A history of Klingon, the language.

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May 7 2009 11:54 AM

There's No Klingon Word for Hello

A history of the gruff but surprisingly sophisticated invented language and the people who speak it.

Michael Dorn as Lieutenant Worf.
Michael Dorn as Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation

There's something missing from J.J. Abrams' reboot of the moribund Star Trek franchise, and that something is Klingon. I mean Klingon the language. If that sounds like a minor omission, consider this: The very first lines of the first Star Trek movie in 1979 were in Klingon: wIy cha'! HaSta! cha yIghuS! And those few words—which were subtitled as "Tactical … Visual … Tactical, stand by on torpedoes!"—have since blossomed into, if not a full-fledged language, one at least fledged enough to have a dictionary, a translation of Hamlet, and a small but dedicated community of (nonfictional) speakers, who'll feel miffed by Abrams' oversight.

Let's just skip over the customary jokes about 40-year-old virgins who still live in their parents' basements. Klingon speakers have heard them all. But the insults don't bother them, because they know something you don't. They know that Klingon is a sophisticated, extremely complex language that very few can master. I first came to Klingon as a linguist doing research for a book on artificial languages. My intention was to observe from a nice, distant, scientific perspective, but somehow I ended up with a little bronze pin indicating that I'd passed the first-level certification exam. The grammar offered an irresistible linguistic challenge. Klingon is difficult but not impossible, weird yet totally believable. Anyone can put on a pair of pointed ears or memorize some lines of dialogue, but learning to speak Klingon requires genuine hard work.

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Most languages created for fictional worlds involve simple vocabulary substitutions, such as moodge for man in A Clockwork Orange, or meaningless streams of noise, like the high-pitched jabbering of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Klingon is something altogether different. There is a logic behind it; a linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it as he would an exotic indigenous tongue. This is not surprising, considering that Klingon was created by Marc Okrand, a linguist whose dissertation was a grammar of a now-extinct Native American language.

Okrand was originally hired by the producer of Star Trek IIto write dialogue in Vulcan for a scene, between Leonard Nimoy and Kirstie Alley, that had been filmed in English. His task was to create lines that could be dubbed over the actors' mouth movements in a believable way. Two years later, when the production team of Star Trek III wanted some scenes in Klingon, they called on Okrand again. This time he was not constrained by pre-existing mouth movements—the actors would be filmed speaking Klingon—but there were two other conditions that he had to take into account. The first was the existence of those few words of Klingon spoken in the first Star Trek movie (written by James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty). Second, he knew the language was supposed to be tough-sounding, befitting a warrior race. Klingons are rough, crude, loyal, violent, and honorable—a sort of Viking-Spartan-samurai motorcycle gang. They eat live worms, sleep on hard surfaces, and desire nothing more than to die in battle. So Okrand filled the language with back-of-the-throat sounds and made up a rich war vocabulary but left out social pleasantries like "Hello." (The closest translation for hello in Klingon is nuqneH —"What do you want?").

Knowing that fans would be watching closely, Okrand worked out a full grammar. He cribbed from natural languages, borrowing sounds and sentence-building rules, switching sources whenever Klingon started operating too much like any one language in particular. He ended up with something that sounds like an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic, Tlingit, and Yiddish and works like a mix of Japanese, Turkish, and Mohawk. The linguistic features of Klingon are not especially unusual (at least to a linguist) when considered independently, but put together, they make for one hell of an alien language.

Despite the fact that more than 250,000 copies of Okrand's Klingon dictionary have been sold, very few people know how the language really works. There are maybe 20 or 30 people who can hold their own in a live, unscripted Klingon conversation and a few hundred or so who are pretty good with written Klingon. But most Star Trek fans who buy the dictionary skip the grammatical rules that constitute the first half of the book and turn straight to the word list. They make up wedding vows, song lyrics, or insults to lob at their opponents in role-playing games, but they ignore the grammar, simply popping dictionary words into English sentences. So Star Trek discussion boards end up peppered with phrases like this: yIn nI' je chep.

That is some seriously bad Klingon. It's a string of words that's supposed to mean "Live long and prosper" but instead says something like "life … something is long … and … something prospers." It's ungrammatical. (Plus, it's a Vulcan sentiment; Klingons don't say such things.)

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