(English: The 50th Birthday of Star Trek)
Today (well, just yesterday by now) marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast in the United States of Gene Roddenberry’s original science fiction series Star Trek. The fact that it managed to make it to air at all is itself due to a serendipitous confluence of circumstances, involving the vision of Gene Roddenberry and the foresight of Lucille Ball, who I just recently discovered was responsible – as the chair of the board at Desilu Productions – for overriding, in 1966, the almost unanimous decision of her board to cancel the series after the purchase of the second pilot. The fact that it’s gone on to have such immense success is a testament to the power of being given an opportunity against the odds, and the ceaselessness of the various incarnations of Trek – TV series, feature films, novels, computer games, technical manuals, and a wide variety of other media – demonstrates the power that the ideology of Star Trek holds even now. But I’m not writing this post in order to gasbag about the details of Star Trek history and Treknology, rich though those topics are; I’m neither qualified nor interested to discuss those topics in particular depth.
My connection to Star Trek is of a far more personal nature than an objective, dispassionate historical overview can outline, and what I’m reminded of today, on the half-century anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, is the impact it’s had on the lives of actual people, myself included. Star Trek‘s ideology has always been founded on highly progressive ideals, seeking itself to do as William Shatner’s pompous voice-over declaimed, and “boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before”. But it also builds a universe both diverse and spectacular, of federations, empires, and dominions of hundreds of planets, stretching over dozens of species and thousands of light-years, facing challenges and difficulties on far greater scales than even a single world could possibly imagine. Partly this was aimed at creating a fictional context in which one might allow imagination to take over on an immense scale, but in part the aim was deeper and more subtle, to use that setting to argue for those selfsame progressive ideals: to demonstrate just how petty and small the perceived “differences” between different groups of humans are, and how within a galaxy-wide perspective, we truly are far more alike than we are different if only we seek to realise it.
One of the more unusual moves in the franchise’s history was no doubt the decision to commission an actual constructed language for the Klingons, one of the alien races used most often in the various Star Trek series as a background to stories involving cultural clashes of many kinds. After having been brought on to develop Vulcan dialogue for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dr Marc Okrand, a linguist who did his doctoral dissertation on the grammar and syntax of the extinct Mutsun language of California (a very enjoyable and useful read for one whose interests lie, as mine do, in the area of recently-extinct languages… but I digress) and subsequently worked at the US National Captioning Institute, was commissioned to produce a Klingon language for the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The resulting language was published in 1985 in a little blue book called, unassumingly, The Klingon Dictionary, and it went into a second, expanded edition in 1992 after Marc was called upon to provide additional material for the fifth and sixth Star Trek films. The story of the language’s creation has been endlessly retold by many who are far more qualified than I (and I was two when the first edition was released, at any rate), so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say that this book, which by Marc’s own admission he never thought would be much more than a collector’s item for the shelves of die-hard Trekkies, has sold nearly a third of a million copies – indeed, The Klingon Dictionary may well be the best-selling descriptive grammar of all time – and has spawned an actual community of active speakers, speaking the Klingon language Marc devised (with the assistance of two further books as well as two audio courses, and continuing support that Marc graciously still gives to the Klingon-speaking community).
And that’s where my connection to Star Trek lies. Despite what’s alluded to on shows like The Big Bang Theory, the Klingon language isn’t fluently spoken by a particularly large number of people; the vast majority of the copies of The Klingon Dictionary that have been bought have, indeed, been bought as collector’s items, or by people vaguely interested in putting together a few sentences for a Klingon fanfic or cosplay. But about thirty of us worldwide (according to our best estimates) are capable of not just basic conversation, but sustained conversation of arbitrary length without reference to a dictionary, usually criterion enough to be considered “fluent” by any popular definition of that word. I’m one of those thirty or so conversational Klingon speakers. Not all of us came to the Klingon language through Star Trek, though; for me, it was quite the opposite. Languages with unusual and obscure properties have always fascinated me, as those of you who know about or are familiar with my work on the Caucasian language Ubykh (SHAMELESS PLUG, SHAMELESS PLUG) will already be aware, and certainly Klingon also fulfilled my criteria for an unusual language. I started studying it when I was just 17, still young and not really thinking about which language would come in most useful for me later in life. But what’s kept me going for the subsequent 16 years is not just the fascination with the language itself – although it is indeed fascinating, and especially given that the entire core of the grammar was put together relatively quickly in a short time in 1984 and has had minimal modifications since, it’s extraordinarily beautiful in its descriptive power. (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Daodejing have all been rendered into Klingon, and my own small contribution so far is a translation, in rhyming ballad verse, of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)
No, it’s not the fascination alone. What keeps me engaged with this language is that even as small as the Klingon-speaking community is, they’re perhaps the most well-educated, diverse, accepting, direct, intelligent, curious, funny, and wonderful group of human beings I’ve ever met. For many years my engagement was primarily through online communities, but I’ve also had the infinite pleasure of participating so far at three qep’a’mey, the annual Conferences of the Klingon Language Institute, in person, and as a result enjoyed some of the happiest and most memorable moments of my entire life. We sing songs in Klingon, we joke and laugh and play games and tell stories and read poetry in Klingon. Hell, we even eat in Klingon. (And let me tell you, that fourth meal of the day is the best of the lot: ghem, a midnight meal for which there’s no real term in English, is a common event seemingly aimed at keeping us awake and socialising for as long as possible – qep’a’ usually passes all too quickly for us all – and often we’ll be at Denny’s for ghem until two or three in the morning.) And the Klingonists I’ve met, both in person and online, are all splendid specimens of the finest humankind has to offer, and perhaps more richly diverse than any other group that could be circumscribed with a single descriptor. Within the circle of perhaps fifty Klingon-speaking people I know, there are speakers of more than 18 non-constructed languages, from Chinese to Irish, from American Sign Language to Jinghpaw. There are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, singles, couples, polyamorists. There are people who are male and female and cisgender and transgender and genderqueer and gender-nonconforming. We live in Canada and Australia and the US and Germany and Switzerland and Japan and Poland and Sweden and Greece. There are actors, and translators, and novelists; linguists, computer programmers, tour guides, singers; a guitarist and composer of Klingon three-part fugues with the most infectious laugh of anyone I know, a pilot who writes original Klingon and English novels in her spare time with the energy of the Duracell bunny, a hypnotist psycholinguist with Hugo and Nebula nominations under his belt, and a modest ex-closed-captioning director who taught Leonard Nimoy how to speak Vulcan. But even so, the nicest part of the community is that the diversity means everyone has a story to tell; everyone has a fascinating background that we can all share in and relish as a community. As Klingon speakers, we’re drawn together by our common bond of Klingon, but once together, it’s both the differences and the commonalities between us that we celebrate – in true Star Trek fashion, our diversity is what makes us so rich as a community.
So without Star Trek – without Gene Roddenberry, and without the single nod from Lucille Ball back in 1966 that ensured it would go to air – I would know none of these people, I would have had none of these experiences. This immensely wonderful little community would simply not exist. And though I would never have known it, I certainly would have been infinitely poorer for it; I can’t imagine not having these people in my life, whose love and friendship means so much to me. So happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek, and thank you for giving us this entertaining and thoughtful framework within which we can dream of reaching higher as human beings. I’ll finish, in the languages that Marc Okrand built for you, with this:
yIn nI’ yISIQ ‘ej yIchep (Klingon)
dif-tor heh smusma (Vulcan)
Live long and prosper