[tlhIngan Hol] Code vs. Language revisited

Will Martin willmartin2 at mac.com
Tue Aug 17 07:55:39 PDT 2021

This is more philosophical than the usual grammar/vocabulary stuff here, and it’s longer, so if you aren’t interested, feel free to delete and resume your briefly interrupted life. Don’t bother the rest of us with a TLDR message. Just do it.

I’ve long argued that the Klingon is not encoded English, pushing people to avoid the common beginner-translation errors that people do in most languages, believing that translation is a process with specific rules, and if you follow those rules and do the process you’ve translated text from one language to the other, right?

Well, not really. Anyone with experience of actual translation knows that while some simple expressions can be translated that way, you don’t have to dig very deep before you run into problems. This is why attempts to automate translation between English and Klingon so frequently fail miserably, and while boQwI’ is a popular app for looking things up, there is no popular app for translating English to Klingon or Klingon to English.

That said, I’ve come to realize recently that most formal language learning goes through an academic filter that fails to teach anyone how to reliably translate any language to any other language. The best translators always have years of “native language” experience in both languages. Most American Sign Language interpreters, for instance, are CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) or otherwise have been raised in a family that included a Deaf person with whom the interpreter actively communicated with from childhood.


Consider that if a native Basque speaker with no experience with English outside of their education had spent years in both early and higher education learning English took a vacation to Georgia and heard somebody say, “[It] don’t make me no nevah mind.” I bracket the “It” because it is optional in this common dialectic sentence. They also might have difficulty figuring out the verbal tone and facial expression that goes with it. They’d get the sense that it was a negative response, perhaps, but the rest might be mysterious.

Klingon isn’t just an artificial language. It’s a fictional language.

Artificial languages that are not spoken by fictional populations might be considered to be tools toward translation among people speaking different languages, or mind-experiments in expressive technique or in expanding the mental potential to think things beyond the bounds of natural languages, but a fictional language becomes a part of the fictional universe the fictional people who speak it dwell within.

That means that the language itself has the same limits in terms of complete development that the fictional civilization has. A fictional character acquires “believability” depending on how well the author depicts that character. How complex is the character? What kinds of relationships does the character acquire and maintain? What is the character’s morality like? What internal and external conflicts does the character deal with and how does she or he or it or they resolve or maintain or worsen those conflicts?

Klingons have been around for a long time on TV, in movies, in novels, and even comic books; decades. They began as villains; very minor characters, flat, and both comical and dangerous. A remarkable number of them die in the stories, when compared to other races (until recent movies depicting massive genocide of Romulans and Vulcans).

I’ve often said of my job that I didn’t have a career path. I had a career dot, and it kept moving around, and I had to be nimble to stay on top of it, being a technological knowledge worker in a field where the technology was constantly changing. I see Okrand’s job in a similar way. While he is, here in the real world, the author of the language and totally in control of its development, he’s also been dancing around a lot to make his language appropriate to both the fictional development of the race of speakers, and the real-world demands of the movie-making industry, the advertising industry, Friends of Maltz, the language translation educational industry, with his own whims and philosophical meanderings gluing it all together and decorating it around the fringe.

Meanwhile, in the fictional world, the language is spoken by people we never really see in their daily lives, and all of it is filtered through Maltz and Okrand, and Okrand is an academic. He may teach us idioms as Maltz randomly thinks of them, but for the most part, we’re like that Basque student, studying English before they ever come to Georgia.

In that sense, Klingon is a set of grammatical rules, a vocabulary, and a limited list of idioms, with occasional cultural details described to us anecdotally.

In a sense, it is somewhat of a code for English, since English is Okrand's native language, though it’s a highly complex code requiring depth of experience to appropriately encode and decode, while it is also an artificial language that succeeds in expressing things with what we might call a coloring of meaning sincerely alien to English. Some Klingon expressions are quite difficult to accurately translate into English without a lot of awkward explanation appended to it, such that the translator has a choice between inaccurately translating the Klingon statement as English, or to offer more detail as to the nature of the expression, resulting in something that doesn’t sound much like a native English expression.

