What does fluency mean in a conlang like Klingon?

By: | Post date: 2017-02-03 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Artificial Languages

Oh, it’s a very good question, ’erIq qaDye qaH and raHul chabra qaH. Although it’s a question I did prompt.

Let me clarify the question I prompted, because it may not be as obvious from the wording. Klingon is a made up language. Noone has ever spoken it fluently. All the records we have of it are some barked orders in the Trek movies, which the actors occasionally fumbled.

And yet, people in the Klingon mailing list, where I learned Klingon, had a clear notion of what was good Klingon, and what was clumsy, what was Klingonic and what was a poor translation from English. What was fluent Klingon, and what wasn’t.

And the question that pops to mind is, how the hell did they know? Where did that sense of fluent Klingon come from, if noone actually spoke it?

It’s a question that’s intrigued me with conlangs, and that I pondered with Lojban as well; Lojban though is a more perturbed linguistic system, relative to the norm, than Klingon is. (Even though Klingon is deliberately designed to be alien!)

The answer isn’t actually that complicated when you get over the initial shock of it.

Partly, it’s tied up with what the structure of the language permits. This is a language with only a handful of postpositions, a rather cumbersome (head-internal) relativisation strategy, limited means of subordination, no passives, very marked nominalisation strategies.

That’s not actually that unusual for a language. It is unusual for a Standard Average European language, and it means that the kind of syntactic complexities that are typical in a Standard Average European are going to be very cumbersome to convey.

So you don’t convey them. You use structures that are clearly easier to put in the language—and for that matter, to parse as a learner of the language. You avoid syntactic embedding. You use active constructions. You avoid nominalisations, guided by the fact that they are already so marked (aspect + nominalisation suffix, and with no obvious way of expressing the subject or object of the nominalisation).

And you call the result Klingonic. You don’t say “I anticipate a hostile reception of the ambassador by the Terrans”; you’re hard-pressed to find a way of saying “by” at all, and “receivingness” looks heavy enough that you don’t want to stick anything onto it. Duy’a’ -vaD?? tera’nganpu’ HevtaHghach vID vIpIH? It’s a trainwreck of nouns in search of case, we don’t see Klingon do that, and we don’t want Klingon to do that.

You say: When the Terrans receive the ambassador, they will likely be hostile: I anticipate this. Duy’a’ luHevDI’ tera’ngan, ghaytan vID ’e’ vIpIH. And you know that’s the Klingon way of doing it.

There’s other stuff going on, of course. The emphasis in English language pedagogy of plain English, and active, straightforwardly parsable constructions. Exoticism and consciously distancing yourself from English.

And underlying it all, a notion I like to call folk functionalism. Functionalism in linguistics is the notion that language is the way it is in order to communicate meaning most efficiently. Folk functionalism, like folk psychology and folk botany, is a pre-scientific understanding of functionalism, which people can come up with in their heads without being trained linguists, and that they can apply to learning a language with Klingon—based on the resources available to them as Klingon linguistic structures, and their own linguistic common sense.

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