Linguistics Goes to Hollywood

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On April 19, the Linguistics Department at UC San Diego (aka the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza) hosted a special event as part of our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Department.

The event was entitled Linguistics Goes to Hollywood: Creators of the Klingon, Na'vi and Dothraki Languages, a panel discussion featuring Marc Okrand (creator of Klingon, Star Trek), Paul Frommer (creator of Na'vi, Avatar), and David J. Peterson (creator of Dothraki, Game of Thrones).

The panel moderator was Grant Goodall, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Linguistics Language Program at UC San Diego — as well as a speaker of Esperanto and Vice-President of the board of directors of the Esperantic Studies Foundation. I was the emcee of the event as well as one of the organizers, together with Professor Robert Kluender, Mike Brooks (president of the Linguistics Undergraduate Association, LingUA), and our indefatigable Management Services Officer, Gris Arellano.

There were approximately 700 people at the event, and there was some local media coverage both before and after. Here are some links for those who may be interested.



19 Comments

  1. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 15, 2013 @ 12:52 am

    Interesting that such an event gets such good press, these days. That didn't used to be the case! We who toil in the shadows for years on invented languages simply for the love of doing so have been surprised and heartened at the recent public interest in real conlangs in commercial fictitious works – "real" meaning there's a lexicon and a morphosyntax, as opposed to semantically empty gibberish – and the more positive attitude toward us that has gone with it. Nowadays, instead of hearing "Yeah, I used to make up languages too, when I was 9" or "Why don't you do something more useful with your time?" if we dare admit to it at all, we are just as likely to get "Oh, you mean like Na'vi/Dothraki/Klingon/Quenya? Cool!"

    Meanwhile, human language is interesting. And commercial conlangs that are real and learnable for such fans as want to try are a quite decent way of waving this fact in front of people who might otherwise never notice. As a result, it can be a bridge to linguistics. I know a number of people who arrived at linguistics as their choice of field by exactly this path.

  2. Alex Bollinger said,

    June 15, 2013 @ 4:12 am

    Did you get a sense of how complete these languages were? I loved Star Trek but never learned Klingon – my mom was more interested in me learning Spanish. But I wonder if they just made up enough words for the on-screen dialogue or if the languages are complete enough to actually live your life using only one of the made-up languages.

    I wish I could have been there! Sounds like fun.

  3. Linda Seebach said,

    June 15, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    There's a Klingon version of "A Christmas Carol" (with English subtitles) that has been performed in Minneapolis the last several years. And I think there's also a certification program.

  4. Linguistic data science analysis of state if the union address | Tim Batchelder.com said,

    June 15, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    [...] Linguistics Goes to Hollywood (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu) [...]

  5. Colin Fine said,

    June 16, 2013 @ 3:15 am

    Alex : "In the Land of Invented Languages" by Arika Okrent is a very readable survey of constructed languages, both those created for fiction and others. She went into several of them quite deeply, and took exams in Klingon.

  6. Rohan F said,

    June 16, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    @Alex Bollinger:

    But I wonder if they just made up enough words for the on-screen dialogue or if the languages are complete enough to actually live your life using only one of the made-up languages.

    I don't know about Na'vi or Dothraki, since neither grammars nor dictionaries of either have yet been published – no doubt they're on their way. But Klingon certainly is a basically complete language and there are perhaps 20 to 30 people in the world who are conversationally proficient (a group to which I have the honour to belong). Translations have been published of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, the Dao De Jing, and the epic of Gilgamesh. A number of other translations and original texts have been done that are yet to be published.

    Unfortunately, we don't get the chance to speak Klingon very often because we're so scattered – most of the proficient Klingon speakers live in the US, but spread across the country, and one or two each live in Germany, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. But when we come together for the annual Klingon Language Institute conference, or qep'a' "great meeting" (this year it's held at the end of July), Klingon does genuinely come alive. We speak it, sing in it, play games in it (there's a Klingon-language edition of Monopoly, and we've just recently done calculations for a new Klingon letter distribution for Scrabble), and occasionally take "the Vow": from sunrise to sunset, speak nothing but Klingon. Going out to a restaurant with someone who's on the Vow is quite an experience, and it's equally a challenge to interpret in real time from Klingon to English!

  7. John D said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

    Rohan's comment makes me wonder. If the Klingon language is "basically complete," then Microsoft's implementation of it in Bing Translate is awful.

