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If you’re a linguist or a Star Trek fan, Friday night has something for you. If you’re a linguist and a Star Trek fan, you should start flipping out now, because Marc Okrand, the inventor of the Klingon language, is giving a talk at GMU about the forces that shaped it and how it’s been used outside of the show. Even if you fit into neither of these niches, you probably know what a Klingon is. And the story behind their language is really about the creation and preservation of culture, which you definitely care about.
The Klingon language was originally invented for Star Trek more than 25 years ago, and has garnered its own following among hardcore fans of the franchise. The ability to speak and understand Klingon is a mark of true Trek nerd-dom. Klingon, like any other language, binds a culture (or subculture) together, marking a division between insiders and outsiders.
But Klingon has also taken on a linguistic life of its own outside of Star Trek proper. There’s an internet Klingon Language Institute and a new Klingon opera is in the works. Parents have even raised their children to speak Klingon. Okrand points out that “the father [in this story] wasn’t ‘teaching’ his son to speak Klingon. He was speaking Klingon around him and to him and watching to see if the son would start understanding and speaking it on his own.” Can Klingon be acquired like a natural human language?
It turns out that it can be. This has some bearing on the work that linguists do to record and preserve endangered human languages, some of which must be reconstructed from records rather than from native speakers. Okrand’s doctoral dissertation catalogued an extinct language from the indigenous Matsun culture of Northern California. Says Okrand, “The way Klingon and the California languages I studied most resemble one another is in the fact that most of the California languages I worked on have no native speakers — they had all died by the time I showed up. So I studied manuscripts and the like.” When working with Klingon, Okrand studies manuscripts too, the difference being that he wrote them.
Members of the Matsun culture are now attempting to bring their language back to life. The remaining speakers of the 7.5% of human languages that are categorized as “nearly extinct” face challenges in preserving their unique linguistic culture. Are they similar to those faced by the small but passionate community of Klingon speakers? Okrand supposes that “Klingon is, I guess, like an endangered language in that it has relatively few speakers, so if you want to preserve it or spread it, you have to make a much greater effort than for a natural language — even if that greater effort is just remembering to use it.”
“Language and culture go together, one reinforcing the other.” Says Okrand. “When one speaks Klingon, one says things in a Klingon way.” Some might argue that you’ll begin to think like a Klingon, too.