Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

The Klingon Language

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At the same time that  many of the world’s languages are either out- right disappearing or imploding into deeper uncertainty and complexity, there is one new language which is currently experiencing rapid exponential growth in its number of speakers, and is the object of widespread fascination. It is the Klingon Language, first developed in 1984 by Marc Okrand, an artificial linguist at the California-based National Captioning Institute. There are a number of new Star Trek languages, such as Vulcan, Tamarian, Ferengi, and Cardassian, but the Klingon Language is by far the most important.

Scattered Klingon dialogue is heard at the beginning of Star Trek I: The Motion Picture (1979). Okrand systematized the Klingon Language for the larger role it plays in the movies Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

As part of the Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster Klingon Encyclopedia Project, Marc Okrand published The Klingon Dictionary (1985) and Klingon for the Galactic Traveler (1997). The Klingon Dictionary has been an international bestseller, selling more than a half-million copies. The initial print run of Klingon for the Galactic Traveler was 120,000 copies in the U.S. alone. There is a series of instructional audio tapes (Conversational Klingon and Power Klingon), featuring Lt. Commander Worf. There is a three-volume interactive multimedia language-learning CD-ROM set called Star Trek Klingon: The Ultimate Interactive Adventure. It features Marc Okrand and Klingon Chancellor Gowron, and includes a Language Lab for vocabulary drill and an Immersion Studies interactive adventure. The latter is a film directed by Jonathan Frakes, converted to MPEG video, and enhanced with about a dozen interactive situations. You are the young Pok, in a CD-ROM interactivity simulation of a Hollywood movie simulation of an Enterprise-D Holodeck simulation of the apprenticeship of a real Klingon warrior. To avenge the death of your father, you must correctly pronounce a series of words of the Klingon Language, and be authorized by the voice-recognition software (the Klingon Recognizer) to proceed further in your navigation of the video.

The technology on which the Klingon Recognizer is based is a speaker-independent continuous speech recognition engine customized for different online language products by “natural language interface” industry leader Dragon Systems, Inc. (now owned by ScanSoft, Inc.). It is an early precursor of Star Trek‘s Universal Translator technology. According to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, the Universal Translator (just like a speech recognition system) is an “extremely sophisticated computer program” which functions by “analyzing the patterns” (pattern recognition and acoustic modeling are the core methodologies of speech recognition engines) of an unknown foreign language, starting from a speech sample of two or more speakers in conversation. The more extensive the conversational sample, the more accurate and reliable is the “translation matrix,” which enables instantaneous conversion of verbal utterances or written text between the alien language and American English / Federation Standard (or between the human user and the computer in the case of the speech recognition system).

The Universal Translator

To “understand” the multitudinous alien species encountered by the Enterprise or Enterprise-D crew during its galactic travels, the Federation vessel carries with it a communications technology known as the Universal Translator. The language to be translated is that of an extraterrestrial Other: the Gorn commander in Arena, the Tamarian Captain in Darmok, or “the Companion” in Metamorphosis. For the technology of voice-recognition software, the “alien language” is any non-American English human language (with the exception of the Klingon Language) for which the computer has not yet built a stochastic or “Hidden Markov” statistical model speech patterns reference database.

There is no doubt that speech recognition systems will soon “revolutionize” the computer industry by offering “natural language” alternatives to the keyboard and mouse interface. This rupture is emblematized in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Captain Montgomery Scott, who has time traveled to the late twentieth century, humorously tries to speak into the mouse of an Apple Macintosh personal computer. But this new language technology only leads indirectly to greater usefulness of “intelligent machines” for humans.

Speech recognition is a communication between a human and a computer. It brings no utility, real-world facilitation, or wondrous benefits on its own. Star Trek‘s Universal Translator will allegedly assist us in satisfying our yearnings for contact with the non-hostile extraterrestrial Other. Yet it is conceived from the start on the model of communication with a computer, not a real Other.

In this postulation of a universal cybernetic grid to which all languages are programmable or convertible, what is missing is any valuation or regard for the radical otherness of the languages of others.