    For example, the translation Bing gives me for "hummingbird" is "hummingbird." Is that a legit word in Klingon? And while "rose" gives "Hu'DI' loD," camellia, heliotrope, gardenia, and jasmine are all left untranslated. I have also heard (correct me if I'm wrong) that Klingon speakers must claim they are "docking the spaceship" when all they're doing is parking the car (a distinction available in English, French, and even Esperanto).

    If you can't say these things, it's not "basically complete," but basically incomplete, no matter how many fictitious items you can name in the language.

  8. Mike Maxwell said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 11:02 pm

    @John D: I suspect most of these things are untranslatable (in the sense of not having a single word for the concept) in Inuktitut. And all but "hummingbird" are untranslatable in Shuar. Nevertheless, those languages have served their speakers just fine.

  9. John D said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

    Mike,

    Okay, we can judge "basically complete" for a language with an actual body of speakers. If there were an Inuktitut diaspora to Louisiana, they would indeed come up with words for "gardenia" and "hummingbird" that worked within their language. I suspect automobiles are known in Northeastern Canada, and that the Inuktitut for "park the car" is not "leave the sled over there." Without even knowing the language, I would guess they don't drop into English (or French) either.

    For that matter, I suspect that given a list of Klingon words, even a modest fan of Star Trek could come up with concepts referenced within the shows and movies that cannot be translated into Klingon. I just don't buy that the language is "basically complete." I think we can higher expectations of the language of an industrialized society (English speakers, German speakers, French speakers, and fictionally Klingon speakers) than we would of a non-industrial society. It's not surprising to learn that Inuktitut has no word for "hummingbird," but we would be amazed if German didn't, even though hummingbirds are New World birds.

    The rules are different for isolated, indigenous people. In the context of Star Trek, Klingons are not an isolated, indigenous people, therefore we can expect them to have words for common Earth flora and fauna. Besides, no real Klingon would wait for a linguist to tell him what word to use. There is no honor in that.

  10. John D said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    One more shot at Klingon. The "missing words" might be a problem with Bing, or we could assume that despite dealings with the Federation, the Klingons simply don't have words for Earth flora and fauna. (I'm still thinking of the irate letter the Klingon Ambassador to Earth would send upon seeing hummingbirds and jasmine near the Klingon Embassy. Clearly an act of war!)

    As a star-travelling species, we can assume that the Klingons have made contact with other species (and, since the only citizens of the Klingon empire we see are Klingon, committed acts of total genocide against these other species). So their language must have words for various governmental systems.

    Yet Bing has no answer when you look for the words "collective," "constitution," "monarchy" (okay, I'll accept "kingdom" on that one and blame Microsoft), or "republic." The word "regent" is also missing, which I found odd, given that the Klingon Empire is shown to be ruled by a regent.

    Not a complete language.

  11. Rohan F said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

    John D:

    If you can't say these things, it's not "basically complete," but basically incomplete, no matter how many fictitious items you can name in the language.

    What's the English word for kabuki?

    By saying the language is basically complete, I don't mean there are single words for everything English has single words for. What I mean is that Klingon possesses the grammatical structures and lexicon to say or describe anything you want to, even if single unit words don't exist for certain concepts. True, there's no word for "hummingbird", but I can translate it (vIngbogh bo'Degh "whiningbird") or describe it (nom puvbogh bo'Degh machqu' 'ej vIychorgh tlhutlhbogh "very small bird which flies quickly and which drinks nectar") using nothing but established Klingon morphemes, or I can simply borrow it (Ha'mIngber bo'Degh "Ha'mIngber bird"), which is what Klingons would likely do if they existed anyway.

    Also, note that "hummingbird", "gardenia", "camellia", "jasmine" and "heliotrope" are second-millennium AD English – none are naturalised in English until the 15th century. That doesn't mean Old English was somehow "incomplete" for its speakers. For that matter, is modern English incomplete because it lacks a simple term for Klingon ghar "conduct diplomacy"? Or is it that Klingon doesn't have the same "borrowing rights" as English? What's wrong with qamelya' lav "Camellia shrub" for "camellia"?

    collective

    DIvI' "federation", boq "association, alliance, collective".

    constitution

    Also a 2nd-millennium loan, but chermeH chutmey "laws for the purposes of establishment" renders it well nonetheless.

    monarchy, kingdom

    Be more specific. Apart from the fact that wo' "empire" really still covers these concepts quite adequately, are you talking about the institution, or the nation run by that institution? (Even English isn't "complete" in this regard.) If the institution: che'wI' mob che'taHghach "the reign of a lone ruler"; if the nation: che'wI' mob Sep "lone-ruler nation".

    regent

    Yet again a 2nd-millennium loan, but still, che'wI' ru' "temporary ruler", voDleH ru' "temporary emperor", Qang ru' "temporary chancellor", et cetera ad nauseam.

