Excuse me, do you speak Klingon?

A delightful journey through the realm of invented languages and its cast of dreamers, weirdos and obsessives.

Topics: Books,

Excuse me, do you speak Klingon?

According to Arika Okrent’s highly entertaining book “In the Land of Invented Languages,” the two most popular invented languages in the delirious, 900-year history of such endeavors serve to tell us something about the possibilities and limitations of the whole idea. By invented languages, Okrent does not mean pig Latin or secret codes or the fragmentary gobbledygook often concocted to represent alien speech by fantasy authors. (I’m sorry, Lovecraftians, but “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl Cthulhu fhtagn” does not a language make.) She means a language with its own fully constructed vocabulary and grammar, which is potentially or hypothetically capable of replacing the flawed, irregular, piecemeal “natural” languages virtually all of us speak.

By far the most successful invented language in history was created in 1887 by Ludwik Zamenhof, who grew up in the city of Bialystok, on the western fringe of the Russian empire (today it’s in Poland). In those years Bialystok was divided into hostile ethnic and linguistic camps — Russians, Poles, Germans and Yiddish-speaking Jews, including Zamenhof’s family. While 21st-century mores might demand that we view such a community as a fascinating multicultural experiment, Zamenhof felt its linguistic diversity only as a “heavy sadness.”

So at age 28, Zamenhof spent his wife Klara’s dowry to self-publish a book he called “Lingvo internacia,” introducing the world to a new universal language that would counteract the rising tide of nationalism and hatred with a “linguistic handshake,” and provide a neutral ground “where people of different nations can communicate as equals.” Zamenhof renounced any copyright to his book — making him a pioneer not merely of the invented-language movement but also the open-source movement — and signed it with a name that meant “one who hopes” in his new language: Dr. Esperanto.

Despite being unremittingly mocked by journalists and linguists over the past 120 years, Esperanto has innumerable advantages over every other proposed universal language. You’ve actually heard of it, for one thing. The late 19th and early 20th centuries produced a cluster of forgotten or nearly forgotten competitors: Universalglot, Volapük, Interlingua, Ido, Glosa, Globaqo, Novial, and so on. Furthermore, Esperanto is an ingenious attempt to simplify and standardize various common elements of Romance or Germanic languages, and if you can speak any of those, it’s genuinely easy to pick up. (Here is the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “Cu esti au ne esti — tiel staras nun la demando.”) There are at least 50,000 to 100,000 people who speak it today, and avid Esperantists claim a much higher number than that.

That may not sound too impressive in a world that includes more than 1 billion speakers of Mandarin Chinese and 800 million or so speakers of English, itself a bastardized Germanic-Romance hybrid that long ago usurped the role of global lingua franca coveted by Esperanto. Hell, even at an upper-level estimate Esperantists are outnumbered by speakers of the Peruvian indigenous language Qusqu-Qullaw (4 million), Kyrgyz, the national language of Kyrgyzstan, in central Asia (3 million), and the West Germanic dialect called Limburgish (1.6 million). But if Zamenhof’s followers have thoroughly failed to unite the world in linguistic brotherhood, they have defied the odds, Okrent says, in producing both a living language and a distinctive (not to say distinctively odd) culture to go along with it.

There are scant similarities between Esperanto and Invented Language No. 2 on Okrent’s list, but here’s the biggie: People who speak either of them are seen as hopeless weirdos by the outside world. Language No. 2 is only 25 years old and was definitely not created to serve the cause of universal brotherhood. It is not the uncopyrighted property of all humanity, but rather the trademarked invention of a major corporation. It is maddeningly and indeed deliberately difficult to learn, and doing so has no practical or theoretical usefulness, either now or in some contemplated future utopia. “Hamlet” has been published in that language too, and here’s how the soliloquy starts: “taH pagh taHbe’. DaH mu’tlheghvam vIqelnIS.”

