Why We Love to Learn Klingon: The Art of Constructed Languages

Flag of the Klingon Empire
Flag of the Klingon Empire.
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In 1996, linguist D’Armond Speers became notorious for attempting to raise his baby son Alec as the world’s first native speaker of Klingon, an invented language from the Star Trek universe. Speers eventually abandoned the experiment when his son showed a marked reluctance, at the tender age of five, to use the language, but that hasn’t stopped other Klingon enthusiasts from attempting the same feat. Which just goes to show two universally acknowledged truths: one, linguists often enjoy experimenting on small babies; and two, people can get very obsessive about artificial languages.

Conlangs

‘Constructed language’, or conlang, is the term commonly used to describe invented languages created by language enthusiasts. Unlike natural languages, they don’t develop organically from a speech community. Nonetheless, they can tell us a lot about how human languages work. And it’s clear that they inspire a certain kind of deep devotion in some people.

One frustration language idealists have about human languages is that it’s a messy business.

Since the Middle Ages, when the unofficial patron saint of nerds, Hildegard von Bingen, invented Lingua Ignota around 1150, there have been hundreds of artificial languages created. Now you might ask: Why would anyone create an entirely new language when we already have around 6,000 natural languages in the world today? Unlike many critically endangered languages, Klingon, which was invented by linguist Marc Okrand in 1984 and has a vocabulary of just a few thousand words, is currently experiencing an exponential growth in the number of learners. (Fun fact: Klingon has a myriad of words for hi-tech futuristic concepts, but does not have words for basic things like table or hello.) Why are artificial languages embraced while some natural human languages languish in obscurity?

One frustration language idealists have about human languages is that it’s a messy business. Languages are not always logical or regular—as much as some may want them to be—and exceptions abound. They’re not easy to learn. They’re constantly changing, misbehaving, splintering off into dialects, seemingly unstable to some of the more linguistically conservative among us. How, some have wondered, will the world’s many different cultures ever manage to communicate with each other, much less understand one another?

The Search for a Universal Language

Let’s consider constructed international auxiliary languages like Volapük, Interlingua, and Ido, as well as the one best known to the public: Esperanto. In an attempt to be universal, these languages were essentially cobbled together from bits and pieces of major European languages, with familiar though simplified grammar rules, supposedly making them easier to learn (for Europeans at least). Volapük, based on German, ultimately failed due to its creator’s refusal to relinquish control over the language’s development. Esperanto, on the other hand, has been studied around the world and has been allowed to develop through real usage—to the point where it’s now the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. It even has around 1,000 current native speakers, though many of them wouldn’t consider Esperanto their dominant language. Despite being around for over a hundred years, Esperanto has yet to become the world’s universal language. But will it eventually succeed?

Esperanto was meant to be easy for everyone to learn and use, but who wants to speak a language that’s purely functional?

I’m not sure anyone really believes Esperanto will ultimately unite the world into one happy language community (even if it was invented to promote world peace), though it does have the advantage of being widely known. One criticism of Esperanto is that though it was designed top down with rationality and regularity in mind, it lacked an underlying cultural community. It was meant to be easy for everyone to learn and use, but who wants to speak a language that’s purely functional? After all, people don’t learn popular natural languages such as French or Mandarin because they’re easy, but because they’d like access to the culture in which the language is situated. For non-speakers, it’s not exactly easy to pinpoint what Esperanto “culture” actually is—it’s all a bit too neutrally international.

Compared to the relatively slow adoption of Esperanto, why has the world of fantasy languages like Klingon from Star Trek, Na’vi from Avatar, the Elvish languages from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Dothraki from Game of Thrones, enjoyed so much immediate and enthusiastic attention? People can be intensely devoted to these fictional languages. It’s only recently that serious study has been done on the artificial languages found in narratives from literature and film, as Ria Cheyne discusses in “Created Languages in Science Fiction.” What’s interesting is that, unlike Esperanto, some of these fictional languages have often been created with real linguistic complexity, designed to be inaccessible and were never meant to be used like a natural language. But that hasn’t stopped fans from trying to learn it.

Why We Relish the Challenge

Invented languages found in literature are really examples of linguistic artistry, language for art’s sake, not necessarily for real world utility or universality. As Cheyne points out, the conlangs that appear in science fiction may have many communicative functions, but they ultimately serve to show how different the speakers are from humans—how very alien.

It’s through these unfamiliar alien languages that readers can often be exposed to other world viewpoints and play with ideas in that universe—linguistic relativity in space so to speak.

It’s through these unfamiliar alien languages that readers can often be exposed to other world viewpoints and play with ideas in that universe—linguistic relativity in space so to speak. Fictional languages like Klingon are deliberately designed not to be easy and familiar, but difficult and very different. At the same time, these languages are an unfinished puzzle and open to anyone wanting to participate in their development of a speech community.

Strangely enough, the more ‘alien’ the language, the more we can learn about our own messy human languages and how ‘weird‘ they can seem. Marc Okrand, the creator of Klingon, explains how he deliberately tried to violate human language universals in order to make Klingon seem alien, from the unusual set of sounds in its phoneme inventory to using uncommon syntactic rules, such as the object-verb-subject word order seen only in about 1% of the world’s languages. These elements incidentally make Klingon similar to a few of the world’s endangered natural languages that aren’t so well beloved. It also makes Klingon, still a growing language, fairly difficult to master, much less generate true native speakers. (Though apparently many enthusiastic though sadly ungrammatical fans are totally fine with “seriously bad Klingon” for their weddings, parties, anything).

Although to outsiders it might seem bemusing—maybe even a little wacky—to get so excited about fictional languages, the number of users is increasing rapidly. More than 250,000 copies of Okrand’s Klingon dictionary have been sold (though the number of fluent speakers is considerably less). The deliberate ‘alien’ complexities of Klingon, designed to be difficult for an English speaker to learn, have not stopped its fans from expanding its range. You can now enjoy Shakespeare (or Wil’yam Sheq’spir) in the ‘original Klingon‘ for example. Even Duolingo is getting in on it, with a plan to launch a Klingon language course. Klingon, which was only invented some twenty-five years ago compared to Esperanto’s 125, is arguably already one of the more widely used or influential fictional languages in the world.

So why has the learning of Klingon and other fictional languages become so popular, despite their difficulties? Some endangered languages are also difficult to learn, yet don’t inspire the same kind of intense interest. It could be that fictional languages provide an instant, inclusive, cultural back story for that language, something that Esperanto has been slow to develop. You can immediately define what kind of society and culture uses a certain conlang, because it’s part of the world-building of a story—and learners are welcome participants in developing that culture. The Klingons, for instance, are described as a warrior race, with certain ideas about aggression and honor. (We also know that apparently Klingons enjoy the opera and eating serpent worms.) Whether admired or despised, it allows the dedicated to be a part of that culture—in the same way that we may engage French culture by learning French. This ultimately has a motivating, imaginative, and enriching power for language learning and community building that other constructed languages might have to build from the ground up.


JSTOR Citations

Created Languages in Science Fiction

By: Ria Cheyne

Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Nov., 2008), pp. 386-403

SF-TH Inc

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has advanced degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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