    Also, tangentially: since when is Bing a trustworthy linguistic authority? Does the fact that it can't translate "bling" into French, "persnickety" into Polish, or "osmosis" into Thai say anything useful about any of those languages at all?

  12. Rohan F said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

    John D:
    I have also heard (correct me if I'm wrong) that Klingon speakers must claim they are "docking the spaceship" when all they're doing is parking the car (a distinction available in English, French, and even Esperanto).

    Also, languages don't have a one-to-one correspondence between morphemes, and Klingon is no exception. That Duj vIvergh translates English "I dock the spacecraft" is true, but it can also translate English "I moor the ship", "I park the car", etc. Duj means "ship, vessel, vehicle"; that spaceships were the natural first referent when Klingon was constructed is both obvious and trivial, but that doesn't mean that it can't have wider semantic scope. Heck, consider modern English "ship", which includes spacecraft, and "car", which used to refer to horse-drawn wagons.

  13. Darin Arrick said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 8:25 am

    @Aaron: It's not a bridge to linguistics; it IS linguistics. :)

    @John: According to what seems to be your definition of "complete", no language is complete. I suggest you soften your definition somewhat. Also, would it ever be possible for Klingon to be "complete" in your eyes? I get the impression that your answer would be "no", and that you have a bit of a bias against constructed languages in general. Please correct me if I am mistaken. Also, the Bing translator is pretty bad so far, but it's being worked on by someone who is fluent in Klingon.

  14. John D said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    Darin,

    A bias against constructed languages? Me? Not at all. I actually find constructed languages quite interesting and to a degree realize that there are artificial and deliberate parts to many prominent languages. Seven million Hebrew speakers can't be wrong. Nor can a million or so Esperanto speakers, or however many Volapuk speakers there are.

    I do think a constructed language can be reasonably complete. I have to concur that there really isn't a reason for the Inuit to have a word for hummingbird. On the other hand, the vast bulk of the body of Klingon speakers live in a country where hummingbirds are an indigenous species. I would even go so far to say that the entire Klingon-speaking population live in locations in which automobiles are common and interplanetary manned spacecraft are only fictional constructs. The language was created in the United States.

    In real life, people just wouldn't put up with tedious circumlocution for things they encounter every day. An Esperanto, Volapuk, or Ido speaker, faced with a new concept (say, "computer") is going to coin something and not wait for the official body to do the job. Should the day come that we encounter an alien species, they won't fail to have words for things they see every day.

    So I guess my definition of "reasonably complete" is "suffices to readily explain the concepts its speakers encounter on a frequent basis." It seems to me that Klingon fails at this, while French and Esperanto do not.

    I should note here (in this lengthy response to "correct me if I'm wrong") that I am both a science fiction fan and a reasonably competent Esperanto speaker. I've no bias against Star Trek. I like the series. But any good narrative must be plausible. Klingon does not provide a plausible narrative for the gaps in its vocabulary. I find it difficult to believe that an actual spacefaring alien species would have these gaps. If we meet a culture that flies between the stars, I'm certain they will have words for land and water craft.

  15. Rohan F said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 2:59 am

    In real life, people just wouldn't put up with tedious circumlocution for things they encounter every day.

    "Tedious" is subjective. Do we need a monomorphemic noun for "steering wheel" (we see more of them than we do of dragons, and yet we have a concise term for the latter)? An adjective for "Black with two sugars"? A common Navajo word for a clock is a nominalised verb, náʼoolkiłí "one which is moved slowly in a circle". I wonder whether that counts as tedious.

    An Esperanto, Volapuk, or Ido speaker, faced with a new concept (say, "computer")

    "Computer" is itself a circumlocutive description – somewhat simpler morphologically than náʼoolkiłí, but a description nonetheless. If the word "box" had become repurposed to mean specifically "computer", I might be more willing to concede this point.

