A History of ConLangs, Part II: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language

Part II: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language

This year’s Fund Drive theme is linguistics and pop culture, and to that end, we’re running a short 3-part series about Constructed Languages, one of Pop Culture’s most enduring linguistic artifacts. Part I dealt with the early years of creative language construction, focusing mainly on the man who started it all–J.R.R. Tolkien, philologist and mythos-maker. Part II deals with Fantasy’s daring cousin, Science Fiction, and the role played by ConLangs in the creation of science-oriented narrative and philosophy.

From my first college years, when I told people that I was studying linguistics, I always got those inevitable questions. Question One is obviously, “how many languages do you speak?” but of course, the follow-up is always: “what kinds of jobs are there for linguists?” My answers vary, but usually land somewhere near “Linguist IS a job.” Nevertheless, people are often curious if I am interested in working for Hollywood–in training actors in dialectology, or in working on inventing languages for the movies. There’s a reason for that question, and the reason is Klingon.

Klingon is probably the most famous Science Fiction ConLang. It started as a fictional language for the use of aliens in Star Trek, and has become a pop culture phenomenon unlike any other. You can find Klingon on DuoLingo. I kid you not.

Klingon is mentioned in the TV Show version of Star Trek, but is not spoken on screen until Star Trek: the motion picture (1979). At the time, Klingon was not a ConLang but essentially alien-sounds without deliberate form. From there it was developed, regularized, and built up until it could be used for actual communication. It was officially described by Marc Okrand in 1985, who designed it starting from the sounds made up by James Doohan (the actor who plays Scotty) for the first lines of Klingon dialogue.

Mark Lenard, who played Klingon Captain of the battlecruiser IKS Amar, pronounced the first Klingon Words on screen–which were made up by James Doohan

Klingon’s most interesting features, in my opinion, are phonological. Because it was designed to sound “alien,” Klingon has many typologically rare and marked features. It had to be possible for a human vocal tract to produce, so it couldn’t reach the Alien heights of Arrival’s incomprehensible alien sounds, which do not notably resemble human language at all, in terms of strangeness to the human ear. Nevertheless a wide range of places of articulation, with unexpected unevenness suffice to make Klingon rather typologically unusual. There is only one sibilant, but there are plenty of voiced and voiceless fricatives and stops–so far, not so strange. (It was designed to sound “guttural,” so there are a collection of “guttural”-sounding fricatives and affricates.) Uvulars include stops and affricates. In terms of uneven phoneme sets, Klingon includes voiceless aspirated alveolar stops like English… but the voiced alternate is retroflex. In Klingon, there is a voiced labiodental fricative, but no voiceless alternate. To my mind, this is a smart strategy–by definition and nature, no speech sound, no matter how typologically marked, is “alien,” and any alien ConLang designed to be spoken by human actors must be composed out of speech sounds. So the creators, namely Marc Okrand, decided to use the phonological paradigm itself alongside the selection of phonemes. The gaps in the phoneme set do more to make the language strange than the presence of typologically marked sounds. The strangeness of Klingon is, so to speak, more in its phonological negative space than its positive space. According to Okrand, this is very much intentional–he used the phonological space to create a sound system that deliberately violates the normal phonological patterns and tendencies of human language.

But hey, I’m no Klingon expert. Let’s let Marc Okrand, who is also responsible for creating Star Trek‘s Vulcan language, tell us about it. Check it out:



Like Tolkien’s Elvish, Klingon became the first of a new genre. Where Tolkien invented fantasy languages deliberate crafted to have the realistic features of human language, to have diachronies and dialects and variants and contact-phenomena, Science Fiction ConLangs are more often created to sound as unlike human language as possible. To that end, a focus on phonology makes sense. Unusual syntactic features or semantic features may be present in your SciFi Conlang, but who’s going to notice them, or find them strange? Klingon has grammar, morphology, syllable structure, and other complexities, but beyond the writing system and phonology, most listeners will never know what makes the language complex. Nevertheless, as evidenced by DuoLingo, the language has a popular following and is one of pop culture’s most widely spoken, widely studied, and well-beloved ConLangs. But it’s far from the only one. I love Star Wars, and it would be a mistake to totally leave out mention of the language use of the Star Wars franchise, such as its constructed script Aurebesh, but Klingon’s far-reaching influence is too important to the history of ConLangs, and truly deserves the space.

Milo James Thatch, Movie Linguist(ish), played by Michael J. Fox. I’m gonna be honest, I don’t remember the plot of this movie, but I do remember loving this guy.

