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Q&A: Is Klingon a Real Language?

Rich C. asks: “Is Klingon a real language?”

I suspect that anyone asking that question already has the answer (and at least one replica communicator badge). And although I am manifestly a nerd, I confess that I do not frequent the sci-fi neighborhood of Nerd-dom. But let’s look at it from a linguistic standpoint, for fun.

Short answer:

Depends on what you mean by “real language”, but yeah, pretty much!

Long answer:

Most of the time, when you hear an alien talking in a sci-fi movie, those sounds are not language. Linguist Arika Okrent notes in Slate that “[m]ost languages created for fictional worlds involve simple vocabulary substitutions … or meaningless streams of noise”. Klingon is different. While it is not a natural language (one that emerges organically and without anybody thinking about it), it’s also not jibberish. Klingon has a large body of words (or “lexicon”) and a functional, rule-based system of grammar – two things that every natural language has. That’s legit; think of it as an Esperanto for nerds!

In fact, Klingon and Esperanto are quite similar in that they are both constructed languages – languages that are invented intentionally, with a lot of Advil and planning. Esperanto, however, was designed to be accessible to everyone. Klingon was designed to be accessible to practically no one. Klingon, writes Andrew O’Hehir, “was definitely not created to serve the cause of universal brotherhood. … It is maddeningly and indeed deliberately difficult to learn, and doing so has no practical or theoretical usefulness”. If Esperanto were #1 on Billboard’s Top 40 Constructed-Language Hits, by comparison, Klingon would be Einstürzende Neubauten.**

So while Klingon is functional in a technical sense (having both a lexicon and a grammar), it is rarely used in real life. The good news is that speakers of Klingon are by and large “citizens of the Internet” – so even if every one of them were struck dead in their tracks today, extensive documentation of the language would still be widely available online. By contrast, there are many moribund natural languages that have few living speakers, no written records, and little hope of being revived. (Indignant Star Trek fan: “NOW who has the ‘real’ language?!” *shoots last remaining speaker of Chicomuceltec with a plasma cannon*)

So what makes Klingon so hard to learn, even for the approximately twelve** people who care?

For one thing, the linguist who invented it, Marc Okrand, deliberately used uncommon consonants. Some types of sounds (or “phonemes”) are super common around the world; for example, nearly every natural language has an “n” sound. Esperanto is full of sounds like that – sounds that the greatest number of speakers will be able to easily make. But if you are a native English speaker, you may have noticed that a lot of ESL speakers have hard time with the… well, with the “the,” as it were. That’s because the “th” sound is pretty rare. Klingon has a bunch of sounds like that.

Another thing that makes Klingon difficult to learn is its complicated syntax. It is worth noting that all natural languages – all of them! – are astonishingly complex. Furthermore, the “difficulty” of learning a second language is highly relative and depends, in part, on what language(s) you already speak. When English speakers say that Arabic is hard to learn, we mean that it is hard to learn for us… but not if you grew up speaking Hebrew. Because the syntactic “difficulty” of Klingon lies in the fact that it has armloads of affixes, it might be easier to learn for speakers of agglutinative languages (such as Turkish) or languages with extensive case systems (such as Finnish) than for speakers of English.

All technical matters aside, let us consider one last factor in whether Klingon is a “real” language: the age at which people learn to speak it. [Note that this is possibly the least interesting paragraph of this blog post, before you invest any hope in it.] [Also it is the most subjective and suffused with my own opinions.] [Two prior notes not related.] [Maybe related.] Nobody grows up speaking Klingon, and the older you get, the harder it is to attain near-native fluency in a second language. In other words: everybody speaks Klingon with an accent.*** Furthermore, because there are no native speakers, there is no benchmark for what native fluency would sound like. There are, however, children who learn Esperanto from infancy, as they would learn any natural language – and predictably, they speak the language a little differently than their parents. Jouko Lindstedt argues that this is probably not due to “nativization” (i.e., it’s not because the kids have had to fix anything or work out any kinks), and that Esperanto has likely already conformed to whatever universal rules of grammar are secretly at work in our brains. Rather, all languages change, and – for a variety of reasons – Esperanto is doing that. Point being: until there are a) native speakers of Klingon and b) demonstrable changes in the way successive generations of those native speakers talk, I see a case to be made that Klingon is not a “real” language. Yet.

The Next Generation(Photo from Costumepedia)

Thanks for the question, Rich!

* Thanks also to my sister Jul, Music-Nerd Laureate of this blog, for providing the second half of this metaphor. Her eminently hilarious writing on music can be found here.

** I SAID APPROXIMATELY

*** I acknowledge that this sentence is the philosophical black hole of this blog post but I refuse to get sucked into it.****

**** what have i created

By sarahskochko

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister from South Jersey / Philadelphia, currently serving in Eugene, Oregon.

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