The project of an operational formula for language runs counter to any alternative effort of trying to learn the languages of others, to see what it is that I can learn from their radical non-compatibility with my own communications protocols. It is the opposite of respecting that which in their speech is untranslatable, that which in each language is singular and irreconcilable with other languages. The medium of the Universal Translator, constructed on the idea that it is possible and desirable to commute the grammars and signifying terms of all languages into each other (Noam Chomsky), absorbs the meaning (or dispersed “non-meaning”) of the alien’s message into the self-fulfilling prophecy or tautological circularity of the translation model. It all comes out as our – projected as universal – language.

Frequently showcased by Wired Magazine and its online affiliates, and the focal point of hundreds of Internet home pages, the Klingon Language has also become the principal area of scholarly research for several academic institutions. Dozens of philology and linguistics Ph.D.s are devoting their careers to its study. Aside from Paramount Pictures and its partners in the commercial publishing industry, the biggest promoters of the Klingon Language are the professional linguists associated with the Flourtown, PA-based Klingon Language Institute (KLI). The KLI is an IRS-recognized non-profit organization founded in 1992. It currently has more than two thousand members. The KLI publishes the Klingonist Studies quarterly journal HolQed and the fiction and poetry magazine jatmey. HolQed is a “refereed journal utilizing peer review.” It is indexed by the Modern Language Association. Several KLI members are bringing up their children to be bilingual in American English and the Klingon Language. Some of the main activities of the KLI are the Klingon Writing Project (to create “original epics in the warrior’s tongue”), the Klingon Bible Translation Project, and the Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project. Available so far in the “restored original Klingon” are Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (published by Simon & Schuster), The Tragedy of Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing (paghmo’ tIn mIS), Anthony and Cleopatra (antonI’ tlhI’yopatra’ je), and some sonnets. As the Introduction to The Klingon Hamlet documents in great detail, Shakespeare was a Klingon.

The “Great Men” of History Were Aliens

In The Original Series episode Requiem for Methuselah, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam down to the planet Holberg 917G to obtain a sufficient quantity of the chemical element ryetalyn to make an antidote for deadly Rigellian fever, which has stricken many Enterprise crew members. Living in a camouflaged underground home on the planet is an enigmatic humanoid male with superhuman powers named Flint. The dignified and reclusive gentleman lives alone with androids and robots, in refuge from the Earth society of which he has grown weary. In illuminated bookcases in Flint’s drawing room, McCoy is astounded to see a Shakespeare First Folio, a Gutenberg Bible, and the “Creation” lithographs by Taranullus of Centaurus VII, “one of the rarest book collections in the galaxy, spanning centuries.” Readings from Spock’s tricorder indicate that Flint is six thousand years old! When pressed for an explanation, he divulges that he is Shakespeare. He is also Gutenberg, Taranullus, Brahms, da Vinci, Solomon, Alexander, Merlin, Methuselah, and many others. He is immortal. Born in Mesopotamia in 3034 B.C., he has been some of the great minds and creators of human history.

In the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Chancellor Gorkon of the Klingon Empire, played by David Warner, makes the fascinating comment or joke that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” The Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project has its origin in this one-liner from media culture. Gorkon’s remark implies that Shakespeare wrote in Klingon, and that the English editions are translations. Shakespeare was a Klingon or extraterrestrial alien. The idea that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but was “extra-human” or not really an Earthling, has its origin in the 1969 Original Series episode Requiem for Methuselah, written by Jerome Bixby. The “great men” of history were aliens. Although Flint is strictly speaking not named as an alien, his “aura” of extraterrestrial influence and “more than human” immortality is clear.

