the initials of “Scary Wings In The Sky Above You”.

From then onwards everyone uses the word “Switsay” when referring to the great winged terror, including the N’avi whenever we see them talking about it.

Why is this? Why aren’t they using the word “toruk” anymore? Well there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is down to what we refer to in drama as “translation convention”. When we see people on TV or film speak in a foreign language (e.g. Germans in WWII movies) they are portrayed as speaking in that language, but we hear them speak English (often in a cod accent). So when the N’avi or the Time Lords talk amongst themselves, in their own language, we hear them speaking in English.

Thus when we see Time Lords on Gallifrey talking about their Time Machines, the only time we would hear them use the Gallefreyan word for something is if there doesn’t exist an English word for it that the script-writer can use. We have already established that there does exist an English word for the Gallifreyan Time Machine – Susan has told us it. "TARDIS". We can therefore comfortably assume that when we see Time Lords talking in their own language, even though they will be using their own Gallifreyan word, we will hear “TARDIS” in English.

The second reason is unique to Doctor Who. When the Doctor visits Gallifrey (or a Time Lord visits the Doctor) we hear them speaking English, often with one of the Doctor’s human companions included in the conversation. Are we to assume that all Time Lords have an excellent command of spoken English? But if so, how do they all seem to know the English word “TARDIS”?

They don’t. One of the more convenient functions of the TARDIS is that it telepathically translates all languages instantaneously (the script-writers’ way of getting round the fact that all aliens seem to speak English, a problem solved in a similar fashion by Star Trek’s “Universal Translator”). So whenever a human companion has a conversation with a Gallifreyan, they are both speaking their own languages, but the TARDIS is translating for both of them. We as viewers therefore hear what the companion hears (a translation convention) and so hear the Time Lord speaking English. And naturally the TARDIS provides the English language word “TARDIS” whenever the Gallifreyan one is spoken.

So there you have it. Time Lords presumably have their own word for “TARDIS” (one that existed since TARDISes were created and long before Susan was born), and this is the word they always use. However when we hear their speech translated into English, the word we hear is the English word that Susan made up.