City Paper is not for tourists
The wild cries echo through the nearly empty Burger King, as 2-year-old Alec Speers calls out to his father, d’Armond, who sits wolfing down a Whopper at a table across the room. After roaming as far as the soda fountain, the tousled-haired Alec suddenly realizes the vast distance between him and his dad; tiny legs shuffling, the gleeful tot now makes his triumphant return.
“Vavoy!” he says again, pointing to his father.
The repeated word doesn’t sound much like any language ever spoken in this Olney fast-food restaurant on Georgia Avenue, or any other terrestrial location for that matter. Like a Teutonic romper-room war chant or the pidgin gutter-talk of those Clockwork Orange punks, the mantra’s enough to turn the head of a woman as Alec races by. Caught up in his infant joy, he veers past his father’s outstretched arms and runs smack into the edge of the table, banging his forehead.
A nasty mishap, but fortunately no real disaster. D’Armond Speers cradles his bawling boy, trying to comfort him in words that sound as foreign as Alec’s: “qay’be, ‘yISaQQo’.”
“I’m just telling him, ‘It’s alright, you’re OK,’” explains Speers as Alec settles into a sniffling calm. The tender parenting moment for Speers doubles as another linguistic victory: He’s the only person on the planet raising a child to speak Klingon.
Invented a decade ago for the Star Trek TV shows and films, Klingon is the official language of the alien warriors with the grotesque, bony foreheads. But in the past few years, the 2,000-word language has taken on a life of its own in the real world. It’s now one of the fastest growing artificial, or “constructed,” languages around, boasting a far-flung community of speakers, as well as a language institute, a journal, and even a poetry magazine.
Like many Klingon speakers, Speers is by no means a hard-core Trekkie, and his decision to teach Alec Klingon is as academically serious as it is unique. The 28-year-old computer programmer is pursuing his Ph.D. in linguistics at Georgetown University, and views his effort as an educational adventure. “I do have a [Klingon] forehead I’ve worn a few times, but my interest is primarily in the language,” says Speers, an affable, witty computer geek who keeps his hair in a tight ponytail.
So far, the experiment seems to be working. Alec already speaks several Klingon words, including “vavoy,’’ which means “daddy.” “When he speaks, he tends to prefer English, although he’ll use Klingon for some things,” says Speers.
At Burger King, Alec banishes the hurt from his accident to make friends with the prize from his Kid’s Meal, a toy Hunchback of Notre Dame: Right off, he points to the Disney doll’s tiny slippers and mutters, “Waq, waq.” Speers smiles and says proudly, “ ‘Waq’ means shoe.’’ Alec knows the English word for that as well, because Speers’ wife talks to Alec exclusively in English, which the boy also gets in earfuls at the day-care center.
In the Speers household, Klingon and English vie for Alec’s attention, filling the town house with a wild mix of words. (Most prevalent, of course: “Don’t,” or “Qo’” in Klingon.) Speers says his wife, though no fan of Klingon or Star Trek culture in general, fully approves of his project, as do his friends and relatives. Speers argues that raising Alec to switch glibly between English and Klingon is no less beneficial than more traditional bilingual upbringings: “My feeling is that it’s good for people in general to know more than one language. You get different viewpoints and perspectives on things, and there is evidence to suggest that kids who are bilingual do better academically whether their second language is a constructed language or not.”
Speers has endured onlookers’ shocked disbelief and heard their snickers when he explains that he and his son are conversing in Klingon. Even in hyperpolyglot Washington, Klingon’s guttural sounds really do resonate like babble from outer space: From the grocery checkout counter to the folks at the day-care center, strangers routinely stop and ask Speers what in the hell he’s saying to his son. He used to simply answer “Klingon,” but now he says, “constructed language,’’ which usually stalls any further comment.
“When I say Klingon, people think of these vicious animal-like creatures they’ve seen on TV,” he explains. “We’re interested in the language. Alec hasn’t even seen the show…and one time I dressed up [as a Klingon] it horrified him, so I’ve never done it again.” (Even so, he adds that the Klingons have a noble culture to emulate, if not to obsess about: “We’ve learned that the Klingons have a society highly dedicated to the concept of honor,” he says. “Even in their warlike behavior, they’re very honorable.”)
Speers got his first dose of Klingon as a second language not from the boob tube but from the halls of academia. Three years ago he spotted a flyer on a Georgetown campus bulletin board for the Klingon Language Institute (KLI), an organization that studies the constructed language developed by Marc Okrand. “I thought to myself, ‘A new language,’” says Speers, who was getting his master’s degree in theoretical linguistics. “The fact that it was a constructed language really appealed to me. It sounded like fun.”
Artificial languages are nothing new. According to an article in the August issue of Wired (which features a Klingon phrase on the cover), Klingon joins a list of 700 constructed languages, from obscure medieval attempts to more recent efforts such as Esperanto. The late 19th-century invention of a Polish ophthalmologist, Esperanto remains the world’s most popular artificial language. But for many, Esperanto holds no appeal because it is so abstract. “One of the problems with Esperanto is there’s no binding culture behind it,” says Speers.
