The languages people use were built long ago and have been undergoing daily changes ever since. But what about modern, constructed languages, created by individuals for various needs? A feature on why we need Klingon, Elvish and other conlangs.
The need of language
Can man think without language?
Man proves his ability to reflect, by, in the total ocean of sensations, isolating one wave, bringing it to a stop, driving his full attention on it.
Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)
The environment around human beings is complex and inconstant; Survival is hence a matter of understanding and interpreting it in a way that serves human nature.
The word makes the thought: I speak, ergo I think– and vice versa.
Since language elegantly serves the human need to understand the natural and social environment, it is no wonder that the currently estimated number of existing languages lies between 3.500 and 7.000.
Somewhere amongst Tonga, Afrikaans and German lies a language which has been recognized by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority as an official constructed language, aka conlang: Klingon.
So… tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh’a’?
(Do you speak Klingon?)
The Klingonian language was built by American linguist Marc Okrand, in order to give a more realistic impression of the Klingons’ appearance in the world of Star Trek. In contrast to Tolkien’s Elvish, Klingon is a relatively young conlang, as its main work of study (The Klingon Dictionary) was not published until 1985. Nowadays, the Klingon Language Institute is responsible for the maintenance and development of the language.
But is Klingon a real language? And do we need it?
As elaborated above, languages can differ but they share one common characteristic: their instrumental nature, meaning, their function as tools for human needs. In this case, Klingon was not designed for daily use or a real-life setting; However, what originally was meant to be an interesting movie feature, is currently a language spoken by thousands of Star Trek enthusiasts around the world.
Still not convinced?
In 2013, the Opera U was performed at the Haus der Kulturen in Berlin. In Klingon. And the audience understood every syllable.
So where there is a demand, there is not only an offer, but also a language; And Klingon definitely is one.
But what are Klingons, and what makes their language so special? They belong to a warrior tribe in Star Trek; And this is crucial for the building of the conlang. Klingon is considered a very aggressive and forceful sounding language, serving the needs of battle and war.
Moreover, since Klingon is a real constructed language, it not only consists of 2,500 words. It also shows an impressively rational grammar and syntax order. Interestingly, it is ruled by an amazing sentence construction in an object-verb-subject (OVS) order. Having studied the linguistic patterns of native populations in South America, founder Marc Okrand selected this particular OVS sentence order because only 1% of the officially acknowledged languages worldwide share it; usually found in tribes in Oceania and Latin America. Therefore, Klingons sound alien to our ears. How? Just follow this.
OVS ordered sentences put emphasis on the object of the message, not the actor (subject) or the activity (verb) (e.g The meal cooked the man). Again, it becomes obvious how wonderfully language serves needs: In tribes, the individual tends to have less power and importance than the collective force; Hence, the subject, the individual, the ego, comes last in the sentence itself. This of course applies also to a warrior tribe like Klingon.
1. According to the 2006 edition of Guinness World Records, Klingon is the most spoken fictional language by number of speakers.
2. Bing! provides the opportunity to translate nearly every language into Klingon, both the official version and the piqaD style.
3. The Klingon version for Where is the bathroom is : nuqDaq ‘οH puchpa’’ e’
4. Hamlet, as well as the Bible, have been translated into Klingon.
5. In Klingon, the apostrophe (‘) is a full-fledged letter.
6. Mostly, capital letters are used to help remind you that a letter sounds differently in Klingon than it does in English.
7. For Star Trek fans on a budget: On August 1st, 2016, learning Klingon will be available on the free language-learning platform duolingo.
See for yourself how constructed languages where built, and why, in this Ted-Ed video.
Eventually, this is not an article exclusively dedicated to the Star Trek enthusiasts but to the lovers of language.
Klingon, as ugly and harsh as it may sound, is an amazing example of an individual building a perfectly functioning language. Just as Elvish and other conlangs, it is a powerful reminder of man’s ability to create words: And the more words are born, the more thoughts will follow.
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Cover image by Pixabay