The work of the Klingonists to “restore Shakespeare” to the “original Klingon” are an invigorating release of inhibitions about the legitimacy and importance of artificial languages provoked by Gorkon’s joke. What is more legitimate and canonical than Shakespeare (or the Bible)? But other interpretations of the witticism are possible. What makes us snicker is the surprise substitution at the end of the sentence of the word Klingon for the expected word English. The butt of the joke is the effete, bookish intellectuals who make comments like ”you cannot appreciate Molière until you have read him in the original French.” The quip also plays on the ambivalence that we feel towards the remote, “alien” Elizabethan English in which Shakespeare wrote, comprehensible to us today only with the help of copious annotations. The most astute ciphering of Chancellor Gorkon’s joke and the frenzied “restorative” activities it has incited is that they are indicative of a secret suspicion that the “original language” version of today’s typical media products, dubbed and synchronized into dozens of “local” languages, is merely a specialized kind of localized version which has lost the aura of an original.

To examine a cultural artefact like the bestselling book Klingon for the Galactic Traveler (1997) is to be confronted by the meaningless hyper-reality of this fascinating object. The Introduction does not begin with a disclaimer like “this is a book about a fictional language spoken by a fictional race of aliens portrayed on a science fictional television program called Star Trek.” It begins instead with a nonchalant description of the most recent political and diplomatic developments in interstellar relations between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. It “jumps right in” to the hyper-real yet unreal, hyper-meaningful yet meaningless universe of Star Trek. We are treated to a panoply of “unrevealed” facts about Klingon culture, and to “context-sensitive” explanations of thousands of Klingon words and expressions. The culture and language of the Klingon Empire are neither real nor fictional, neither authentic nor imaginary. They float, rather, in a vague hyper-reality whose exact cognitive status is indecipherable. What then is the significance of the boom of the Klingon Language?

In addition to the modernist disappearance of humanity’s weakest or most marginal languages (95% of all human languages) and the postmodernist implosion or absorption of its intermediate level languages (all the rest except American English), one glimpses an analogous transformation at the apex of this taxonomic classification of tongues. The reality of a cyber-age global system is that all levels bear a fractal resemblance to each other. Each level inherits its structural lattice from the same cardinal “genetic code” or informational base classes. As in computer programming languages, each level of the distributed hierarchy, with varying degrees of proximity or distance, gleans its logic and properties from the same master set of instructions. No single level, even the level which appears most powerful or closest to the hardware, is outside the game. (Ellen Ullman) Pieces of operational code are dispersed throughout the system, available through duplication or derivation to anyone who is lured by them. The code in question here is the changing structural relationship between a “denotative sign-system” and the charismatic flight of cynical power energetically seeking escape from one tired language into another, more seductive language. (Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene) At the top of the hierarchy, cynical power is clearing its throat and getting set to declare its intentions openly: to seek escape from American English into synthetic languages typified by the Klingon Language.

Pan-English, which appears to the Germans, for example, to be the master language of globalized techno-culture, is itself giving way to a newer, more exalted ur-language, in an act of intractable implosion at the system’s vertex. The Klingon Language stands in the same relationship to American English as pan-English stands in relation to a henceforth local language like German. The relationship of the German speaker to the ur-language of pan-English is that of someone who suffers from an inferiority complex, who is missing something and needs to be seduced, who senses that her experiences are taking place on a marginal circuit, who requires an Other to provide something of loftier value or validate an identity. The popularity of the Klingon Language, especially in North America, discloses that even English is not good enough in the era of techno-culture, cybernetic codes, and the alien Other. Many of its “native speakers” suffer from the same inferiority complex or sense of incompleteness as speakers of the global system’s intermediate level languages. The reputedly masterful global language of American English is not truly sovereign. We pine for a higher cybernetic language; a Linguacode (the base code of Star Trek‘s Universal Translator); a more original than original language version for media products; an alien cryptogram, as in Jodie Foster’s movie Contact (1997), where a hidden confirmation of our Western Civilization’s chosen path of development is covertly transcribed. This would be the language of the mirrored extraterrestrial Other whose existence we so prodigiously seek.

