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Speculative fiction and language

Submitted by on January 5, 2012 – 5:45 pm 13 Comments |  
While the alter-worlds of the sci-fi literature and film may not always be geographically accurate, if not “positively simple-minded”, as Martin Lewis puts it, they do a little bit better from the linguistic perspective. In older (American) series everyone on all planets spoke idiomatic English, and American English at that! (And in sci-fi films produced in other countries, alien creatures invariably spoke the language of that country, such as the creatures in the Russian-produced animation “The secret of the third planet”, who speak perfectly good Russian). But in more recent years, the field has moved in the direction of creating made-up sci-fi languages; and professional linguists are usually called upon for the task. Probably, the best known example of such a language is Klingon, the language that was designed for the Star Trek series.

The original attempt at creating Klingon was made by James Doohan, the actor who portrayed Montgomery Scott, but 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.

The reason that artificial languages like Klingon are interesting for linguists – who are mostly concerned with natural, human languages – is that, despite being depicted as alien languages, these made-up idioms have all the trappings of a human language. They are always a product of a human mind. Since making their on-screen debut, artificial languages are often picked up and further developed by other humans. What makes that possible is that artificial languages like Klingon are designed to emulate human languages.

In fact, 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 or to use. The way that Marc 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 patterns that are found in only a few natural languages. For example, unlike all known human languages, Klingon does not have the a-sound, the most vowel-like sound of all. Instead, it has the exotic tlh-sound, in a phoneticist’s lingo a “voiceless alveolar affricate with lateral release” (the reader may want to memorize this phrase and use it to scare away an especially annoying interlocutor at a cocktail party). This tlh-sound 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, pronounced in the authentic way.

Moreover, Okrand applied the same principles to the grammar 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 about a dozen languages, most of them in the Amazonian jungle (see map below): Hixkaryana, Apalaí, and Asuriní (northern Brazil), Kuikúro (central Brazil), Tiriyo (southern Suriname and northern Brazil), Arekuna (Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil), Panare (Venezuela), Bacairí (southern Brazil), Cubeo (Colombia), Urarina (Peru), Selknam (southern Argentina), Tuvaluan (Tuvalu), Mangarayi and Ungarinjin (Australia). No more than 35,000 people in the world speak a language with the Object-Verb-Subject pattern, and I doubt most readers have had a chance of running into anyone of them in their lifetime. Naturally, that makes Klingon sound rather “alien” to most of us.

Another peculiar feature of the Klingon grammar is the lack of adjectives; for example, 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. For example, Mohawk (spoken in southwestern Quebec and southern Ontario in Canada, as well as in St. Regis Reservation in Franklin County, New York) appears to not have adjectives, so instead of saying ‘Sak used to be big’, a Mohawk speaker would produce a literal counterpart of ‘Sak bigged’ (or actually, ‘Bigged Sak’, as Mohawk is a verb-initial language). Curiously, some languages do it both ways: they may have bona fide adjectives alongside verbs with adjectival meanings. For example, in Èdó (spoken by a million or so people in Nigeria) the adjective sèmò ‘beautiful’ co-exists with the verb meaning ‘be beautiful’ (the accent marks over the vowels represent tones: é is pronounced with a high pitch than è).

Also, unlike natural human languages, Klingon has a very small vocabulary of about 2,000 words. In particular, it would be hard to discuss art or choose paint colors in Klingon, as it has just one word for ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘yellow’. Only two human languages are known to lump ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘yellow’ under the same umbrella term: Javaé (spoken in Brazil) and Lele (spoken in Chad).

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.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/johnwcowan John Cowan

    I don’t know what you mean by saying “Klingon does not have the a-sound”.  If you mean that it does not have the low central vowel written [a] in IPA, that’s true — but neither does English.  Instead we have a low back vowel [ɑ] and a low front vowel [æ] (varying with accent, of course).  Klingon has [ɑ] (as in the word thlingan ‘Klingon’) but not [æ].  It might be a “foreign accent” to use [a] instead, but not likely a serious one.

