Monday, December 26, 2005

Conlang Spotlight: Klingon

In conlanging terms, if the 19th century can be seen as the search for an idealised international auxillary language (such as Solresol or Esperanto) and the 20th century can be considered as the development of conlangs for fantasy and storytelling - Tolkien's languages, for instance - then what of the 21st century? What sort of conlanging experience can we expect over the course of the next 100 years?

I think we can already see signs of where the art and practice of conlanging are moving, and the roots of this movement lie in the last 20 years or so of the 20th century. Role-playing games became very popular in the 1980s - partly as a result of the success of Tolkien's books, but mainly because publishers and game manufacturers found ways of popularising and standardising the game playing experience. The development of the internet and world wide web in the 1990s helped increase the popularity of role-playing fantasy, to such an extent that today there are whole virtual worlds, with virtual societies and virtual economies flourishing online. For some people, these venues are more "real life" than real life itself!

According to his biographers Humphrey Carpenter and Tom Shippey, the central tenet driving Tolkien to write his novels was not just the story - an ancient history for England - but also the languages: place names and titles would lead to sketches which outlined how such names developed, which in turn could be incorporated into the greater stories of the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. When role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons began to take on some of the feeling of Tolkien's creations, some people wanted more of an immersive feeling - either through learning a few words of Quenya or Sindarin, or by developing new conlangs for use in their games.

Suddenly, conlanging had a purpose.

Because RPG manufacturers discovered that adding a smattering of conlang to a game could help give players a more interesting gameplaying experience. A conlang could become part of the package - for instance, the D'ni language, script and counting system in the Myst series of computer games.

Alongside all this a television phenomenon was transferring to the movies. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture rolled onto the big screen in 1979, few believed that this would be the start of a renaissance, yet the film was successful and led not only to further movies but also to a host of spin-off TV series.

The premise of Star Trek is the meeting of human and alien cultures. The original TV shows, and the first movie, assumed that all humans and all aliens spoke - in effect - English. Nobody considered that any other language (natural or constructed) should be used because the target audience was not likely to understand. Alien scripts did have a place in these shows, but only as decoration.

But then somebody at Paramount Pictures decided that some of the alien species should speak a non-English language, and various grunts and hisses made their way onto the soundtrack. Then for the second movie someone decided that these sounds ought to have a bit of coherence to them to make them more believable. Enter Dr Marc Okrand, a linguistics professor in California. His first work with the studio was to re-dub the Vulcan scenes, though this was not a working conlang as such. Even so, the studio was so impressed with the effect of including "Vulcan" in the film that they hired Dr Okrand to develop sounds and phrases suitable for Klingons to speak in the third movie.

The result of Dr Okrand's work for this commission was more than just sounds and phrases: the language he produced was reasonably complete, with grammar and syntax. It met the studio's requirements in being sufficiently harsh and alien sounding (to English speaker's ears). It was also good enough for some fans to decide that it would be fun to learn the language, a wish the Good Doctor obliged by producing a Klingon-English dictionary in 1985, and extended and repubished in 1992. Other Klingon-based books followed in the 1990s.

And thus was born one of the most successful conlangs the world has yet seen. Klingon is probably more popular than Esperanto at the moment. The language has its own website - the Klingon Language Institute. It has it's own literature, including a translations of some of Shakespeare's plays. It has its own (unofficial) conscript as well as one of the most hideous latin transcriptions yet invented. It is, in short, a successful conlang.

So what of the language itself?

Klingon benefitted from Dr Okrand's earlier work on Native American languages - this is not another euroclone language! The sounds of the language are harsh, gutteral and short for a specific purpose, namely to help characterise the rase of aliens that speak the language - and as such they are entirely successful for their purpose. The grammar and syntax are also worth a closer look, if only to see that there are many patterns languages can take. Klingon marks both the subject and direct object on the verb, and has a rather wonderful system of affixes for both nouns and verbs. The script is different enough to make it interesting both from an aesthetic and from a demonstrative point of view - though interestingly the script you see in the films and spin-offs has nothing to do with the language.

The best introduction to the language is no doubt Dr Okrand's dictionaries though the KLI website is also very useful, providing both some online lessons and links to places where people can get together online to help each other learn the language.

Because make no mistake, this language is driven by its fanbase. Paramount Pictures has no interest in the language beyond making occasional use of it in its products. And Dr Okrand seems to have taken little interest in the language for the past few years - his latest excursion into the world of entertainment was producing a language (Atlantean) for the Disney Studios film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Klingon, in my view, is a demonstration of where the future of conlanging may well lie. Tolkien's secret vice will not be secret in the 21st century; nor will it be a vice - a shameful thing to admit to. Rather, there will continue to be a demand for constructed languages in works of fiction, in films, in other entertainment outlets - Enya's latest album includes a number of songs written in what she claims to be a collaborative conlang between her lyricist and herself.

Why? Because people - fans - like a bit of wierdness in their commodity, and constructing a language for a specific product helps give it that edge of wierdness. One day, maybe, conlangs may be bought and sold in the marketplace. One day I expect we'll see litigation over conlang copyrights and patents, perhaps even accusations of plagiarism. Conlanging, in the 21st century, is going to lose its innocence.

Is this a pity? Yes and no, I think. No, because it's nice to see conlanging get the recognition it deserves - a good conlang, well developed and robust, deserves to find wider and more appreciative audiences. And yet yes also, because to me conlanging will always be an artform, an exploration of words and structures and the very basis of language itself, and sometimes these endeavours are best left untouched by commercial expediency. I remain convinced that Dr Okrand could have produced a superb conlang for the Klingons to speak if it had been born from his necessity to conlang rather than from his contract with a major film studio. But ïscuu vosalbizhuu cohmap taabrasee ïsel, as we say in Gevey.

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