Apr 7, 2010 by

Na’vi, the language invented for the feature film Avatar and discussed in my previous posting, is by no means the first language created especially for a movie. Star Trek fans are, no doubt, familiar with the Klingon language that was developed for the series. While the original attempt at creating Klingon was made by James Doohan, the actor who portrayed Montgomery Scott, later the task of creating a full-fledged artificial language was given to Marc Okrand, a linguist who wrote on the grammar of Mutsun, a dialect of Ohlone (an extinct Utian language formerly spoken in the north central Californian coastal areas) and was instrumental in developing the first closed-captioning system for hearing-impaired TV viewers. Based on the words made up by Doohan, Okrand proceeded to create a working language, with a more extensive vocabulary and complex grammar.

As with Na’vi, the biggest problem in creating Klingon was to make it sound alien enough without being too difficult for human (and English-speaking) actors to pronounce. The way that Okrand approached this problem was two-fold: first, he broke some of the rules that are universal for human languages, and second, he incorporated some of the rarest sounds and grammatical structures that are found in only a few natural languages. For example, unlike all human languages, Klingon does not have the [a] sound. Instead, it has the tlh sound (in a phoneticist’s lingo, a voiceless alveolar affricate with lateral release), which is unusual to English speakers, but common in North and Central American indigenous languages (for example, it is the sound at the end of the word Nahuatl).

Okrand applied the same principles to the syntax of Klingon: for instance, he chose the rarest pattern of word order, the Object-Verb-Subject pattern: instead of saying “I boarded the Enterprise”, the Klingon construction is translated as “The Enterprise boarded I.” This pattern is found in just a handful of languages, such as Hixkaryana and Apalaí (spoken in northern Brazil), Arekuna (spoken in Guyana), Panare (spoken in Venezuela), Bacairí (spoken in southern Brazil), all of which count about 1000 speakers together. Another peculiar feature of the Klingon syntax is the lack of adjectives; there is no word for ‘greedy’, but there is a verb, qur, which means ‘to be greedy’. This is also uncommon (but not impossible) in natural human languages. Also, unlike natural languages, Klingon has a very small vocabulary, about 2,000 words. It would be hard to discuss art or choose paint colors in Klingon, as it has just one word for ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘yellow’.

But despite all these shortcomings and unusual patterns, Klingon achieved great popularity among Star Trek fans and others. They bought 250,000 copies of The Klingon Dictionary published by Marc Okrand in 1985; founded the Klingon Language Institute, which publishes multiple magazines in the language; and published Klingon translations of Hamlet and the Bible. One needs to learn the language in order to advance in the video game Star Trek: Klingon. According to the 2006 edition of Guinness World Records, Klingon is the most widely spoken artificial language by number of speakers; it is also one of many language interfaces in the Google search engine. But despite the popularity, only about a dozen people are actually fluent in Klingon; neither Marc Okrand himself, nor the actors who played in the movie can speak Klingon fluently.

In the next posting, we will look at another language, originally artifically created, but then able to become a true natural language — Esperanto.

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