You Do Not Have to Watch 'Star Trek' to Learn to Speak Klingon

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we're back with linguist Arika Okrent, author of the new book "In the Land of Invented Languages."
One of those languages was C.K. Ogden's Basic English, first published in 1930. Arika Okrent describes Ogden as a Cambridge-educated editor, writer, translator and mischief maker. He tried to reduce English to just 850 words.

Arika Okrent
Arika Okrent
ARIKA OKRENT: "The problem was that it relied on these kind of phrasal verbs which foreign speakers have so much trouble with. So you can say 'to intend' is 'have a mind to.' So you get rid of the word intend and use these other small words. But it's not much clearer to someone who doesn't speak English."

AA: "Well, was Ogden's intention with that, was it to create an English for international communications? Or did he have a different purpose?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Well, he had multiple purposes -- partially as a sort of simplified English that could be easy for foreigners to learn. But it also was supposed to have these mind-enhancing properties, that forcing yourself to speak this way would make you think more clearly and express yourself more clearly."

RS: "We also understand from having read your book that you have what's called a first-level certification in the language called Klingon. And for our listeners, that's the language of 'Star Trek' -- '"

AA: "Or of one of the groups on 'Star Trek.'"

A Klingon
A Klingon
RS: "Right, right, one of the groups on 'Star Trek.' So tell us how you got -- what it means to be first-level certification and what's the following with Klingon? Or is it merely the enthusiasts for this television show?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "The Klingon speakers actually consider themselves a bit apart from the people who just dress up in the costumes, because dressing up in the costumes, anyone can do that. But I went in as the impartial scientist to see what was going on. Were they really speaking this language? What were they doing? And I got caught up in the challenge of it.
"It was invented by a linguist who took the most unusual properties he could think of from various natural languages and put them together to make this alien-seeming language that also works in a way that it feels like a natural language."

AA: "Could you maybe explain to us -- in Klingon -- what a Klingon is for someone who maybe isn't familiar with 'Star Trek'?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Well, it's this warrior race on the show, so they're this sort of tough, violent aliens who like battles and talk real rough."

RS: "Well, how would you greet someone in Klingon?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "You say 'nuqneH,' which means 'what do you want?'"

AA: "So to describe a warrior race of aliens in Klingon, can you do that or ... "

ARIKA OKRENT: "I only passed the first level."

RS: "So the first level, meaning -- how many levels are there?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "There's three levels, but for even the first level you have to know five hundred words of vocabulary. Well, let's see, I can do a little 'Hamlet' for you."

RS: "You want to do a little 'Hamlet' for us? All right."

ARIKA OKRENT: "taH pagh, taHbe'. DaH mu'tlheghvam vIqelnIS."

RS: "Could you translate that?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "That's, of course, 'To be, or not to be ... ' Well, actually, it's 'To continue, or not to continue. Now I must consider this sentence.' That's how you translate it."

AA: "Have you tried teaching your baby any Klingon yet?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "I haven't, but somebody did try to make their son the first native Klingon speaker. He only spoke Klingon to him for the first two years."

RS: "No way! And what happened?"

AA: "Did they arrest him, or what?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "No, his mother spoke English to him, so he wasn't a monolingual native Klingon speaker."

AA: "That's a real 'Star Trek' fan."

RS: "There's one thing that I noticed when I was reading through your book. I was thinking about ... I taught one of my sons, who was having a hard time, to read. I taught him -- you do have picture languages."

ARIKA OKRENT: "Well, that's what this Bliss Symbolics -- Charles Bliss invented this language to be this universal logical symbol language. It would let us see the truth because we couldn't be manipulated by words as we were looking at symbols.

"And a school for children with cerebral palsy used it, picked up on it, started using it to help kids who were so impaired that they couldn't speak, learn how to read and use English. But he got angry about that because he wanted it to be a universal logic language, not a tool for learning English."

AA: Arika Okrent's book is called "In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language." You can find the first part of our interview at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.