Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Say What?

Constructed languages

I once said hello to a klingon, in Klingon. Granted, it was actually a guy in a klingon costume, but despite the fact that the klingon species is entirely fictional, their language is quite real. Yes, I own a copy of the Klingon Dictionary. And yes, I said “Qu’pla” to an actor at the Vegas Hilton who was dressed as a klingon for the now-deceased “Star Trek Experience” ride. He returned the greeting as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Klingon – a constructed language. It was created by American linguist Mark Okrand back around 1984 for use in the movie Star Trek: The Search for Spock. It was refined over the next twenty-five years to the point where today it is a functional, if limited, language. There’s even a story about a man who became lost while traveling in Japan. He spoke no Japanese, but saw a Japanese boy wearing a shirt that said “I speak Klingon” (written, of course, in Klingon). Though the boy spoke no English, he was able to give the man directions and help him on his way. I have no idea whether this is a true story, but it certainly illustrates the varied and global interest in these sorts of languages.

Throughout history, language has usually grown in an organic fashion. People in a given area would all use the same words to mean the same things, and if the pronunciation or usage of a word changed over time, it changed for all or most of its users. Sometimes religion would add or remove words from the language, and often language would be affected by everything from the whim of those in power to the influences of popular culture. Concepts like education and writing would serve to codify a language – giving it structure and greater consistency, reducing the degree to which regional dialects would be substantively different from each other. Languages grow and change – and die – with their people.

Constructed languages are different. They’re deliberately created by a person or group. As far back as the philosophers of ancient Greece, constructed language was used to model and explain the behavior of contemporary languages in use at the time. More recently, the language of Esperanto was created by Russian Opthamologist Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof beginning in the 1870s with the goal of fostering international peace and understanding. It is now spoken by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people around the world and is recognized by everyone from the United Nations to Google. Take that, Klingon!

Aside from Klingon, the best-known and most popular constructed languages from popular culture are surely J.R.R. Tolkien’s elven languages of Sindarin and, to a lesser extent, Quenya. There are several university courses in Tolkien’s elvish, and quite a few experts in the language from around the world. Tolkien, himself a linguist, has said that he originally created the languages for his fictional world of Middle Earth, then developed his stories like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings afterwards. The appendices of The Return of the King have extensive notes on the languages, both spoken and written, of the elves, dwarves and other races of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson brought in specialists in the language to teach it to the actors Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen and Hugo Weaving for his epic film version of The Lord of the Rings, and to listen to it spoken onscreen you can really hear what a beautiful, lyrical language it is.

All of which brings us to the Na’vi. Not only were they the giant blue cat-people of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar, Na’vi is also the name of their language. A constructed language made specifically for the movie by USC professer Paul Frommer. Though created with a vocabulary of only about a thousand words, the enormous success of the film is already spawning a following through such sites as, which features everything from a 500-word dictionary of the language to a pocket-guide in .pdf.

None of these languages are available from Rosetta Stone, yet, but they all have a wealth of online tools. So if you should decide that you need to up your geek cred, you could always do it by learning a language that only the deepest geeks are even aware of (Klingon would be an excellent candidate for that) or jump on the fad bandwagon and learn a language from one of the top-grossing movies of all time. It’s too bad he didn’t think of it sooner, or instead of “I’m king of the world,” Leonardo DiCaprio could have shouted “oe kifkey eyktan tok!”

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