Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Klingon and Esperanto: The Odd Couple?

by Glen Proechel

First published in Esperanto U.S.A. in 1994

[ELNA member G. F. Proechel is perhaps better known to the world at large as the gentlemen who in 1993 hosted the first Klingon language camp in Minnesota. Currently he and another ELNA member, Mark Shoulson, are in the news for their project to translate the Bible into Klingon. And what is Klingon, you may ask? Another Ido? Another Loglan? Read on ...]

There's a new star rising in the east and it isn't the green star of Esperanto nor is it the star of Bethlehem. It is the unlikely home star (juH Hov) of Klingon, a made-for-TV-and-movies language that is spoken by the science-fiction warrior race from the Klingon Empire of Star Trek fame. Klingon is an artificial language which made its debut in 1984 in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The Klingon Dictionary which was written by Dr. Mark Okrand is now in its second printing with some 250,000 copies in print. In 1992 the Klingon Language Institute was formed and already has some 600 members worldwide. A second organiztion of Klingon fan clubs is the Klingon Assault Group which also encourages students in the use of the Klingon language by its 2500 members.

Last summer I took up the study of Klingon, decided to run a Klingon Language Camp in Red Lake Falls, MN, and became an instant celebrity. While participation in the two-week camp was modest, the publicity was incredible with journalists from TV, radio, newspapers and magazines from around the world vying for coverage rights.

We've now formed the Interstellar Language School, Inc., are writing a textbook in Klingon, translating the Bible into Klingon, are organizing Klingon courses throughout Minnesota, and conducting church services and weddings in Klingon. Next July, the Second Annual Klingon Language Camp will take place in Red Lake Falls, MN. Pretty heady stuff!

One wonders what would have happened if the producers at Paramount had elected to have the Klingons speak Esperanto or even Volapük. Would Esperanto now be riding a new wave of popularity as the Klingon language is now experiencing? One can only sigh and say, "That ain't how it happened."

Are Klingon an Esperanto competitors of the artificial language scene? Perhaps, but they certainly weren't intended to be. Esperanto was created to facilitate human communication by discovering the most universal elements in the most widely spoken European languages and regularizing them into an easily acquired interlanguage. It was meant to overcome the realities of human communication problems. Klingon, on the other hand, was created essentially for the exact opposite reason. It was not meant to facilitate communications, but to entertain.

Dr. Okrand started with the premise that since the Klingons were an alien race, their language was unlike any human tongue, least of all English. He deliberately selected difficult and abstruse sounds, not common ones. He created a grammar that resembles none of the commonly known international languages. (It may resemble some elements of obscure American Indian tongues in which he has specialized in his studies. [Costanoan. -- the editor]) Syntax is almost the exact reverse of English. If I had said "Lieutenant Worf killed the Romulan with his phaser gun," the Klingon word order would be phaser gun-his-using-while-Romulan-kill-Lieutenant Worf. Esperanto thrives on cognates and prides itself on instant recognition of much of its text. Klingon, on the other hand, has very few "surface" cognates. Let's take the expression "Inteligenta persono lernas Esperanton facile." The parallel Klingon would be, "tlhIngan Hol Ghojchu' nuv val," or "Klingon-language-learns-clearly-humanoid-intelligent." [This is also legitimate Esperanto order, by the way -- "Esperanton lernas facile persono inteligenta." -- the editor] Not a very promising beginning.

Note in the above sentences I talked about "surface" cognates. There are a few words derived from terrestrial languages (or Terran languages, as they are known to Klingonists). Human is the word for "human". Tera', obviously derived from the Latin terra, is the word for "planet earth". Dr. Okrand, however, has a boundless sense of humor, and has endowed his language with endless puns, and tongue-in-cheek definitions. The Klingon equivalent to mal- is an element that reverses the meaning of whatever it is attached to is the suffix -Ha'. As if you made a statement and then ridiculed it by adding "Ha" to it. "It's heavy" is 'ugh, "beautiful" is 'IH (pronounced something like "ick") and "restaurant" is Qe' which resembles a gagging sound.

While Esperanto prides itself in its complex array of vowel endings which indicate very clearly the parts of speech or case of the word, Klingon will have none of this. Most Klingon words are no-nonsense one syllable constructs. There is a rule in the Klingon language that no word can begin with a vowel. However, many words begin and end with something called a glottal stop -- that catch in the throat that Cockney speakers make instead of a "t" in words like "butter". Since this is marked by an apostrophe, most Klingon text books look like the editor has let his pet chicken walk all over the paper when he has finished. Dr. Zamenhof tried very hard to avoid homonyms when he created Esperanto (he failed; in modern Esperanto there are quite a few). Dr. Okrand seems to have gone out of his way to create them. As a consequence, sentences are frequently ambiguous and one must be very careful to observe the word order, which is object-verb-subject. duj can mean "ship" or "instincts", je' is "feed" or "buy", wej is "three" or "not yet". You can get homonym constructs: HomHom, which means "little bone", DaqDaq, which means "in a place", pu'pu', which means "talking phasers".

When all is said and done (or the end of the day, the way our British colleagues are fond of saying), despite these obvious differences, Klingon and Esperanto do have a lot in common. Although Dr. Okrand went out of his way to create abstruse grammatical rules and gratuitously threw in irregularities to make it seem more like a natural language, when one has mastered the complex grammar and sound system Klingon tends to give you the "feel" of Esperanto. Its rules of formation are much more regular than a natural language and you can work your way out of a situation where you don't know the correct word by manipulating the existing stems, just as well as you can in Esperanto. The 2,000 plus words which are now available can be greatly expanded by the use of prefixes and suffixes, just as is the case in Esperanto.

Klingon is presently considered difficult as a spoken language, because of its strange sounds, unusual word order, and unfamiliar words. Progress in all skills can be slow and there are even fewer places to practice Klingon than Esperanto. None of this seems to deter Klingonists. Many fans simply say, "It's fun!"

What of the future, can Esperantists learn anything from Klingon? All I can do as someone who is both an Esperantist and Klingonist is shake my head and smile. My advice is to try to get Paramount Studios to try to find a planet where Esperanto is spoken and to portray these Esperanto-speaking space aliens in a way that will make them at least as appealing as the Romulans or the Klingons. The idealism of Zamenhof's vision seems to be passé and science fiction is in.

[Editor's note: Going by the press, Klingon's present is bright. Its future may be less so. Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its popular Klingon Lieutenant Worf, is going off the air at the end of this season, and although Worf will likely be back in theatrical-release movies, those will appear at the rate of only one every two or three years. Klingons are only an occasional presence in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and though there are reports of one half-Klingon character in the new Star Trek: Voyagers series, that will have no contact with the Klingon Empire, taking place halfway across the galaxy. So, question: will the Klingon language keep going on its own momentum, or will it fade with the characters who have given it impetus? Or -- conceivably -- will Paramount decide that there is so much commercial value in the Klingon language that they continue to push it by restoring a Klingon presence to the small tube? Time will tell. Meanwhile, you can find out more about Klingon language camps from Mr. Proechel at: P.O. Box 281, Red Lake Falls MN 56750, tel. (218) 253-4149.]