The reverse is true. Some simple, direct English expressions have to be translated into inaccurate/ambiguous Klingon, or the Klingon “translation” becomes more of an explanation, in Klingon, of what the English means.

Meanwhile, unless it becomes one of the random idioms that Maltz shares with us, we’ll never have that native experience of encountering “Don’t make me no nevah mind.” Lacking a deeper cultural experience with the race, we’ll never speak like natives.

We have more in common with immigrants who try to learn their family’s native language independent of any communication with those family members who have either died, or refuse to speak the “old” language because they want us to integrate more completely in the new country.

We can learn to speak it well enough to communicate with other people like us, but not really speak it like a native, since in our case, the natives are fictional.

Add the weird social networking aspect that like FaceBook or other open, social networks, we say things in Klingon without always considering the full range of the population we are talking to. Nobody knows all the people on this list. Many read and never write. This list could easily be monitored by NSA, FBI, Soviet spies, and others with motives we are blind to (not that they are likely to glean much for their efforts).

As a group, we hop around between the present real world and the fictional future world, with grammar and vocabulary mysteries that, depending on which Universe our minds are in, are either undeveloped or undiscovered.

If you were expecting me to come to some kind of conclusion here, I’ll probably disappoint you, since this didn’t begin as any kind of challenge to anything in order to prove something. It’s philosophy, the love of thinking.

For me, personally, learning to speak Klingon has always been a thought experiment. It reveals aspects of the link between ideas and English expressions of ideas by providing this other mechanism of expression that requires me to back up and more carefully examine what I meant to express.

Just as an artist has an idea of an image, begins to paint it, and then the artist becomes affected and changes in the original intent effected by the painting itself as it develops, so that later details fit the shapes and proportions to which they are applied, a person using a language has ideas that become affected by the language as the expression is [the creative equivalent of] "parsed".

Parsing is what happens when you use the grammar, vocabulary, and idioms you encounter in the expression, leading you to interpret it all into an idea or thought. I’m not sure we have a word for the equivalent that we do while we generate the expression, attempting to express an idea or thought. There are linguists here. Perhaps you have a word for it. If you don’t, then, well, we need one, because otherwise, this is the blind spot that focuses on the degree and quality of language limiting potential thought (or at least the capacity to share such thoughts).

Polylingual people talking with others who speak the same set of languages will shift around among languages mid-sentence, picking the language to use the same way the rest of us pick what phrase to use because some languages are better at expressing certain ideas. I’ve witnessed this, being in the room with an Arab roommate talking on the phone with his brother, flowing between English, French, and Arabic, phrase by phrase, since they shared native-equivalent fluency in all three languages.

Klingon helps me better understand what English does to my ideas, and it allows me to have slightly different ideas than I would have had if I didn’t know how to speak Klingon. The same is true of ASL.

And this is true, despite my late introduction to both Klingon and ASL, and the huge gap between my fluency in either language and my fluency in English.

And all this is shaded by my wife’s frequently accurate correction of my English grammar or vocabulary, despite her insistence on using the term “a scissor” when referring to a pair of scissors. I’ve learned to pronounce the difference between “pen” and “pin” clearly enough for her to differentiate between them, contrary to my southern dialectical blending of these two vowel sounds toward something between the two, recognizing the value of differentiating between these words more clearly without leaning on context, though she still insists that it’s okay for her to pronounce “what” and “watt” as if they were homonyms, because context should make the difference obvious.

It’s additionally interesting that the “wh” difference between us evaporates when we pronounce “who”. We say “who" the same as each other, as a homonym to “hoo”, not as “hwoo”, like I would say, consistent to my “hwat” version of “what”, or her “woo” equivalent of her “watt” version of “what".

So, given that I live in a household that can’t completely agree on the “proper” way to say things in English, it’s interesting how vehemently this list argues about The Right Way to say things in Klingon, myself, in the past, among the most extreme in this opinion, though I’ve softened over the years.

charghwI’ vaghnerya’ngan

rInpa’ bomnIS be’’a’ pI’.

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