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tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.


22 Days of Musing: 20

20. Counselling my future self.

Last night I got into a little of a rambling reminiscence about the first painting I did as self-treatment for a fairly black phase of depression, and I shared the painting itself, which I’m now realising that I probably should have done tonight so that while I talk about it, it’d be here in front of you. But never mind – I may as well share it again here, and since it’s my blawg, what I say goes. This isn’t any kind of a democracy, after all.

Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

The depiction is of the elven queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings (portrayed in the films by Cate Blanchett) farewelling the Fellowship of the Nine as they leave the forests of Lothlórien. While the theme is admittedly maudlin, it’s also deliberately rich in symbolism. It draws upon Galadriel’s own fate, and that of all her kind: destined to fade into the West as the world passes from the Elves’ dominion, she passes the responsibility for the destiny of Middle-earth into the hands of those she farewells, and to Frodo she gives a gift of light even as she herself recognises that she will soon diminish and go into the West. That’s what the Quenya inscription says (and devising a Quenya translation and tengwar transcription of the phrase, which is spoken in the film only in English and never shown in writing of any stripe, was intended also to give me something to occupy and interest my brain).

Lyen antanyë i silme Eärendilwa, ammelda elenelma.
Nai cálë lyen nauva mornë nómessen,
írë ilyë exë calmar isintanier.
[I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star.
May it be a light for you in dark places,
when all other lights go out.]

Because of this desire to develop a symbolic structure for this work, not only the topic of the painting, but many of its details, were also specifically selected to bear meaning of their own. The deep blue tone of the background symbolises the sensation of depression that was crushing me at the time under its enormity; the expression on Galadriel’s face, a calm and yet slightly sad acceptance of the inevitability of her fate, was intended to suggest my feelings of becoming resigned to – though still not at all pleased with – enduring the long dark. The broad, empty space between her and the light she gives freely to the one she farewells represents the distance I sensed between myself and normality, the pure but faint and solitary luminosity of the star Eärendil likewise representing the ethereal and perhaps almost illusory possibility of a brightness coming to render the dark powerless. All were intentional symbolic choices on my part. Even the golden hue of the inscription recalls the beginning of one of Galadriel’s verses of lamenting the autumn of her era:

Ai! laurie lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

[Ah, like gold fall the leaves in the wind;
long years numberless as the wings of trees!]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, Namarië (Farewell)

The title I gave to the painting, Ú-chebin galad anim, similarly constructs an allusion to another Tolkienian reference. The phrase is in Tolkien’s other major Elvish language, Sindarin, and means “I have kept no light for myself”; it parallels a similarly-phrased line from the linnod or verse aphorism spoken by Aragorn’s mother Gilraen as she gave her son over to the Elves for protection:

Ónen i-Estel Edain; ú-chebin estel anim.
[I gave hope to the Dúnedain; I have kept no hope for myself.]
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Appendix A

What I sought to do with this painting, I suppose, was to imbue it with all of the feelings of chagrin and emptiness and pain and hopelessness and fatalism that I was experiencing at the time, to memorialise and immortalise those feelings in pigment on canvas. The conceptual framework of The Lord of the Rings and its story and mythology was merely a convenient, though rich and familiar, symbolic language in which I could cast those thoughts visually. But my aim in doing that was actually not to wallow in the blackness: far from it, in fact. Instead, my thought was that by exploring all of these sensations as I painted, I would seek almost to entrap or imprison the dark, agonising feelings within that moment of time, and thereby allow me to project and communicate hope, and cheer, and well wishes for my future self – the one that would later see and experience the completed depiction and all its rich symbolism – even as I couldn’t see hope for myself in that moment. And in some ways it seems, strangely, to have succeeded; whenever I raise my eyes to the painting as I walk down the hall towards my room, I see Galadriel looking straight back at me, raising her hand in empathy and peace and love, and symbolically passing to me a little of the light, and the hope, that when I first put brush to canvas I’d been unable to find – or keep – for myself.

22 Days of Musing: 19

19. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Actually, because I mentioned it in last night’s reflection as well as the nominee I chose – a friend who happens to be a spectacular artist herself – I find myself thinking more about painting, a pastime that I mentioned I’d engaged in on occasion. This might seem to be well and truly off point, but I promise that I have a reason for talking about this. I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic; although music’s always had a role in my life (or at least, it did up until depression set in in earnest) and I enjoyed playing and listening to music of a wide range of types, I’ve always thought of myself as having little to no skill at all in the visual arts. Many years ago (and we’re talking many years, as in, back when I was in high school) I did ponder taking up the art of cartooning and took a workshop to that end, and in all fairness it’s true that I do appreciate the beauty of a unique piece of visual artwork. There was great wonder and excitement in visiting the art and archaeology museums I’ve experienced around the world – the National Gallery in Melbourne, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Getty in Los Angeles – that contain spectacular examples of art both ancient and modern. At the Met, I fell in love with the work of Johannes Vermeer; at Olympia, the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos of Praxiteles. But largely, my experience of these artworks has been with the understanding that I could neither imagine nor execute works of such beauty and vividness, and with this knowledge I was, and remain, largely content. But in late 2012, about eighteen months after starting on my first antidepressant medication, I experienced another period of darkness mainly focused upon the time around Christmas (a holiday that in recent years has come to give me less and less joy, to the point where I no longer look forward to it at all; but that’s a story for another time, I think). Each time I’ve fallen deeply into the pit of depression, I’ve noticed something that has deserted me; in this instance, it was my ability to maintain focus for any length of time. Even when I wished to write an email to a friend, I’d write perhaps one sentence, then have my focus begin inexorably drifting in a manner that I found I was unable to control – such that it would take me weeks to write and send an email to someone I wanted to stay in touch with. And so it was in early January of 2013 that I found myself scrabbling for ways to claw back some of the focus that had by that point entirely deserted me. What I decided at that time was that I needed to find something that I had a solid theoretical knowledge about, but that I was entirely unskilled at: something that wasn’t time-sensitive but demanded periods of specific focus, something that, because I wasn’t naturally skilled at it, would occupy many parts of my mind all at once in order to execute successfully. And what I decided upon was painting. At the time I’d only recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a story and fictional universe I’ve always taken much enjoyment from, and so it was from here that I drew inspiration. And I was successful, in the main; after three weeks of this self-administered focus treatment, this was the result, which now hangs above my door in a place where it looks over me every time I go into my room. (Forgive the curvature at the top and bottom; to get a sufficiently detailed shot, I had to take the photo from close enough to cause this distortion as well.)

Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

Unlike some of my subsequent paintings, which have been done largely just to keep my hands and my mind busy, with virtually every aspect of this painting I spent much time developing the theme and filling the piece with rich symbolism; it quickly moved past being simply a picture to paint, and has come to take on a more deeply therapeutic role. The role of this specific piece of work in my self-treatment for depression has been significant, and I think I’ll explain exactly how in tomorrow’s reflection, as it’s a little convoluted.