    So I guess my definition of "reasonably complete" is "suffices to readily explain the concepts its speakers encounter on a frequent basis." It seems to me that Klingon fails at this, while French and Esperanto do not.

    Perhaps you should base your judgment of whether or not Klingon fails as a language on actual familiarity with what Klingon can and cannot do. I'll throw down the gauntlet: let me demonstrate it. Pick any random passage of English prose (say with a maximum of 200 words – let's not choke the comment boxes, or I can post it elsewhere if you like), and I'll translate it into Klingon. Anything at all, fiction or non-fiction.

    But any good narrative must be plausible. Klingon does not provide a plausible narrative for the gaps in its vocabulary.

    Apart from my wondering what the narrative is for the gaps in Esperanto vocabulary, you've shifted from "there are gaps in Klingon vocabulary" to "there's no plausible narrative for the gaps in Klingon vocabulary" without addressing the first argument, which is begging the question. What constitutes a "gap" in a language is often debatable, and even if there is a gap (and natural languages all have them), there's no need for a "narrative" to fill them. Natural languages, however, possess sufficiently complex and numerous tools that they can cover those gaps with the tools they possess. I contend Klingon possesses this flexibility as well.

    I find it difficult to believe that an actual spacefaring alien species would have these gaps. If we meet a culture that flies between the stars, I'm certain they will have words for land and water craft.

    You're applying a double standard here: why is a compound noun "spacecraft" okay for English (despite the fact that we are a culture that is spacefaring, and have been for more than 50 years), but bIQ Duj "water craft", an equivalent compound noun in all but orthography, not okay for Klingon?

  16. John D said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    Rohan,

    May I point out that your challange doesn't actually prove anything? There are, after all, dozens of languages wholly up to the task of translating anything I can come up with which I don't speak either. I have no ability to tell if the Mandarin translations of the Harry Potter novels are any good. I cannot judge the Russian translation of Alice in WOnderland. Is "Dreams of My Father" any good in Arabic?

    But your comment sent me to Bing Translate once again because it made me think of a text. Not one to translate, but one from which to take a lesson. "Omnilingual," a story by H. Beam Piper. (Due to Piper's suicide, his works are in the public domain and can be found for free on the Internet.)

    A quick summary: a team lands on Mars and finds the remains of a long-dead civilization. In their exploration, they find a periodic table. That's the key to understanding Martian.

    So I went to Bing and started typing in the names of chemical elements. Yeah, they had oxygen and nitrogen, but I quickly found I was coming up with elements that Bing couldn't translate (and, as always, this may be a deficiency of Bing, rather than Okrand's work).

    The periodic table, as Piper points out, is not some cultural artifact, but a representation of reality. Not only are these elements real, but their relationship predicted certain natural elements before they were found. (So, no claiming that Kronos lacks copper, since the periodic table would show that it had to exist somewhere). And I'm sure if I cornered a physicist, I would find that solid planets are going to have the whole range of naturally ocurring elements.

    It would be ridiculous to suggest that a spacefaring race would not be familiar with the elements, just as it would be ridiculous to suggest that the population of Klingon speakers would not be. (I'll give a pass to those in pre-technological cultures.)

    So if you can't come up with real names for the elements, Okrand's work is incomplete. Can open your Klingon dictionary and come up with a word for "iridium"? I would note in this case, a phrase that meant "chemical element 77" is insufficient.

    While I don't want to go all Sapir-Worf on people, the vast bulk of Klingon speakers are white American males. So, I've been trying to go for concepts I know that white American males (hey, that's me!) would know and use. It's certainly a clumsy way to prod at a language. And, of course, there is a big difference between "Bing Translate has no entry for this" and "there is no word for this." Would a culture with sophisticated technology really talk like this? Color me unconvinced.

    This started off with your response to Alex Bollinger who wondered "if the languages are complete enough to actually life your life using only one of the made-up languages." I responded to your comment that if you were right, then Bing Translate is awful. From there it was into the fray.

    I remain unconvinced that Klingon can be considered "basically complete." However, if Okrand has indeed named every element in the periodic table, that would nudge me in the right direction.

