The Way of the Klingon Linguists

To make up for the sad lack of Klingons in the new Trek flick, there's a great article over at Slate about the Klingon language. Written by Akira Okrent, a linguist who was studying conlangs (constructed languages), it is the funny and often moving story of how she went from amused observer of people who speak Klingon - to a full-fledged member of the group. For those of you who don't know, Klingon was invented by linguist Marc Okrand, and it has a robust grammar and vocabulary, maintained by the Klingon Language Institute.

Here's a taste of Okrent's tale:

Despite the fact that more than 250,000 copies of Okrand's Klingon dictionary have been sold, very few people know how the language really works. There are maybe 20 or 30 people who can hold their own in a live, unscripted Klingon conversation and a few hundred or so who are pretty good with written Klingon. But most Star Trek fans who buy the dictionary skip the grammatical rules that constitute the first half of the book and turn straight to the word list. They make up wedding vows, song lyrics, or insults to lob at their opponents in role-playing games, but they ignore the grammar, simply popping dictionary words into English sentences. So Star Trek discussion boards end up peppered with phrases like this: yIn nI' je chep.

That is some seriously bad Klingon. It's a string of words that's supposed to mean "Live long and prosper" but instead says something like "life … something is long … and … something prospers." It's ungrammatical. (Plus, it's a Vulcan sentiment; Klingons don't say such things.)

If you are a language geek or just interested in the Trek universe, you've got to check out Okrent's article on Slate.

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I met Marc Okrand at a science fiction convention about fifteen years ago, and he autographed my copy of the Klingon Dictionary. He's a really nice guy.