Klingon’s got culture by the gobs, and it’s a smooth union of sci-fi and linguistic impulses. Even better, the Klingon image has mellowed through the years, as the fierce alien race has evolved from the intergalactic bad guys of the original Star Trek series to the noble, if still hot-tempered, warriors of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the Star Trek movies. In 1984, Okrand, a linguist working at the Smithsonian, was hired by Paramount to invent Klingon dialogue for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. (Speers says that much of the dialogue used on the TV shows—without Okrand’s aid—is bad Klingon and completely offensive to his sensitive ears.)
The following year, Okrand, inspired by his one-shot writing gig, penned The Klingon Dictionary, which quickly became much more than a novelty item. Now in its second printing, the dictionary has sold more than 250,000 copies and serves as the bible for the language’s speakers, who take it a good deal more seriously than Okrand does. In fact, the Glover Park resident has become an elusive, legendary figure to Klingon speakers. “It’s kind of like Marc Okrand is a field linguist studying the Klingon language, and as he learns things about it, he reveals it to us, the community of speakers,” says Speers. “But we’re not Klingons, we don’t claim to have any knowledge about the language. We’re just studying what little information has been available to us.”
The clearinghouse for that intensive, worldwide study is the Flourtown, Pa.–based KLI, which publishes a quarterly (and quite scholarly) journal, HolQeD (“Language Science”), which focuses on Klingon linguistics, language, and culture, and a poetry magazine, jatmey (“scattered science”). The group also recently published a translation of Hamlet, and there are other projects afoot, including the Klingon Bible translation project. Meanwhile, Okrand has just released The Klingon Way: A Warrior’s Guide, featuring a slew of Klingon proverbs: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Not to mention his best-selling audio cassettes, Conversational Klingon (“Hear Klingon spoken by its creator”) and Power Klingon (“Learn classic Klingon jokes, insults, and toasts”). Along with the Wired profile, it’s clear that Klingon has never been hotter.
On paper, the Klingon language, at least in its Romanized lettering, resembles the jabberings of a typewriter on the fritz, but the spatterings of capital letters in the middle of words is the key to understanding its complex system of phonetics. Making it even harder to master, verb-heavy Klingon has no tenses and no infinitives and depends entirely on context to get the speaker’s point across.
Though KLI claims more than 1,000 active members, Speers estimates that only about two dozen people can write and speak in Klingon. Speers communicates with fellow Klingon speakers almost daily via e-mail (“I get about 15 Klingon messages a day,” he says offhandedly). Then there are the occasional phone conversations, and the annual KLI convention (at the most recent, Speers and others presented a linguistic “wish list” to special guest of honor Okrand, another of their attempts to push the language further. “He seemed really pleased,” says Speers.)
But the only chance that Speers has of making the language come to life on a daily basis is with Alec.
“I’ve been able to say almost everything I’ve needed to say to Alec in Klingon,” says Speers. “One of the reasons I find the Klingon language so interesting is that because the vocabulary and grammar is so limited, you really have to think to figure out how you’re going to say something.” Even putting Alec to bed becomes a linguistics puzzle, because there’s no Klingon word for “light.” “When I ask him to turn out the lights, I say the Klingon for ‘make it dark,’” he explains. There’s no Klingon word for “love,” either (they don’t have the concept), but in such situations Speers simply surrenders to English.
Ever the realist, Speers realizes that his experiment—trying to raise a Klingon warrior in the land of Barney and Sesame Street—is not only foolhardy but doomed: “There’s going to come a time when he’s going to stop making the effort to speak Klingon because it’ll be easier for him to speak English—it’s the prevalent language,” sighs Speers. Until then, the father and son will continue having their own private conversation.
In the Burger King, Alec is still playing with the Hunchback, guiding him through a blood-red battle landscape of leftover french fries and ketchup.
“BIrIn’a’? bItlhutlhqa’ DaneH’a’?” says Speers, adding, “I just asked him if he was finished and if he wanted some more to drink.” Alec shakes his head ambiguously, and hits the straw for some soda. Apparently, even when he understands, Alec’s like a lot of kids: He does what he wants.
Watching his son drink, Speers recalls the proud moment when Alec understood his first Klingon word, “HIvje,” which means “vessel,” Klingon’s closest approximation to “milk bottle.” “I was so thrilled, because it was the first time something that complex had happened,” says Speers.
Outside the Burger King, in the dying twilight of a summer eve, Speers serenades his son with a rendition of the Klingon Imperial Anthem he often uses as a bed-time lullaby:
taHjaj wo’ ’ej taHjaj voDLeHma’
wItoy’mo’ vaj nuquvmoHjaj ta’
Dun wo’maj ’ej Qochchugh vay’
vaj DaSmeymaj bIngDaq chaH DIbeQmoHchu’ jay’!
(“May the empire endure, and may our emperor endure
We serve him, so that he may honor us
Our empire is wonderful, and if anyone disagrees,
We will crush them beneath our boots!”)
It’s a pretty little melody for a song about intergalactic domination, and the little Klingon student obviously delights in hearing it. Nestled in his father’s arms, Alec whispers along to the words, even if he doesn’t understand their violent underpinnings. But the anthem sure doesn’t make him sleepy. He darts away from his dad, down to the sidewalk, and into the nearby parking lot, right into the path of an oncoming car:
“Qo’! naDev yIghoS!!!” screams Speers at the top of his lungs.
Hearing the Klingon words (which translate as “Don’t! Come here!”), or perhaps just the anger and fear in his father’s voice, Alec wheels around away from the danger and runs back to the safety of his father.—Eddie Dean