Anyone Speak Klingon Around Here?

Posted by Mark Peters

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The weird world of invented languages-from Esperanto to Avatar.


I haven't seen the mega-hit Avatar yet, and I don't plan to: The whole thing seems a little phony for my tastes, from the mountains of hype to the 3D gimmickry all the way down to what one writer called "Cats with Human Boobs." Thanks, but I'll pass.

Still, there's one artificial aspect of the movie that piques my interest and earns my respect-the movie launched a constructed language for the Na'vi race, created by University of Southern California linguist Paul Frommer. That kind of wacky invention is obviously inspired by the Klingon language, but there's a longer and even wackier story to tell: For several centuries and plenty of reasons, folks have been concocting artificial languages. Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, writes that, "The history of invented languages is, for the most part, a history of failure," but as her book shows, it's a history that is juicy, fascinating, and revealing about the human drive to create.

I can't possibly recommend Okrent's book enough; it's an engaging, detailed, accessible look at the quirky stories of language inventors and the "plastic flowers" they made. The book counts 500-yes, 500-artificial languages, with birthdays ranging from 1150 to 2007. It's an astounding list, and her book puts in context this smorgasbord of odd creativity from eccentric logophiles. Most important to that context is the natural origin of traditional languages: "Although we like to call language mankind's greatest invention, it wasn't invented at all," writes Okrent. "The languages we speak were not created according to any plan or design. Who invented French? Who invented Portuguese? No one. They just happened. They arose. Someone said something a certain way, someone else picked up on it, and someone else embellished. A tendency turned into a habit, and somewhere along the way a system came to be. This is how pidgins, slangs, and dialects are born; this is the way English, Russian, and Japanese were born. This is the way all natural languages are born-organically, spontaneously."

So why go against the odds (not to mention nature itself) and make up your own language? Well, some wanted to create a more logical, pure form of language, free of inconsistencies and irregularity. John Wilkins-a 17th century language inventor whose work foreshadowed the thesaurus-was trying to create, as Okrent writes "...a man-made language free from the ambiguity and imprecision that afflicted natural languages. It would directly represent concepts; it would reveal the truth." Other inventors-like Ludwik Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto-had grand ambitions of a different sort: uniting humanity with one tongue that would be accessible to all. That was a bust, but with 50,000 to 2 million speakers (depending who you ask), Esperanto is the most successful artificial language ever.

Right behind Esperanto is Klingon, invented by linguist Marc Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984. Okrand authored The Klingon Dictionary and continues to hand down new words to his eager, bumpy-headed followers. In 1992, the Klingon Language Institute was founded, and works such as Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have been translated into Klingon. As Okrent points out, the classic Onion story
With the massive popularity of Avatar, you would think that Na'vi has more than half a chance of replicating the success of Klingon, but you'd think wrong-according to my crystal ball, anyway. Avatar is just one movie. The Avatards-
as fans are dubiously known-have a long way to go before they can compete with the Trekkies, who had been roaming the earth for over a decade when the Klingon language arrived.

Most artificial languages are dead on arrival because, aside from a kooky, mad genius-ish inventor, there are no people to speak it. Over time, there were enough Esperantians and Klingons for those languages to thrive just a little. The odds are against the Na'vi tongue spreading like a virus, but if it does, well...I promise to finally see the goddamn movie. Then I'll see for myself if these pseudo-smurfs are worth the hubbub.