Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Apologies to the Klingons

Some time back, I made a snarky remark about Star Trek fans who had undertaken to translate the Bible into Klingon. Now, thanks to a new book by Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (Spiegel & Grau, 342 pages, $26), I see that I, not they, was misguided.

Ms. Okrent became fascinated with the visionaries — and cranks — who grew frustrated with the irregularities and illogicalities of the natural languages and sought to develop a pure, precise, regular, logical, international tongue. Most of them failed, as a look at the 500 artificial languages in her appendix will readily illustrate. And the 500 are only a partial listing.

You will want to travel with her to that strange crossroad where science and art and ambition and the quirky human personality collide.

The effort she describes is fascinating. An early example is a 17th-century member of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, whose Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language attempts in its six hundred pages “a hierarchical categorization of everything in the universe.” Because to have exact meanings, one must be able to classify meanings. Wilkins’s language came to nothing, but his exhaustive taxonomy prefigured the thesaurus of Peter Roget.

Another effort at logic was mounted in the 20th century by James Cooke Brown, the inventor of Loglan, which attempts to give each word a single, unambiguous meaning. Like Wilkins’s classifications, Brown’s language is exhaustive, as is its schismatic offshoot Lojban. The problem is that the attempt to arrive at single, unambiguous statements requires such extensive qualification, that it is virtually impossible, Ms. Okrent found, even for adepts to conduct a conversation in the language.

Perhaps the most successful artificial language is Esperanto, the creation of Ludwick Zamenhof, which is a kind of stripped-down generic Romance language whose devotees aspire to achieve international understanding and peace through its use. Though it has fallen short of its ambitious goal, there are large groups of people who use Esperanto, and even, Ms. Okrent found, people for whom it is a native tongue. One of those she encountered is Kim Henriksen, an accordion-playing Esperanto rock musician.

But even Esperanto, she finds, develops colloquialisms and minor irregularities, just like the natural languages, as people use it. The dream of a pure, regular, logical language is ever elusive.

Oh yes, Klingon, the creation of the linguist Marc Okrand. The little band of fans or hobbyists — call them what you will — who speak and write Klingon, who translated Hamlet into that language and who are working on the Bible won Ms. Okrent’s surprised respect. She attended a conference of speakers and passed the beginner’s exam in the language. And then there was this scene at the hotel:

“I looked around and saw, near the reception desk, a group of glossy-toothed ‘mundanes’ checking in to the hotel. They appeared to be in town for a sales meeting, or maybe just the wedding of an old fraternity brother. They looked at us, immediately noticing, of course, a costumed member of our group. One of these so-called normal people walked right up to him and, without asking for permission, took out his cell phone to take a picture, saying to no one in particular, and certainly not to the Klingon in question, ‘If I don’t get a picture of this, no one will believe me.’ The Klingon stood tall and posed like a true warrior. At that moment, I knew whose side I was on. The world of Klingon may be based on fiction, but living in it takes real guts.”

I apologize for my previous lack of honor.


  1. You've stepped off onto a slippery slope here, Prof. McIntyre. Better you should watch the NBA conference fnals.

  2. Conversations in Lojban are certainly possible and frequent, and we have even had a marriage proposal in the language. The main barrier to Lojbanists becoming really fluent is that there aren't enough other Lojbanists to speak with: it's a chicken-and-egg problem.

  3. I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but I've never understood the subgroup that's into the Klingon thing. I'll say this, though: They sure work hard. On their costuming and memorizing their fictional language. Interesting story, John. Thanks!

  4. I think you've been reasonably fair to Esperanto here, although you could have mentioned Esperanto's practical usefulness.

    Anyone interested in taking Esperanto further should take a look at

  5. This post seems to focus on only two varieties of constructed language: the proposed International Auxiliary Languages, such as Esperanto, and the languages invented in the pursuit of logical purity, such as Loglan/Lojban. Klingon, rather than being an exception, is an exemplar of the category containing in my experience the plurality of constructed languages: the "artlang", or artistic language. These are created either for the sheer fun of it, or on behalf of a fictional people. Few are as fully-fleshed out as Klingon - not even Tolkien's languages are so complete - but there are many such languages in literature and film. Burroughs' Barsoomian and Ape spring to mind, and C. S. Lewis's Solar. Of course alien languages abound in science fiction, as do mystical ones in fantasy. The Star Wars films exhibit great linguistic diversity, though several of the alleged "alien" languages are actually natural Earthbound languages that the producers hoped the audience (at the time, consisting of mostly-monolingual Americans) wouldn't recognize.

    Is this focus a property of the book as well?

    Mr. Apple: it might surprise you to learn that many of the more proficient Klingon speakers are not overly fond of Star Trek itself; it's the linguistic challenge posed by the language that attracts them. The popularity of the franchise draws a lot of interest, but the ones who actually learn the language are a different kind of crazy.

  6. I find this xkcd to be the final word on such languages. Or maybe this Dinosaur comics. They both make excellent points.

  7. Concerning Arika Okrent's new book. In today's world, I think that the choice, realistically, for the future global language lies between English and Esperanto rather than an untried project.

    It's unfortunate, however, that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    After a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook. Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Further arguments can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  8. I'm learning Klingon at the moment myself (I promise NEVER to go to a star-trek convention dressed as a Klingon), I have found myself drawn to it. Mostly because it is unlike any other languages as far as I know. So I guess its a curiousity that drives me to continue learning. Though I had a really funny experience recently; you know you're a nerd when you send an email of complaint to a website for using incorrect syntax in Klingon XD.