Yeah. Klingon. Developed between 1982 and 1984 by a linguistics Ph.D. named Marc Okrand for the Paramount Pictures release “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” the language of a fictitious warrior race from outer space might be the most successful invented tongue of the entire 20th century. Okrand’s “Klingon Dictionary” has sold more than 300,000 copies, but as Arika Okrent observes, a dictionary-buyer is not a language-speaker. She estimates that a few thousand people know a little Klingon, several hundred can read and write it, and perhaps a few dozen can speak it fluently. At a qep’a', or Klingon conference, that Okrent attended in Phoenix, most conversations she observed took place with the aid of dictionaries on hand-held devices. (The first spoken sentence she could understand was “Ha’DIbaH vISopbe,” or “I am a vegetarian,” an extremely un-Klingon thing to say.)

Still, it’s amazing that such conversations were happening at all. Marc Okrand is a student of various Native American languages, which are notoriously difficult for speakers of Indo-European languages to learn, and in creating Klingon he borrowed rare and unfamiliar grammatical and syntactical rules, along with tongue-twisting sound combinations, from those and other little-known world languages. Klingon verbs have 29 different prefixes to indicate subject and object agreement, Klingon sentences have a highly unorthodox word order (object-verb-subject), and Klingon vocabulary can be almost endlessly agglutinated, meaning that long phrases can be stuck together into single words. (The supposed Klingon proverb “If it is in your way, knock it down,” is expressed in just two words: “Dubotchugh yIpummoH.”) Okrent says her reaction to Klingon, as an accredited linguist, was that “it was completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd.”

I guess that last part goes without saying. Klingon and Esperanto have both created odd, outsider cultures, and have both invited derision from the mundane, natural-language world, but it’s important to reiterate that the intentions behind them could hardly be more different. Esperanto represents the non-triumphant culmination of many efforts to foster worldwide peace and equality by breaking down language barriers. Whether they admit it or not, Esperantists are presumably disappointed that their language, designed to be spoken by ordinary people all over the world, has instead become the focus of a minuscule and familiar kind of subculture. As Okrent describes it, “Esperantoland” is a realm of aging socialists and hippies, nudist vegetarians, pot-smoking anarchists, folk musicians and backpackers, and other sweet-natured dreamers determined to resist the global hegemony of English.

But not even the most ardent speaker of Klingon expects or wants it to be adopted by the United Nations. It is a new variety of invented language, one meant to be exclusive rather than inclusive, and one whose point is to be pointless. It invites fans to ramp up their fandom to absurd levels, and lifelong social outsiders to go nuclear with their outsiderness. As Okrent diplomatically puts it, “Klingon is a type of puzzle that appeals to a type of person.” Even she, a double Ph.D. in linguistics and psychology who is clearly delighted by the challenge of learning such a difficult language, has some trouble dining with cape-wearing, rubber-foreheaded companions (among them a fellow named Captain Krankor) who insist on bewildering the waitress at a Thai restaurant with their guttural Klingon grunts.

Okrent covers a lot of material besides Klingon and Esperanto in “In the Realm of Invented Languages,” but those two languages lie at the heart of her book in ways she only partly recognizes. She takes a halfhearted stab, in fact, at describing the entire nutty, colorful and almost unbearably pathetic history of language invention in less than 300 pages, thereby ending up with a book that’s not all that focused but is too brief to be comprehensive. She’s a wonderfully warm and witty tour guide to this alternate universe, amused by the hubris and grandiose rhetoric that tends to accompany this myriad of failed projects, but unfailingly sympathetic to the urge to improve on the unstable existing methods of human communication.

She spends quite a bit of time on John Wilkins, an Englishman who briefly rode the crest of a 17th-century wave, the desire to invent a “philosophical language” that bore no relationship to any natural languages and would reflect the true nature of things. Wilkins’ utterly unusable language was derived from an immense treelike chart of the Aristotelian variety, running several hundred pages and meant to categorize everything in the universe. To find the word for “dog,” you had to drill down through the following categories: Special>creature>distributively>substances>animate>species>sensitive>sanguineous>Beasts>viviparous>clawed>rapacious>Dog-Kind (oblong-headed).

As Okrent notes, this Monty Python-style taxonomy tells us a lot more about 17th-century language and thought than it does about how to identify dogs, or the universe in which they live. (Why “oblong-headed”? And what do “sensitive” and “distributively” mean in this context?) While gleefully following a quest to find Wilkins’ word for “shit,” Okrent uncovers various delightful period euphemisms for the act or product of bodily excretion, including “Siege,” “easment,” “Jakes,” “Privy House of office” and, best of all, “Sir-reverence.” Wilkins left behind a marvelous catalog of early modern English usage, and accidentally invented the system later used by Peter Mark Roget to create the thesaurus. He did not, however, invent a language ever used by anyone.

