Tag Archives: weirdthingsivedone

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.


The faults in our stars

So about a year ago, I sent a letter to a complete stranger. I was fifty-fifty even then on whether I’d receive a reply at all and I still feel like a bit of a weirdo for having sent it in the first place; by now it was to the point where I’d forgotten I’d even sent the original letter. But in the mail this week I received a reply letter, postmarked Louisville, Kentucky. This is what was in the envelope.


Yes, I wrote a letter to Jennifer Lawrence. Although I have a pretty fair collection of autographed memorabilia (most are books, and most of those are signed by their authors, and most of those are people I either knew already as friends, or was introduced to by friends or family), writing fanmail is not a pastime I make a regular practice of – not only can it be pretty expensive to write letters from Australia to Europe or the US, especially if one would want to receive something back, but in general I don’t have any more admiration for actors, musicians, sportspeople, and other celebrities than I do for any other group of people. Though top-flight actors and sportspeople might get paid ridiculously moreso than virtually anyone else on Earth short of corporate rorting ratfink bigwigs CEOs, they’re just people like any other, doing a job that they’ve trained to do and that they’re paid to do, and my attitude is generally to treat them as such. (Last year, I took a friend visiting from Germany out into the City to have dinner and a beer at an Irish pub I like; while we were in the pub sipping on pints of Guinness – an obligatory first beer for me whenever I visit an Irish pub – my friend all of a sudden recognised a man with a companion at a table behind us, and it turned out the man was Nick Frost, frequent collaborator of Simon Pegg and actor in Shaun of the Dead, Kinky Boots, and Hot Fuzz. And while we were both surprised to see him eating in O’Malley’s on Queen Street, of all places, we made the conscious – and quite easy – decision to just leave him and his companion to enjoy their evening out together. We smiled and nodded at him as we left; that was the sum total of our interaction.) Consequently, I’m not one to go nuts with fanmail.

There have, however, been precisely two occasions in my life where I’ve been moved to write to a celebrity – and more to the point, to someone I didn’t know in person at all – in order to tell them something I felt they deserved to hear, not to approach them as a capital-C-Cᴇʟᴇʙʀɪᴛʏ, but to approach them as a fellow human being who succeeded in touching my life in a small way, just in the same way as I’d leave a friend a note to cheer them up, just as I’d thank someone who picked up something I dropped. The first time was to Delta Goodrem back in 2003, when the news broke that she had been diagnosed with lymphoma. She was 18, and I little more than a year older, at 19; more to the point, though, my grandfather was at that time in the middle of his own long battle with lymphoma as well. The combination of the two was an unsettling first confrontation with the real potential of mortality for the first time in my adult life, and so in an effort to face those grim thoughts head-on, I decided to write a short letter to wish Delta well in her fight. I never sought a reply nor expected one, but several months later an envelope addressed to me, with no stamp and no return address, was dropped in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was a Delta Goodrem postcard, bearing a simple but lovely handwritten message on the back:

Thank you for your letter, and kind thoughts / x D

So that was the only other time. And like the first, the reason I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t actually to ask for her autograph. That was a complete afterthought, more or less along the lines of “hell, if I’m going to send a letter to her anyway, I may as well ask if she could sign my copy of Silver Linings Playbook“. I was moved to write to her for another reason entirely, and that was the fact that in the last couple of years, she’s made use of the enormously visible platform she occupies to speak out – more than once – about her experiences with social anxiety. (A couple of articles detailing her opening up about these issues can be found here, and if you read French, here.) As a sufferer of (among other things) a social anxiety disorder myself, and a friend to several others who also struggle with this sometimes debilitating illness, I was almost startled to hear someone speak frankly about their own experiences with anxiety in an open and public forum, and intensely grateful that someone with such influence upon the world’s media was willing to sacrifice her personal privacy in exchange for the betterment of awareness about an issue around which a great deal of stigma still revolves. The same feeling of surprise would have come if it were anyone in the public eye to any degree: a tennis player like Roger Federer, or a royal figure like the Duchess of Cambridge, or even Melissa Downes who reads the Channel Nine news. And so it was that I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence, of all people, to thank her for her forthrightness:

Partly it’s unclear to me why I felt so drawn to write to you, someone I’ve neither met nor seen except on a screen (whether it’s been in your film work, or interviews you’ve given to the broader press). What I do know is that part of my impetus was learning recently from one of your interviews about your confrontation with social anxiety, which hit me in a rather personal way that I wasn’t expecting. Because some unkind people still do stigmatise or minimise anxiety’s impact, as a sufferer myself I’m grateful for your willingness to be honest and open about those issues… though I know that isn’t why you do what you do, I still felt it was important to let you know, and I thought you might like to know, that you’re genuinely inspiring to me as I battle through my own challenges, and I’m sure to many, many others as they battle through theirs.

So I suppose my motive for requesting that she sign the cover of my copy of Silver Linings Playbook was twofold. In one way, the simple fact was that I was writing to her anyway, and I thought that, since I was already paying for postage to the US, it would be nice to have her sign a DVD of the movie for which she won an Academy Award. But the second and more important reason was, I suppose, that to be able to see her signature there – on the front of a movie whose entire plot revolves around the challenges of mental illness, no less – is a reminder of the fact that I was moved to write to her in the first place by her willingness to talk about her own battle; a reminder of someone who’s successfully working through her own anxiety to reach the pinnacle of success in her chosen field; and a reminder that anxiety need be neither invincible nor eternal.