Translation and Fictitious Languages – Part Two: Star Trek

Posted on August 18, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics

Dif-tor heh smusma! Don’t know what it means? It’s one of the most famous lines from possibly one of Earth’s most famous shows: “Live long and prosper”, from Star Trek.

Star Trek is so firmly entrenched in our lives that ‘Trekkie’ is defined in our dictionaries, and if you haven’t heard of the show you must be from, well, the Outer Rim. Part of its huge success lies in the depth of its cultural construction. In 1966, when the first television series began, nobody on Star Trek spoke anything but English. The focus was all on the Enterprise, the crew and primarily on the captain and his core officers. As time passed and popularity increased, the Star Trek universe began to expand, both as film franchises and spin-off series, and a massive fan following developed, so strong that they got their own name.

“Pon farr”, the ‘time of mating’

Characterization became more developed and aliens acquired territories, history, behavioural traits and language. Mr Spock was the only regular in the original series who had a distinctive alien characterization, but even he didn’t begin speaking Vulcan until episode 30, and that only in extremis when he was overcome by the urge to have sex. Some other words were included in this episode, but Vulcan as a working language didn’t really expand until the movies came out, and more sophisticated spin-offs evolved.

In the first two films, actors continued to speak English, with Vulcan over-dubbed afterwards, but then the language began to proliferate. Trekkies constructed their own lexicons, and fan groups formed who expanded the basics into entire cultural histories. The first few phrases in an alien language were contributed by the actor James Doohan (Scotty), an expert in accents and imitation who also provided the words for the dubbing, but the main impetus for building these into a proper language was provided by experts.

Klingon

American professor of linguistics Marc Okrand was working on closed captioning for the Oscars in 1982 when he met the producer of Star Trek II, who hired him for subsequent films to develop the Klingon language, and later to expand existing basic Vulcan and Romulan. Using his in-depth linguistic expertise, Okrand went on to produce an entire language, complete with grammar, syntax and vocabulary, and in 1985 published the immensely successful Klingon Dictionary.

Klingon became so popular among Trekkies that Okrand published two more books, and, in 2010, co-wrote a Klingon libretto for an opera. In that year, you could also have attended a performance in Klingon Shakespeare, with translations by the Klingon Language Institute. The Vulcan Language Institute also started 30 years ago, where fans instituted an entire linguistic system incorporating a number of dialects.

Meanwhile, there is a current legal battle going on between the movie studios and the publishers of the non-franchised, fan-funded Star Trek movie ‘Axanar’. The franchised film studios argue that Klingon does not exist as a real language and that they own the rights to it, but a group of independent language creators and linguists have filed a brief supporting the claim that it is an actual living language, used by Trekkies at conventions, in TV shows and books, at colleges – and even at weddings!

Other Languages

Other constructed languages in Star Trek exist in later series, including Rihannsu, the Romulan language, Bajoran (common in Deep Space Nine) and one called Ferengi (actually pidgin English for ‘foreigner’). None of them, however, are developed to the level of those original two languages. Today, you can learn Klingon with the KLI online, and the language has even been offered at colleges.

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To part 1 about the languages in Game of Thrones

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