Wilkins’ unreadable and unpronounceable language has virtually nothing in common with Esperanto, which does not try to intellectualize itself above natural languages but rather to Cuisinart them together and tamp down their peculiarities. And neither of them much resembles sociologist James Cooke Brown’s “tiny model language” Loglan — based on the apparatus of formal logic, and cooked up as a scientific experiment in the late 1950s — or its successor Lojban, which resulted from one of the bloody schisms that seem to plague the invented-language world. (Then there’s the “woman’s language” Láadan, invented by linguist and science-fiction author Suzette Haden Elgin in 1984.) But all of those are essentially utopian projects, based on the premise that our ordinary languages can’t adequately express what we mean to say.

But Klingon and the veritable explosion of Internet-abetted “artlangs” and “conlangs” (artificial languages and constructed languages, respectively) that have followed it are not based on any such assumption. Some are languages that could conceivably be spoken by humans and others are fanciful creations designed for armless, legless, voiceless life forms in a distant galaxy. Most inventors of such languages are emulating natural languages, not trying to transcend them; eccentricity, irregularity and difficulty are prized, as long as they are adequately thought out.

If the nature of invented languages has changed, it’s because the world around them has changed. One could look at the media universe, where mass-based broadcasting has been replaced by niche-based narrowcasting, for a parallel. (If Esperanto is a failed broadcast medium, Klingon is a highly successful narrowcasting one). More broadly still, the entire modernist project of utopianism, which produced Ludwik Zamenhof as surely as it produced Karl Marx, has become disreputable. Okrent sees this, at least in part and in passing, but she doesn’t quite see how central it is to her argument, and spends a lot of time and energy establishing what we already know: Natural languages are good enough for almost all of us, and in our postmodern age the ideal of perfect communication, uprooted from nationality, ethnicity and tribal identity, has pretty much vanished.

Okrent is so sharp and engaging when discussing how and why languages work that her tone-deafness when it comes to anything approaching popular culture is more than a little baffling. She admits that she attended that Phoenix Klingon conference knowing nothing about the “Star Trek” universe, but in that case, at least, she subsequently did some homework. Bizarrely, she appears to know next to nothing about “Lord of the Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien, a towering figure in linguistic and philological history, and the father of the entire conlang movement. I guess Okrent is a hotshot modern-day academic linguist and Tolkien occupies the blind spot in her rearview mirror, but the effect is something like reading a book on American history that barely mentions Thomas Jefferson.

Very late in her book, Okrent offers a three-page summary of Tolkien’s linguistic inventions, which I assume was tacked on at the last minute and appears to be cribbed entirely from Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography. (She does not pretend to have done any original research.) It’s clear that she has never read “Lord of the Rings,” seen the film versions or otherwise encountered Quenya and Sindarin, the two Elvish languages (based respectively on Finnish and Welsh) around which Tolkien developed his fictional universe. She seems to have no idea that extensive para-scholarly institutions and resources, both online and elsewhere, are devoted to exploring and disseminating Tolkien’s Elvish languages.

Statistics for this sort of thing are tough to come by, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least as many Elvish speakers as Klingon speakers. Quenya and Sindarin predate Klingon by 30 years, and while the latter was created to add depth and dimension to existing stories, Tolkien literally wrote his stories in order to give his languages life.  Tolkien once wrote that he admired Esperanto for its “individuality, coherence and beauty,” and while he might have found the first or second qualities in Klingon, he might also have seen it as a grotesque, decadent and deliberately ugly concoction (since it is).

Tolkien’s languages, one might say, form the missing link between Esperanto and Klingon. They mark a solitary moment of anti-modernist aesthetic innocence. Language creation had abandoned the quest to be universal and had become a “private vice” (in Tolkien’s phrase). It had not yet become a Heidegger-grade exercise in puzzle-solving, a social forum for outcasts, a commodity to be bought and sold by Paramount Pictures or an excuse for terrifying waitresses.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>