Just as the materialized robotic AI double, on the level of the entire human species, will substitute itself for humans as our technical immortal replacement, so will a cybernetic language, devised in a technical project, come to replace human language, which was too entangled in history and living discourse. Just as the bio-engineered clone, member of the posthuman species, will have no mother or father, but rather a coded derivation from a genetic matrix, so will our speech be derived from an artificial and formative linguistic matrix. This DNA of verbal communication, this formula for global conversation, will be elaborated by dubbing experts in a Hollywood think tank, who know all about original language versions and their preprocessing for multiple localization. The cybernetic language will issue from the deep logic of computing. It will be discovered as a cryptic alien message or transcription brought back from an honorable civilization in deep outer space. The ET ur-language will be globally disseminated in entertainment-oriented movies and television series.

Like any significant techno-cultural movement, the campaign for a language without living discourse will be steered by a triumvirate of masses, moderates, and extremists. The masses are the consumers who look upon the new technology as fun and cool. The moderates are competent businesspeople and academics who make money and intellectual capital from the success of the new technology, but without taking it or its ethical-epistemic implications too seriously. The extremists are self-styled visionary enthusiasts who interpret the new technology to the letter, and deem it to be the source of a quasi-religious salvation.

The Interstellar Language School (ILS) is a formidable rival to the Klingon Language Institute. It is run by a group of Christian theologians and missionaries. The ILS has fundamental interpretive points of contention with the KLI, beginning with the question of what they consider the correct name of the Klingon Language to be. According to the ILS, the proper translation of ta’ tlhIngan Hol (or ta’ Hol) in English is the Alien Language, not the Klingon Language. The Interstellar enthusiasts vehemently protest the propagation of the mistaken “official translation” (as the “Klingon Language”) by Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster. At its web site, qIb HeHDaq or “On the Edge of the Galaxy,” the ILS presents the Alien Language with unqualified seriousness as a really existing language from a really existing Deep Space Klingon Homeworld (Qo’noS, or “Kronos” in Federation Standard) which has been “shared with us” by Dr. Marc Okrand.

Unlike the more moderate Okrand and the KLI, the ILS’s description of the Alien Language is completely void of any self-ironic humor. “Join us at Kamp Klingon (or the Edge of the Galaxy Encampment) for five days of qepHom (a gathering of Klingon enthusiasts). Hear the sounds of the warrior tongue spoken out loud. Practice Alien conversation, proverbs, and curse warfare. Improve your Alien pronunciation.” Then attend church services afterwards where “the Word of God is preached in Alien, including an Alien choir.”

Chancellor (Qang) pIntIn (also known as Pastor Glen Proechel, Christian missionary to the Russian Far East) is the “Big Boss” of the twenty-member High Council (yejquv) of the Interstellar Language School, which has its headquarters in Red Lake Falls, MN. Qang pIntIn is working on an Alien Language restoration of the Old Testament, to match the translation published by the Klingon Language Institute. Genesis will fit well into the ILS’s burgeoning merchandise series. Product offerings include the Alien Language Primer at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels (“for those who wish to improve their skills in Alien communication”); instructional books on Alien calligraphy; a tourist phrasebook called The Warrior Tongue at Warp Speed; a rival set of dictionaries; a rival set of audio cassettes; a translation of a Shakespeare play called Hamlet, Prince of Kronos; and translations of some  Mark Twain novels. For five dollars, you can have a Klingon Imperial Church, Certificate of Membership, to go along with your copies of The Lord’s Prayer in the Alien Language, The No Smoking Poster in the Alien Language, and Good News for the Warrior Race: Advance Edition. The latter consists of Alien Language restorations of portions of the New Testament, together with Gospel interpretations by Christian missionaries to the Klingon Homeworld.

Like the KLI, the ILS will promote the Alien Language in real-time Internet language practice forums, using OnLive’s voice-enabled “Talker” technology, to allow Alien Language speakers from around the galaxy to chat live with each other.