    In addition, it’s quite common in the languages of Southeast Asia not to distinguish between adjectives and relative clauses: see WALS feature 60A.  In Mandarin, for example, adjectives are a small closed class differentiated from stative verbs only in that they don’t require the relative clause marker de between the adjective and its noun.  They are perfectly usable as main verbs.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good point about the different types of low vowels. In fact, English is rather unusual in this respect, and it did have the long low central vowel [a:] prior to the Great Vowel Shift. Once that was lost, different dialects coped in different ways, mostly recreating a low back vowel [ɑ]: some through l-deletion and compensatory lengthening as in calm [kɑ:m], others by r-deletion and compensatory lengthening as in park [pɑ:k], others by unrounding and lowering the vowel in pot. See more here: http://languagesoftheworld.info/historical-linguistics/great-vowel-shift.html

      Also, great point on adjectives in Southeast Asian languages. Indeed, the issue of how to analyze de modification in Mandarin is pretty hotly debated these days in the syntactic circles. Both with respect to Mandarin and in other languages (even Russian), it is not entirely clear where adjectives end and relative clauses begin.

      • http://profiles.google.com/johnwcowan John Cowan

        I should have mentioned that Australian English has both /a/ and /a:/, the latter for the STRUT lexical set and the former for the START=BATH=PALM lexical set.  No low back vowels at all.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Interesting, thank you, John!

  • http://blog.zolnai.ca/ Andrew Zolnai

    Thanks for an erudite yet emminently readable introduction to artificial linguistics – I speak six but all mainstream, and thus am only vaguely aware of the S African clicking sound – yet my knowledge of Latin allowed me to skip careers from earth science to computer science by simply treating computer languages as that, another language – see more: http://bit.ly/shgwJD

    Two questions: can you share the link to the Google Map you show, which is not unlike mine in the posting above? 

    At the risk of mixing the sublime with the ridiculous,  can you please elaborate on the Na’vi  language created for Avatar, and Yoda’s English speech pattern that appears to toy with subject-object-predicate orders?

    Thanks again for sharing, Andrew

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Andrew: Thank you for your kind words about my first GeoCurrents post!

      The interactive map of words orders comes from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (http://wals.info/feature/81A) — I should have included a link or at least a mention of the site, thank you for pointing it out.

      As for Na’vi and Yoda-speak, I was going to post on it today, so stay tuned, it’s coming soon!

      • http://blog.zolnai.ca/ Andrew Zolnai

        Thx Asya, my education continues via your next post I just read. Thx for the link to Yoda-speak, but I missed any mention of clicking sounds from S Africa, I think it’s the Bushmen from Namibia. I heard of it via the S African group Juluka, where Johnny Clegg teamed up with Sipho Mchunu. And of course that tone was spread far and wide by the comedy spoof The Gods must be Crazy :-)

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for your comment, Andrew! As far as I know, Na’vi doesn’t have click sounds, as exotic as they are. But I am sure we’ll have another chance to talk about them on GeoCurrents. :)

          • http://blog.zolnai.ca/ Andrew Zolnai

            Hi Asya, I didn’t mean Navi but Bushmen click sounds. Look fwd. to more on your posts and Steve’s. Cheers, Andrew

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Not sure when we’ll get to Africa, but stay tuned! :)

          • http://blog.zolnai.ca/ Andrew Zolnai

            OK I won’t touch that dial…

  • Guest

    I would say you represent the lack of adjectives in much more exotic way than it actually is. This is not a very unusual feature and can be found in many much larger and quite known to the Western world languages.
    For example many languages of Tibeto-Burman family including its two major and famous representatives, or the well-known Georgian, have stative verbs instead. Also it is probable that adjectives of Ancient Hebrew are stative verbs which were declined in all the tenses (“tov” ‘be good’ is present, but there are attested past – “ma tovu”, and future forms – “yitav”; “na’am/yin’am” of “na’im” – ‘be pleasant’ etc.).
    Tamil “adjectives” are not a proper category, but a mix, spread between stative
    participles and nouns. Finally many languages have nominal
    constructions (“of beauty”=beautiful) instead of adjectives.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your great comment and the specific examples. What I was trying to say is that not having adjectives (or having “verb-y” adjectives) is exotic from the point of view of languages like English and other European languages. It is true that many languages have more “verb-y” adjectives. However, the issue of whether these are adjectives with some verbal properties or true verbs (and the category of adjectives is entirely absent) remains debatable. I would recommend Mark C. Baker’s Lexical Categories on the subject…