Tag Archives: tlhingan-hol

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.

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Hov leng qoS 50DIch

(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