Illustration by Chaim Garcia.
If you’ve seen any of the new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to an earful of Klingon — the language of our favorite alien villains. But this constructed language (“conlang,” for short) has been around much longer than you might expect: First mentioned in Star Trek: The Original Series in 1967, Klingon has been a fully fledged, speakable language since 1984. In the three decades since, Klingon now has a complete dictionary, several original books, multiple translated works and an entire opera all to itself. As far as speakers, there are a few hundred intermediate-level individuals and a handful of fluent speakers worldwide.
Creator and linguist Marc Okrand developed the Klingon language to not only sound alien but to be linguistically distinct from our human languages. Of course, even with these parameters, Okrand has acknowledged that every aspect of Klingon is based on a real language. Let’s explore how Klingon compares to other languages that are spoken today, and what kind of challenges there are to picking up this conlang.
Sounds Of The Klingon Language
The system of how sounds function within a language and transmit meaning, as well as how they contrast from one another, is called phonology. Klingon phonology is first and foremost very guttural, meaning that many of the sounds of the language are pronounced from the back of the throat.
A guttural sound that’s common in Klingon is the voiceless velar fricative. This sound can be difficult for native English speakers to reproduce, as it’s almost nonexistent in English. The only exceptions are Scouse (the dialect in Liverpool) and Scottish (which uses the voiceless velar fricative in the -ch of the word loch). However, the sound is very common in other languages, so if you have knowledge of a Germanic language, like German or Dutch, a Celtic language, like Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, or a Semitic language, like Arabic or Hebrew, you have a clear edge — all of these languages are considered fairly guttural. Even French shares some phonological similarities with Klingon, as it features predominant use of the guttural R.
There’s one easy aspect of Klingon pronunciation — and that’s the vowels. With the consonants running the show, vowels are comparatively relaxed and are more closely aligned with vowel pronunciation in Romance languages. If all of these languages are foreign to you, worry not, Klingon was designed to sound completely alien to an English-speaking audience!
Klingon Word Construction
The way that words are formed in a language, and how these words relate to each other, is called morphology. In the Klingon language, the morphology is agglutinative, meaning that complex words are formed by compounding morphemes (the smallest units of meaning in a language) without changing the spelling or phonetics. While this may sound difficult — or scary — to an English speaker because we don’t often use this type of word-building in our language, most agglutinative languages are highly regular. This means that irregular verbs are very rare. (Anyone who’s learned a second language knows what a blessing this is.) This is also the case with Klingon.
One of the most famous agglutinative languages from our planet is Turkish, with notable examples of imaginative words like muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine, meaning “as though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones.” Klingon also does this to some extent (though not that long) with words like Qapla’HommeyqoqlIjmo’, which translates to the phrase “due to your so-called minor mistakes.” Similarly, logh chal je ‘angweD qach means “planetarium” but literally translates to “Heaven and Earth space building.” Quite colorful, no?
Other real-life examples of agglutinative languages include Hungarian and Indonesian.
Klingon Grammar Rules
While it was probably a relief to hear that Klingon verbs are regular in their conjugation, that’s the end of the simplicities with grammar. Klingon grammar is especially complicated because Okrand chose features that aren’t common in Earth languages. This is the case with sentence word order. The vast majority of modern languages use either subject-verb-object (“I learn Klingon”) or subject-object-verb (“I Klingon learn”), but Klingon is object-subject-verb (“Klingon I learn”), which less than 1% of modern languages use. The handful of languages that do use this form are mostly unique to North and South America, such as Huarijio in northern Mexico. This means that for the majority of people learning Klingon, the sentence construction will be entirely unintuitive.
The other grammatical feature that could seem alien is Klingon’s lack of verb tenses. This doesn’t mean that Klingon has no sense of time, but that it expresses temporal events differently. Instead of using tense, which only refers to when something happened, Klingon uses aspect, which includes how something happened. Okrand’s chosen aspects notate whether something is continually happening, it is happening but will eventually end, it has been completed, it has been completed on purpose, or even whether something that’s happened is reversible. All of these markers take place in the form of suffixes. The subtle difference between tense and aspect can be difficult for those who only have experience with European languages, but this quality is based in Earth linguistics. Mandarin Chinese, for example, doesn’t have verb tenses but uses four aspects to convey information about time.
How To Be Polite In Klingon
Honorifics (also called honorific speech for clarity) are grammatical structures that convey respect and politeness. They are not quite the same as honorific titles, which are words in a language that express respect (like Mr. and Mrs. in English). While Klingon does have multiple types of honorific titles, we’re only going to be examining the grammatical honorific suffix -neS. It’s attached to the end of words or sentences in order to add an element of “honor” to the statement. An example sentence from Okrand is: choQaHpu’neS, which translates roughly to, “You have helped me, Honored One.” Compared to other languages, Klingon is special because its honorific is completely optional and isn’t considered rude to omit (although increasingly this tradition is fading from almost all Earth languages, too).
This can be a challenge for English speakers because English has no grammatical honorifics. In terms of modern examples for comparison, Korean probably comes the closest to Klingon. Korean also has suffixes and infixes that can be attached to nouns and verbs, so that most, if not all, sentences can be supplemented with this politeness. One major difference, however, is that Korean honorifics are an important part of social etiquette, and there are many modifiers, instead of only one.
The Klingon Alphabet And Writing
The last hurdle to tackle is Klingon orthography, or how the language is written and what kind of alphabet it uses. You may have already noticed that Klingon orthography relies on the Latin alphabet, but uses upper- and lowercase letters differently than most languages. Considering that Klingon is an alien language, why does it use Earth’s most common writing system?
Klingon writing has a rather storied history. For much of Klingon’s appearance in Star Trek, words and symbols were only used for decoration and to show that the race was decidedly “alien.” The first iteration of the alphabet (called pIqaD in Klingon) is based on a few characters from the original Klingon battlecruiser made for Star Trek: The Original Series. This evolved into a longer alphabet published in the fan companion guide U.S.S. Enterprise Officer’s Manual in 1980, but there were several letters missing. The design of these letters changed slightly when Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, but even with this “standardization,” the Latin spelling of Klingon words remains more popular because most Klingon speakers are already familiar with the Latin alphabet.
Going through this overview, Klingon can seem pretty difficult — if not completely alien— to most new speakers. It’s helpful to remember that the language was purposefully designed to be unintuitive to humans. Still, if you thought this was complicated enough, it should be noted that this article only touched on two of the nine types of Klingon verb suffixes, and didn’t even start on any of the (five!) noun suffixes, let alone any of the adjective modifiers. Perhaps before starting on Klingon, it’s better to conquer an Earth language or two.