  17. Rohan F said,

    June 26, 2013 @ 3:08 am

    John,

    Since you seem keen on arguing the idea that Klingon needs to be realistic "in-universe", this is the "in-game" narrative: a single Klingon military officer, Maltz, was taken prisoner here on Earth, and it's from interrogation of him that all of our knowledge of the Klingon language comes. He's only a bridge officer, so he doesn't know that much about nuclear physics, or the comparative anatomy of the two Klingon livers, and even when he is reasonably knowledgeable on a subject he's not always forthcoming – he is a prisoner, after all, and sometimes he just doesn't want to talk to us dirty Feddies. Does that seem more plausible?

    But for my part, I don't feel any pressing need to engage in the narrative that deeply. I'm more content to take the set of tools that Okrand's Klingon provides and, as it were, see what it can do. That's what I see as constituting the "completeness" of Klingon: not that the language is verisimilitudinous and entirely consistent with the fictional scenario (there's no such thing as an actual Klingon, after all!), and not that the language has filled every lexical gap that needs to be filled (whatever that even means), but that the language itself, as it stands, is internally self-consistent and sufficiently expressive to communicate any idea I might want to communicate.

    May I point out that your challange doesn't actually prove anything?

    Only because you're restricting yourself to a very narrow definition of what constitutes "completeness" of a language, a definition that doesn't actually hold up when you apply it to natural languages. As for what you say about the "Omnilingual" story, that's not really a useful point, since Carl Sagan did quite the inverse in "Contact": the elements required for constructing the Machine in that novel were referred to solely by atomic number, with the specific goal of being comprehensible to any suitably advanced civilisation. The end result was the same, though: the Machine was built successfully, showing that the end-goal – communication of the relevant ideas, which after all is the goal of language – was equally well-achieved.

    The periodic table, as Piper points out, is not some cultural artifact, but a representation of reality.

    Only partially. The periodic table ignores or simplifies some very important portions of that reality (isotopes, metastable states, possible electric charges, and so forth). One can't use the periodic table to predict nuclide metastability, for instance. Similarly, a language is only a partial representation of reality; to discuss anything that falls outside of what we have specific tools for, we have to make do with what we do have. This is why, in quantum physics, quarks are said by physicists to have "colour" even though whatever quality it is that this term represents in quantum physics quite literally can't have anything to do with actual colour at all. This is also why, in Klingon, lacking a word for "iridium", a workaround like Hap Segh 77DIch is necessary, but it's still sufficient for communicating the underlying idea.

    I would note in this case, a phrase that meant "chemical element 77" is insufficient.

    With respect, that's classic special pleading. To come back to my unanswered earlier question about Klingon ghar "conduct diplomacy", English – as an international language of diplomacy, no less – lacks a simple verb with this meaning, but wouldn't it be awfully arbitrary for me to impose the condition that a phrasal translation into English is insufficient?

  18. John D said,

    June 26, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    Rohan,

    You seem to be missing my point as to why your challenge doesn't prove anything. It fails because I cannot judge the result. If you handed me a random collection of Chinese characters and told me that it translated the first five sentences of Pride and Prejudice, I cannot evaluate it. I am incapable of judging the quality of work written in languages I do not speak.

    I've been bouncing between in-universe and real world critique because I'm trying to be fair. The conceit of Klingon is that it is an alien language. The reality of Klingon is that is it spoken by white American males. Your argument that Klingon doesn't need a word for "hummingbird" is in-universe. If we go real-world only, then I have to wonder why a group of white American males wouldn't have a word for "automobile." The language seems to be incomplete for describing late-20th/early-21st century culture. But when I've noted that, I've been told that a fictional species might see things differently. Except you're a human. I'll play on either playing field. To me, the language seems inadequate both for contemporary Americans and fictional alien cultures.

    The informant question is an interesting one. Would a linguist really feel they had a comprehensive view of a language from a single informant? I would think not. So our limited view of the language would not be complete, even if the language were complete.

    I think it is you who is dealing in special pleading on the question of iridium. Maybe the Vulcans could use a numbered periodic table (but see the logic of assigning clear names to each element). I suspect if I started peppering a chemist with the challenge to match the name to the number I'd get the response "pester someone else."

    What are your criteria for judging a language complete? While you have disagreed with my criteria, you really haven't made a case that Klingon is complete, apart from bare assertion. What are the criteria?

    And I should note that a single paraphrase clearly doesn't show lack of completeness. Lots of them do.

    Finally, the English monosyllable for "conduct diplomacy" is "lie."

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