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Who speaks Klingon?

US cult TV series Star Trek first aired on September 8, 1966. From the beginning it has attracted an unusually large and engaged fan-base, some of whom have been enthusiastic enough to learn Klingon, one of the fictional languages spoken by some of Star Trek’s characters. In today’s blog post, Michael Adams investigates the demographics of Klingon speakers, and their attitudes to language in general.

In ‘Just a Touch’ (22 April 2004), an episode of the popular American hospital serial ER, one of the show’s main characters, Abby (played by Maura Tierney), during her internship on the psych ward, is confronted by a man who suddenly speaks what most of us would hear as guttural gibberish. Abby answers in the same guttural gibberish, after which she explains to her surprised superior that she speaks a little Klingon. Nothing more was explained about what Klingon is or who speaks it. The episode’s writers apparently considered it common knowledge among ER ’s worldwide audience.

ER is fiction, but truth is often at least as strange as fiction. In May 2003, the real-world Multnomah County Hospital in Portland, Oregon, advertised for an interpreter fluent in Klingon. ‘We have to provide information in all the languages our clients speak,’ said Jerry Jelusich, a procurement specialist for the County Department of Human Services, which serves about 60,000 mental health clients.

Klingon is an artificial language adjunct to a fiction (or several serial fictions, the television episodes and films): it was not designed for real human communication, and it has no native speakers. However, some people, especially Star Trek fans, began to use it for fun, mainly in written communication on the Internet.

What follows describes the characteristics of the average Klingon speaker on the basis of an Internet survey designed by Judith Hendriks-Hermans as the basis for her Master’s thesis (1999), supervised by Sjaak Kroon at the University of Tilburg, and posted on various Klingon and Star Trek -related sites. The questionnaire is composed of three parts, in which respondents provided personal information, described their relationship to Klingon, and indicated their attitudes toward the language.

In total, 109 people responded, 79 of whom identified as Klingon speakers. This level of response may not be enough to build a profile of the average Klingon user, but most of this survey’s findings are corroborated by those of an earlier web survey conducted in Sweden, with 604 respondents (Annernas 1996), and an interview study with nineteen advanced Klingonists by Wahlgren (2004).

The majority (77 %) of the 79 Klingon speakers were male. Their average age was 31.5 years, ranging from 15 to 55. About half of the Klingon-speaking respondents were married. Although most of them lived in the United States (65.1 %), they came from all over the world — for instance, from Canada (12.8 %), Germany (7.3 %), England, and the Netherlands (both 2.8 %) — and mainly (64.6 %) lived in cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants.

A large majority (70.9 %) had post-secondary educations, and their professions included information technology and computers (32.9 %), other technical professions (10.1 %), and a variety of other occupations (24 %), such as civil servant, teacher, and actor, while 21.5% were students. Almost all were proficient in English, whereas between 10% and 20% had mastered German, French, or Spanish.

Apart from using the same language, a language community shares common patterns of language use and attitudes to that language. The survey showed that most Klingon-speaking respondents considered their native language easier to use and a better means of communication than Klingon, yet 63.3% wanted their (future) children to learn both languages. About one third thought Klingon the more beautiful of their two languages, and a bit more than a third considered both languages equally beautiful. As many as 70% of all 109 survey respondents hoped that Klingon would flourish, gaining more speakers and becoming more popular. The number of people who really expected Klingon to flourish, however, was (well) below 50% . Furthermore 66.1% thought Klingon would survive only as a Star Trek -related hobby for a very limited group of people, i.e., the Star Trek fans that use Klingon as ‘a way of becoming a super trekkie’ as one respondent expressed it.

While hard-core Klingonists may not depend on interest in Star Trek to fuel their interest in Klingon language, they have depended on Okrand to make new, canonical words. Wahlgren notes, ‘Marc Okrand has invented most words for Klingon and when the Klingonists need a new word they have to ask him’ (2004, 21). As Okrent puts it, ‘Klingonists are strict about language authority … No one but Okrand can introduce new vocabulary. And no dispute about grammar or usage is considered settled until Okrand has spoken’ (2009, 279). This is no way to run a real language: in a real language, the speech community has authority over that language. If Klingonists succeed in maintaining Klingon, they will eventually do so without Okrand’s help, and that will be the point at which viability of the putative Klingon speech community will be tested.

Okrent recalls that ‘in 1999, the satirical paper the Onion ran a story under the headline “Klingon Speakers Now Outnumber Navajo Speakers”. This is absolutely not true, but it would have been true had they picked nearly any other Native American language’ (2009, 272). Klingon is an already endangered language, and it isn’t yet fully developed for real-world conversational use! It could easily die on the vine. How many speakers of a language are required for it to be a going concern? Conversations among those at the Klingon Language Institute conference (or qep’a’ ) that Okrent attended were sometimes spontaneous, and ‘it’s amazing that spontaneous conversations happen at all’, but too often those trying hard to converse resorted to PalmPilot dictionaries of Klingon.

There were, however, telling exceptions: ‘I saw that later, as we walked over radiating sidewalks to a Mexican restaurant for the opening banquet, when I witnessed Captain Krankor and his girlfriend holding hands and chatting in Klingon, sans PalmPilots’ (Okrent 2009 , 273). You can bet that Captain Krankor, whose real name is Rich, is a Trekkie; the girlfriend, Agnieszka, has recently translated the Tao Te Ching into Klingon. It doesn’t take many people to make a speech community, and a small speech community is at least a pure speech community. Captain Krankor and Agnieszka might be Klingon’s Adam and Eve, chatting in their brand new language, walking hand in hand on the road from Eden to Babel.

Edited extract from From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages by Michael Adams © Oxford University Press 2011