Klingon (tlh) is a conlang, or constructed language, first created for “Star Trek: the Motion Picture” by actor James Doohan (Scotty) and subsequently developed for other “Star Trek” movies and shows by Marc Okrand. Other examples of constructed languages are Esperanto (epo) and Ido (ido). Esperanto is the only constructed language listed in the current version of the Ethnologue.
Readers may wonder whether a fantasy language such as Klingon has a place on this blog. There are aspects of the Klingon movement that relate to endangered languages and may be of interest to language planners and learners.
Klingon has no native speakers—though linguist d’Armond Speers spoke exclusively to his son in Klingon until he was three, his son does not speak the language today—and therefore Klingon resembles natural languages that are sleeping (also referred to as being dormant or extinct). In such situations, revitalizers rely on written or recorded materials to resuscitate the language into a spoken, living form.
Probably the most common written materials of endangered and dormant languages are Bibles and word lists or dictionaries. These are critical for language revitalization, even in cases where there are native speakers. For Klingon, canonical or official references include the books “The Klingon Dictionary (Star Trek),” “The Klingon Way: A Warrior’s Guide (Star Trek: The Klingon Book of Virtues)” and “Klingon for the Galactic Traveler (Star Trek)” as well as audio tapes and other materials.
In many cases, a language may be spoken over a large area, such as in multiple villages, and the language varieties may differ. If each variety of language is considered valid, it is difficult to construct learning materials and dictionaries, as so many variants must be included. Doing so may also lead to confusion among learners. On the other side of the coin, selecting one variety may cause discord among those whose variety is not chosen.
Whether a word or form is considered official is referred to as canonicity. In the case of Klingon, this is an important concept. All languages change over time, and the degree to which people may coin new phrases is not set in stone. For now, anyway, adherence to the Klingon canons is a major concern in the Klingon community (culture).
Klingon is remarkable in the dedication of devotees. Its appeal to people may be of reference to language planners. Why does an invented conlang with no economic value and nearly no communicative use continue to attract learners when so many natural languages struggle with dwindling numbers? Surely, the shock value and quirky nature of learning Klingon are factors in Klingon’s popularity. The continuing popularity of “Star Trek” is doubtlessly a factor as well.
Also, the warrior culture of Klingons, perhaps tapping into the popularity of Japanese samurai, may be attractive in a way similar to how fencing, sword fighting and jousting are popular among Renaissance fair devotees. The brusque nature of Klingons—the expression “nuqneH” for hello literally means “What do you want?”—gives Klingon another unique characteristic.
A mailing list provides a way for people interested in Klingon to interact and ask questions. Since January 1, there have been a little over 300 messages on the list, averaging out to about 900 messages a year. Also, members of the Klingon Language Institute can download Klingon fonts as well as gain access to members-only materials about Klingon. (Membership is only USD 10 per year.)
Facebook has pages on Klingons and a page was started with the goal of getting Facebook to add Klingon as one of the Facebook interface languages. The request was granted, and nearly 7000 phrases have been translated. If you have a Facebook account (membership is free), go to account settings > language and select “tlhIngan Hol” for a Klingon interface. (Beware: Make sure you can set your language back again!) You can also help translate the remaining 32,000 phrases at the translation project page.
Another aspect of Klingon that makes it attractive is that it has a literature. Translating children’s stories and other literature into an endangered language may provide a means of drawing people to the language. “Winnie Ille Pu (Latin Edition)” (the Latin version of “Winnie the Pooh”) and “Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Latin edition)” (the first “Harry Potter” book) are just two examples. Similarly, “Gilgamesh:: A Klingon Translation” (Gilgamesh) and “The Klingon Hamlet” are available, making it enjoyable to learn Klingon while reading something familiar.
And then is the conference, mentioned at the start of this post. Introductory lessons will be provided and Klingon grammarians will be on hand to assist those learning the language. Other activities include socializing, language games and performances.
Together, these activities and resources provide a community and an infrastructure for learning and using Klingon in a fun way. Perhaps some of these ideas may be of help in the revitalization of natural languages.
See also “taH pagh taHbe‘” on Talking Alaska on Klingon and endangered languages.