Other SciFi ConLangs include Barsoomian, from 2012’s John Carter of Mars, and Goa’uld, the fictional language of Stargate, SG1. Marc Okrand also developed Atlantian for the Disney movie Atlantis: the Lost Empire, which is not like the other SciFi ConLangs mentioned here in that it was developed for a Science Fiction movie, but to be spoken by human characters, not aliens.

Dr. Daniel Jackson, Movie Linguist, played by Michael Shanks, has the dubious honor of being probably Tumblr’s favorite linguist. Pretty sure he’s the same archetype as Milo Thatch?

The nature of your SciFi language will vary based on your needs. Are your aliens human-like, or are they cosmically impossible beings from beyond perception? How much is the audience meant to identify with them and empathize with them, and is your ConLang meant to act as a barrier or an aide in creating empathy? As previously mentioned, the language at the center of 2017’s Arrival is essentially so alien it cannot be comprehended by humans and the main character Louise Banks must find a way to work around the spoken language (she focuses on the set of circular ideograms which were invented for the movie and which are primarily aesthetic in nature). The creators of the film and its language are welcome to correct me on this, but to my knowledge the ideographic writing system used in the movie is not actually a usable ConLang.

However, in James Cameron’s Avatar, the alien language is designed for a decidedly human-like alien people, the Na’vi. Suitably, Na’vi is not designed with the same strategy as Klingon. James Cameron himself started the work on Na’vi language early in his conception of the project. However, the bulk of the ConLanging work was done by Paul Frommer of USC Marshall School of Business and Edward Finegan of University of Southern California. Cameron’s initial list of words were reportedly phonologically similar to Polynesian languages, and the linguists worked from there to develop sets of phonologies with different features–among them a tonal system, a system with ejectives, and one with contrasting vowel lengths. Notably, these may sound strange or “exotic” to the English-speaking world, but are nonetheless not like Klingon’s mismatch of alveolars with its retroflex voiced alternate. Tonal systems and length-contrasts are certainly not typologically rare! The phonological choices–and again, phonology is going to be the most or even only salient feature of a ConLang to the majority of the audience–invoke human speech and there is nothing about Na’vi that sounds to my ear especially “otherworldly.” But that’s the point. The language in Avatar is like its people–essentially human, and designed to be empathetic to a human audience. I can’t say for sure whether this was Frommer and Finegan’s goal in the design of Na’vi, but I think it’s fair to say linguistic realism was important. There’s no emphasis on creating a language that sounds impossible to humans, and instead a realistic language is designed–but in the case of language, “realistic” means “human-like.” Language is also meant to be a feature of the movie’s world, (same goes for Klingon), not the primary object of investigation.

Neytiri, alien bilingual, played and motion-captured by Zoë Saldana. The Na’vi were designed to feel realistic and human-like.

And that brings us back to 2017, and our most recent intersection of speculative fiction and language. Arrival won’t get much space here because its language is not a ConLang (as far as I know) in the truest sense, but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the subject of SciFi and Language to bear upon the inspiration for the Fund Drive theme: the unusually great year for language in the movies that was 2017. (At least something was great about 2017, right?) In Arrival, the goal is the opposite of Klingon or Na’vi–the language of the Heptapods is not usable to humans, and the language barrier is among the chief obstacles of the movie. It’s not human-like, it’s not easy to empathize with, it’s not even pronounceable. The movie makes language, in a strange way, both its primary protagonist and its primary antagonist. Instead of defeating the antagonist, Louise Banks, the movie’s linguist-hero, overcomes her own struggles to understand it, by using the unique approach of a linguist to the subject of language; she both uses language to achieve empathy with the Other and overcomes the barriers of language by understanding it. And that’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is probably Hollywood’s most realistic Linguist.

Please feel welcome to add your thoughts–did you ever design a ConLang for SciFi? Tell me about it! Do you know more about the ones under discussion here and want to share your knowledge? Did I leave anything out, or make any errors? Are there any less famous SciFi ConLangs that deserve more attention?

Most importantly, of course, don’t forget to Click Here donate to the LINGUIST List! We’re at just over 20% of our goal. We’re here to facilitate the worldwide conversation between linguists and to provide invaluable resources to the linguistic community. The LINGUIST List not only provides and manages enormous amounts of data and resources for academic linguists, but supports young researchers who otherwise would not be able to fund their studies.

(Speaking of young researchers, keep an eye out for our next featured undergraduate in the Rising Stars series we are running for this year’s Fund Drive, which spotlights remarkable students nominated by you, the subscribers and supporters of LL! Our last spotlighted student was Carlotta Hübener at the University of Hamburg.)

The third and final part of the ConLangs series will deal with the latest wave of ConLangs, including Dothraki and Valyrian. See you next time!

–Sarah Robsinson, Publications Editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List team

Leave a Reply