As Marc Okrand explains in Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, the Klingon Language exists as a quasi-official interstellar “lingua franca” for the purpose of streamlining important communications on the scale of a vast political, economic, and cultural interplanetary union like the Klingon Empire or the United Federation of Planets. Although political power in the Klingon Empire is concentrated on the Klingon Homeworld (Qo’noS), and more specifically in Qo’noS’ capital First City (veng wa’DIch) and the Vospeg region (voSpegh Sep), the Empire embraces enormous cultural and linguistic diversity because “over the centuries, Klingons have conquered many worlds representing a variety of languages.” Within the Empire – both on Qo’noS and offworld – there are many dialectal, local, regional, and even ancestral languages (no’ Hol) still spoken today by subjugated populations, marginal groups, and alien outsiders (nov). The imposition of the Klingon Language as a hegemonic standard throughout the Empire by the First City was undertaken with an eye towards facilitating Empire-wide exchanges of more exalted kinds, such as in the areas of commerce, technology, and governmental affairs.

The Klingon Language (tlhIngan Hol), the Emperor’s Klingon (ta’ tlhIngan Hol), and the “current standard way of speaking” (ta’ Hol) all derive from the original language spoken by Kahless the Unforgettable, who united the people of Qo’noS more than 1500 years ago. If the Klingon Empire is the double of the Federation, and the United Federation of Planets is one of the predominant images in which Earthlings today recognize themselves, then everything that Marc Okrand writes about the Klingon Language in relation to secondary languages of the Klingon Empire can be read as describing the present-day relationship between the surging, synthetic Klingon Language and secondary languages of Earth’s globalizing techno-culture.

According to Dr. Marc Okrand the galactic linguist, the Klingon Language has a high degree of “lexical elaboration” or quantity of terms in certain specialized vocabulary areas. These rich terminological domains include insults, curse words, male chauvinism, animal body parts, raw and still-living animal foods, forehead physiognomy, opera, warship and warp speed technologies, traditional and high-tech weaponry, warriors, and warfare.

In describing various aspects of Klingon culture, such as the preparation of food and drink, Okrand tries to convey the impression of practices very different from those of humans. Heating processes play almost no role in Klingon cuisine. The staple of their carnivorous diet is small animals consumed either still alive or freshly killed and raw. Bloodwine (‘Iw HIq) is the preferred beverage of Klingons, and they disdain the drinking of water. What curiously  comes across in Okrand’s encyclopedic section on Klingon gastronomy is the phonetic and onomatopoetic similarity of many Klingon words to English synonyms or “friends” of their directly corresponding English word. It ends up sounding like the proposed creation of a compressed or shorthand English.

The Klingon word for blood pie (a favorite Klingon dessert) is rokeg (from the English raw cake). Interest in the languages of others is reduced to caricature and derisive humor, based on amusement at what one perceives to be the characteristic sounds of a given language’s tonality. Behind this is the belief that all languages are structured by their use of the same (English or universal) terms, that they differ only on the superficial level of their phonemic melodies, or their enmeshment in “exotic” cultural traditions and culinary practices. In the case of the artificial Klingon Language, the elite galactic tongue is seductively offered as an eventual clandestine replacement for English. The “guttural” or strange sounds of the scorned unter-foreigner’s lingo are transformed into the privileged baroque intonations of the ur-language of the ennobled über-foreigner.

Consistent with its adolescent appeal, the Klingon Language tends to be a “contrary” language. Words – or their English cognates which form the basis of their sounds – often have the opposite meaning than what one would expect. Overcooked food is said to be rotten or decayed (Soj raghmoHlu’pu’ or, more simply, Soj non). Before slaughtering an inadequately performing food preparer (if a Klingon is not satisfied with his meal, then it is customary to kill the cook), one says to him: “you have caused the food to decay” (Soj DaraghmoHpu’). Since Klingons adore chocolate, the word for chocolate is yuch (from the English yuck or yech). Freshly killed meat, also beloved by Klingons, is ghoQ (from the English gook). This contrariness is an expression of youthful rejection of adult norms, or a turning upside down of the terms of what is proper and improper.

