'Star Trek' - the Klingon Language
Created | Updated Jan 17, 2016
There have been several attempts to create an artificial language, the most famous of which is probably Esperanto. Such languages are usually planned in such a way as to be as easy as possible to learn and speak, and borrow heavily from existing languages. However, there is one recent example of an artificial language which has a rather different purpose - and as a result is quite different from almost all other 'created' languages.
The Beginning - Grunts and growls
In the 1960s, Star Trek was a weekly TV series. Its budget was, by the standards of modern television, low. Its most common recurring villains, the Klingons, were basically swarthy, bearded men in leather jerkins. They were in the main leering pantomime villains without much in the way of character.
Fast forward to the late 1970s. Star Trek's popularity, combined with the box-office success of Star Wars, leads to the cast of the TV show being reunited for a motion picture. With an effects budget many times that of the TV show, there were to be changes.
One of these changes was to be a re-imagining of the Klingons using modern prosthetic makeup techniques. They became a more clearly alien race, with high, ridged foreheads, heavy brows and ribbed noses.
Another idea to reinforce the illusion that the viewer is watching aliens and not humans was to have them speak an alien language, with subtitles. The original Star Wars films also use this trick, although the languages they used tended to be real, but obscure, Earth languages. Greedo, for instance, the Rodian bounty hunter shot by Han Solo in the cantina in the first film, speaks Quechua, a South American language.
The actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, came up with a few lines of basically meaningless dialogue which sounded suitably alien, harsh and guttural, which fit the appearance of the Klingons in the movie. The Klingons in the first Star Trek movie had only a cameo role, presumably to pander to the fans who had been starved of new, live-action Star Trek for a decade.
Fast forward further still to the making of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In this film the Klingons1, play a much larger role. Large chunks of Klingon dialogue were required, and it was felt necessary to involve an expert to ensure the noises the actors made actually sounded like a language. Enter professor of linguistics, Dr Marc Okrand.
The First 'Proper' Language
Dr Okrand took the sounds of Klingon from the original movie, and developed a structure to the language. In keeping with Klingons' warrior nature, the language he developed was heavily verb-based - Klingons are creatures of action, first and foremost.
Having generated some coherent dialogue for the film, Dr Okrand recognised an opportunity, and developed the language further, compiling The Klingon Dictionary. This book is more than a dictionary - it describes the sounds of Klingon (which are a varied collection of sounds, not all of them present or common in spoken English), the grammar of the language, and some sketchy details of the culture and habits of Klingons (eg Klingons have no word for 'hello'. The nearest you'll get to a greeting is nuqneH2 - pronounced 'nook-NEKH' - which means, 'what do you want?').
The interesting thing about Klingon, and what sets it apart from other created languages such as Esperanto, is that the intention was that it should appear, superficially at least, to be a natural language. There are therefore deliberate irregularities in the grammar, introduced specifically to make the language appear as though it has evolved over centuries like a real language. Unlike Elvish, which Tolkien based on existing languages, Klingon is entirely fabricated - there is, quite intentionally, no connection whatsoever with any language spoken on Earth.
Dr Okrand initially generated a vocabulary of around 2000 words, covering concepts including body parts, food, battles, honour, wars, spacecraft systems and weapons. This vocabulary was extended as more movies were made, and the addition of a Klingon named Worf on the bridge of the new Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation meant that opportunities for the use of the language became more frequent. A new edition of the Klingon dictionary was issued to include the new vocabulary invented for the films and TV show.
Klingons are fond of quoting proverbs. This is mainly because a scriptwriter can get a point across quickly, and give the impression of a rich background culture, by having a character quote something as the wisdom of his people. Examples include:
- Revenge is a dish which is best served cold3
- Four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man.
- The wind does not respect a fool.
- Act, and you may eat dinner. Think, and you may be dinner.
Klingon proverbs quoted in films or TV episodes were collected, translated and discussed in another volume, The Klingon Way. This is a very useful book for someone who wants to give the impression of being fluent in Klingon.
The continued presence of Worf, not just in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but in later seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, increased dramatically the extent to which Klingon culture was defined and explored by the writers. To keep up with this, an additional book, Klingon for the Galactic Traveller was produced, which included a much more in-depth discussion of Klingon culture and how it affects language. This was also an opportunity to provide yet more new 'official' vocabulary to the student of the language.
Reading a language on the page is one thing, but pronouncing it properly is quite another. There have been two instructional audio tapes produced by Dr Okrand, Conversational Klingon and Power Klingon, which can be used as a guide to pronunciation.
There has also been a CD-ROM, 'Star Trek: Klingon', which included a language lab programme with voice recognition software for the student to practice their pronunciation.
In-jokes in Klingon
There are a number of words and phrases in Klingon whose very form or meanings are well-hidden in-jokes.
For example, the word jav in Klingon is slang for 'prisoner'. It is, the book says, unclear how the word for the number six came to be associated with prisoners.
Similarly, the word for 'identical pair' is chang'eng, which certainly looks like a normal Klingon word. It's no coincidence, presumably, that the original 'Siamese (conjoined) twins' were named Chang and Eng.
When an actor wins an Oscar, they often say, 'I'd like to thank the academy', by which they mean the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science - AMPAS. If a winner were ever to deliver their acceptance speech in Klingon4, they'd need to know that the word for 'academy' is 'ampaS.
The Language Blossoms
It should not be assumed from the above that the Klingon language is merely an academic exercise by Dr Okrand designed to sell books and tapes to Star Trek fans. Granted, it may have started out that way - but these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Fans began discussing Klingon language and culture independently. A website, The Klingon Language Institute, was set up in 1992 to promote discussion of tlhIngan Hol, as the language calls itself. Enthusiasts gather at meets to talk about the language, and in more recent times, to talk in the language.
There are regular discussions of the vagaries of the language, on subjects such as 'Adverbials in Sentence Pairs' and 'Does ghoS take an object?'. Several of these discussions have been collected in a book entitled From the Grammarian's Desk, by Dr Lawrence M Schoen, director of the KLI.
There are now, as a result of this continuing effort, dozens of people fluent in Klingon, and many, many more who can readily curse or quote proverbs in the Warrior Tongue. As Star Trek continues to be a successful media phenomenon, the number of speakers of this language is bound to increase.
David Warner, as Chancellor Gorkon, delivered a throwaway joke line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, boasting: 'you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon'. For most Star Trek fans, this was worth a little chuckle. For a few, it was the inspiration for a serious project. There is now available a book, The Klingon Hamlet, a complete translation of Shakespeare's longest and possibly most complex play, by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader. The extent of this achievement should not be underestimated, especially as the original Klingon dictionary points out that the language lacks a verb meaning 'to be'.
Other scholars of Klingon are working on translations (or as they have it, 'restorations') of other works of Shakespeare, as well as epic stories such as 'Gilgamesh', and the Bible5.
So what's the point? For most fans, Klingon is fan jargon - a few words of a curse or proverb identify them as true fans. For a few, it is an interesting linguistic challenge much like a complex crossword puzzle. For the average viewer, it is merely window dressing on a weekly TV show - but window dressing far more developed and complex than most realise.