Klingon really isn’t my thing.
I know enough about languages, real and invented, to know that tlhIngan Hol is a technical triumph, but I can’t pretend I’m particularly fond of it as a cultural statement. My strangely retentive memory for trivia means I have a pretty good grasp of the nuances of Klingon costume styles and warship variants, but I don’t have any emotional attachment to that particular spacegoing barbarian empire.
I can admire the skill and dedication that it takes to make the appropriate mask and costume, translate some Shakespeare into a language originally designed for insulting Captain Kirk, or set some Klingon poetry to Klingon music and perform it – especially if you do all three at once.
But I don’t feel any urge to do any of that myself.
On the other hand, this isn’t entirely to do with my usual antipathy to organized geekdom. Back around 1990 when there was no new Star Wars to enjoy, I made up for it with a diversion into Star Trek. I became a big fan of the novels, and maybe one day I’ll write about Diane Duane’s cycle about the Romulans, but today, I want to tell you about a book called The Final Reflection, written way back in the early 1980s by an author named Mike Ford.
The Final Reflection is a book about the Klingons.
But these Klingons aren’t the ones you know: the headbutting, armour-wearing barbarians with the funny shouty language, and the tourist-friendly cultural backstory that give their loyal fandom the toolkit for an alternative identity. In 1982, when work on the book began, the Klingons had a continuity backstory of just three low-budget TV episodes and a single movie cameo, and they were still primarily a metaphor for powerful foreign opponents of America – the Russians and the Japanese, specifically. So Mike Ford wrote them as a high-tech military superpower with a violent and heroic history very different from our own, and a confusingly foriegn way of thinking. Unlike today’s Klingons, they valued intelligence, deception and forward planning just as much as strength, brutality and honour.
They even had a different language.
But there was a problem. Even before The Final Reflection came out in May 1984, the people in charge of Star Trek had decided that official continuity had to actively contradict everything outside the movies and TV series. If there was to be a Klingon language on the screen, it would have to not be the one in the book. As far as I can tell, the people who began to create a Klingon language for the next Trek movie were unaware that one had just been created for the novel (and adopted in the extensive RPG material that accompanied the movie’s release), but the franchise’s policy made integration of the two impossible.
This was before the internet, of course, and at first, the intentions of the production people struggled to counteract the influence of the tie-in material (not least since the novels and comics were allowed to supply running continuity fixes to keep themselves consistent with the movies); but eventually, the development of The Next Generation created a fairly decisive estrangement between the two elements of the franchise. It became pretty clear around the time I got involved.
Thankfully, Star Wars started producing original fiction again soon after, so I was suitably distracted.
But I still think that the direction Star Trek took was a shame, not least because the original Klingons, like the original Romulans, were much more interesting as a sci-fi concept. Ever since, in spite of the commitment of their fanbase, the official Klingons have been in danger of becoming inept comedy barbarians, unintentionally reforcing all sorts of problematic cultural prejudices.
It’s inherently harder to do that with the novel-continuity Klingons.
And then there’s their language. Klingonaase, not tlhIngan Hol. Both take their cue from the same source, a few lines of subtitled dialogue that were made up for the first Trek movie, but they do very different things with it. For one thing, ‘aase isn’t a complete language, though I’ve been starting to realise it was probably more completely-developed gramatically than I’d thought. The key difference is in what the language is meant to do: the Hol that modern Klingon fanboys speak is a linguist’s language, with a fully-functional lexicon and gramatical system and an interesting structural and phonological alienness – but ‘aase is a novellist’s language, designed to tell a story.
At first sight, the words and phrases dropped into the text seem simply to be relatively light, decorative details in a piece of viscerally enjoyable space-fantasy world-building. But they’re much more than that, as the reader realises as the novel develops.
What ‘aase provides is a set of concepts and conceptual frameworks that aren’t very easy to translate directly into English. These are the concepts that define the Klingons of The Final Reflection, embodying the patterns of their thoughts and their society, articulating their biological imperatives.
As the reader (probably an impressionistic teenage boy) begins to get to grips with Klingonaase, he starts to understand the Klingons, and starts to see why they’re different from the Feds who we generally see as “the good guys”, as “us”. This “reader’s journey” parallels the Kilingon characters’ own encounter with the humans, and the end result is firstly, a very good story, and secondly, one that ends up telling us something new about ourselves.
The way the reader picks up ‘aase in the course of the novel is designed to complement and accentuate a story about a clash of cultures, and about learning to see past confrontation to understanding. Not the most original story, perhaps, but that’s hardly the point. It’s the only language course I know that’s structured as a telling of the Campbellian monomyth.
And that is something that you just don’t find in modern Klingon.