Innovation

Learn to speak Klingon with this stud on the beach (screenshot, Opa Klingon Style by Comediva via YouTube)

5 resources to help you translate, read, and learn to speak Klingon (seriously)

Learn to speak Klingon. This is real and the number of places to learn is growing


There is a concerted, global effort to preserve and enhance the language of Klingon. Created for fictional purposes on Star Trek, the language has evolved to have a consistent vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and so forth with a plethora of resources to help interpret Klingon texts and teach you to create your own. Often belittled but honestly underappreciated Star Trek conventions are depicted humorously as meetups for unsociable nerds to greet each other endlessly in an artificial dialect, non-stop, while cosplaying, over a long weekend.

Well, to be honest that depiction is probably true, but nevertheless the rigor and concentration some Klingon enthusiasts have is striking. That kind of eagerness would go a long way helping preserve languages in danger of extinction (hint hint, create a cult sci-fi show that uses minority languages and create a community of language loyalists).

Fostering new communities of language speakers from virtual scratch is not unprecedented. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a 19th century Zionist who committed to speaking with family and friends only in Hebrew is credited in Israel today with turning the language back into a spoken dialect for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.

It’s doubtful that tens of thousands of trekkies will embark to create their own state with Klingon as the official language, but in the meantime mavens have teamed with linguists, developers, and machine translation experts to create a suite of tools for anyone aiming to develop skills in the language.

1. Duolingo

It’s not ready yet, but the team at Pittsburgh mega startup Duolingo is about a quarter of the way through a beginner’s course for Klingon learners. It would be one of only 27 languages offered by the app and join co-artificial language Esperanto.

Rival app Memrise, which allows users to create their own courses and thus offers many more classes than Duolingo, has several separate mini courses on things like Klingon vocabulary, the Klingon alphabet, affixes, basic grammar, shapes, days of the week, adverbs, numbers, and even a review course for the Klingon Language Certification Program (KLCP1).

2. Microsoft Translator

Forget Google Translate for a moment. Microsoft has beaten them to the punch on Klingon, adding the vile but of course beautiful-in-its-own-way tongue in May 2013.

Microsoft is not the first to work on such a project. As early as 1999, David Yarowsky lead a team building some of the first machine translation (MT) programs for languages like Nepali, Uzbek, and Bengali. The New York Times had the chance to ask him about the utility (or futility) of spending so many hours on a fictional dialect.

”If we can learn how to translate even Klingon into English, then most human languages are easy by comparison,” he told the Times then. ”All our techniques require is having texts in two languages. For example, the Klingon Language Institute translated ‘Hamlet’ and the Bible into Klingon, and our programs can automatically learn a basic Klingon-English MT system from that.”

To help pull off this feat of machine translation engineering, Microsoft needed a little help, which they got from . . .

3. KLI: The Klingon Language Institute

We shit you not. They even have their own online course for beginners (taghwl’ in Klingon, and no I don’t know how to pronounce it). The Klingon Language Institute was founded by Lawrence M. Schoen, Ph.D. in 1992. They hold annual retreats, more akin to academic conferences, every summer.

The endeavor sounds ridiculous, which gives organizers and participants extra motivation to assure people that they are extremely serious about the project.

This is definitely something that can be fun for enthusiasts, but the depth with which the community approaches the subject actually helps develop the language further. This is a truly impressive intellectual exercise and highlights how creative humans can be.

4. Klingon Bible Translation Project

Anything called the “Klingon Bible Translation Project” might seem like a novelty of a novelty on the one hand, but also something far too advanced or intimidating for a newcomer no matter how enthusiastic (if I don’t speak it, why would I try studying Biblical Klingon?).

The aforementioned Klingon Bible Translation Project led by Kevin Wilson is still a work in progress, but many experts have put in effort. Joel Anderson has worked on one. When it comes to Bible translations, you’ll find the enthusiasm to create new ones is never lacking. As the Bible has reached more and more people and the need to update for changes in vernacular is constant, translators have endeavored to get more and more precise with each work.

The interesting thing about holy texts is that in deeply religious societies they tend to be learned in a rote manner. Even though there are advanced Hebrew courses for American Jews and strong Arabic programs for Indonesian Muslims, a large part of such communities’ linguistic competence with their holy languages is matching their textbook language learning to Biblical and Quranic verses they learn to recite as children.

The same principle would work here. The advantage of the Bible is that there are so many translations available in virtually every language spoken today. This creates numerous frames of reference for enthusiastic Klingon learners. Working through translations often forces students to learn things about a target language, as would a concerted effort to find the best vocabulary and phrase choices for translating a nuanced text like the Bible.

If you’re an Orthodox Jew who is follows the traditional “שני מקרא, אחד תרגום” format (read the Hebrew version of the weekly Torah selection twice and its Aramaic translation once), then you could incorporate some Klingon Bible into your weekly routine.

Or not. I’m just a tech writer and language enthusiast, not a Rabbi (I didn’t finish the program).

There is an advantage in going to the original source for more accurate interpretation, so if you do have some Hebrew under your belt, you might be able to create a legacy for yourself as one of the people who created the first direct Klingon Bible from Hebrew.

5. English to Klingon and Klingon to English dictionaries

No adventure into a new culture would be complete without a proper dictionary. A few exist, with varying levels of depth and extensivity. https://klingonska.org/dict/ and https://glosbe.com/tlh/en/ are just a couple examples.

Glosbe brags it has its own translation memory, a technical term used by language and translation programmers to refer to a databank of previous translations machine learning programs use as reference to make later translations more accurate (the more data, the more precise).

“Our Translation Memory come mostly from parallel corpuses that were made by humans. Such translated sentences are very useful addition to dictionaries.” That is a deep advantage for any dictionary and a relevant approach for all future digital two-language dictionaries, not just for man-made languages like Klingon.

That should be enough to get you started. Keep your eyes peeled for Duolingo’s beta testing to start, get acquainted with Microsoft Translator, and at the very least figure out how to pronounce the awkward spelling. Now enjoy Klingon Style.

Opa Klingon Style lyrics

Photo courtesy: WikiMedia Commons

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