In the Klingon Language, odors are never categorized as good or bad. Bathing of the body has a decidedly negative connotation. In the realm of food, it is considered proper to play with one’s vegetables, and there are no words for individual vegetables or fruits. The general word for all vegetables and fruits is naH (from the English naaah or no). The most positive textural attributes that a food can have are chewy, lumpy, or slimy. It is thought of as proper to eat as quickly as possible and in large gulps. Klingons do not use eating utensils, and they rarely use plates. Throwing, spilling, and dropping of food, or participation in rowdy food fights like those of the college fraternity in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), are activities held in high esteem as the quintessence of proper table manners.

A notable property of the Klingon Language is its shortening or compression of communicative declarations. This abbreviating feature encompasses the techniques of Clipped Klingon (tlhIngan Hol poD or, more simply, Hol poD) and Ritualized Speech. Clipped Klingon is especially useful in situations where speed is a decisive factor. Grammar is irrelevant, and sentence parts deemed to be superfluous are dropped. Intentional ungrammaticality is widespread, and it takes many forms. It is exemplified by the practice of pabHa’, which Marc Okrand translates as “to misfollow the rules” or “to follow the rules wrongly.” An example of Ritualized Speech is the serene phraseology used at the bIreqtal, which is the ceremony at which the honored murderer of the leader of a Klingon House simultaneously marries the deceased’s widow and assumes his new privileges and powers as coronated Head of the House. Certain conventions of everyday conversation are also regarded as being part of Ritualized Speech. A Klingon never initiates a dialogue by saying “hello” or “how are you?” He instead greets each potential interlocutor by saying nuqneH, which is roughly translated as “what the hell do you want?” No offense to the addressed party is intended or taken.

The Universal Klingon Translator

From the sixties to the present; from The Original Series to the multiple recombinant series (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise); from cognitive science to virtual sciences; from tragedy to farce, the intellectual history of Star Trek, in the realm of language, moves from the Universal Translator to the Universal Klingon Translator. Kant’s dualism of reason and sensuous experience founded the claim to universality of procedural and algorithmic thinking. His categorical imperative of moral disinterestedness was the basis of the transcendental perspective or “rationalist telos of translator objectivity.” But the Kantian ego finds itself in the increasingly isolated circumstance of being an overloaded attractor subject without any more real, autonomous objects to engage. Having exterminated or processed all radical otherness through its universal conversion tables, it grows weary of the weight tacked on by so much absorption and consumption. It starts to search for new exorcizing strategies.

The Universal Translator begins, in the abstract, from formal principles of software engineering. It evolves, in its concrete use, into a machine for the accumulation and whitewashing of all the “alien information” with which it comes into contact. The daily cyclical transactions of this universal messaging broker involve the unending processing of new inputted meanings, and the perpetual “nihilistic” dilution of these meanings into empty signs of the hyperreal void. The machine treats new meanings as fodder for its dispersion operation. These significations come to the system from its peripheries. But so much collected data without “otherness” is an intolerable celibate destiny, and the Universal Translator malfunctions. It spews out and irradiate its formulas and matrices in all directions. Informatic sequences and codes enter human language immanently at the level of language’s constituent microfibers and capillaries. The Universal Klingon Translator, descendent from the earlier Universal Translator, is a machine that has forgotten its original purpose. In parody and perversion, it directs its programmed procedures against itself and its users. The machine writes its own signature. It tattoos its inventor with intricate patterns recycled from the database archives of punctiliously translated and stored alien source material. Instead of otherness, we are left with its burlesque resurrection in systems of recurring and simulated differences.

With the Klingon Language, repetition and determination by inscribed codes infiltrate posthuman speech at the cybernetic-feedback, grammatical-syntactical, micro-procedural, and microprocessing levels. As Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein suggest, the word “language” is an insufficient term standing in for “organic technology that has not yet learned how to speak.” The Universal Klingon Translator of later, recombinant Star Trek is a technology for converting posthuman speech into an operational communications system appropriate to our engineered successor species, the “living species as technologies.”

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