Excuse me, do you speak Klingon?

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

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 3, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

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.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------