Calgary Klingon expert boldly going where few linguists have gone before

A University of Calgary linguistics student has become an expert in Klingon, a language that was constructed from a Star Trek episode in the 1980s.

Trekkie nerd one of 7,500 speakers of extraterrestrial language spawned by Star Trek

Klingon linguist visits Calgary

6 years ago
Joseph Windsor brought his Klingon expertise to Star Trek fans in the city. 0:28

You just never know when Klingon could come in handy.

Joseph Windsor, a University of Calgary PhD student in linguistics, is boldly going where few earthlings have gone before, learning the language of the warrior race from the Star Trek series and sharing it with others.

"It's not spontaneous gibberish. It's a worked-out constructed language that was invented," said the self-described Star Trek nerd.

The grammar can be corrected, and the Klingon characters in the TV series do just that, Windsor said at a recent Evening with Klingon event at the U of C's Verbatim series.

But it's a difficult language to learn, and can be messy.

"There's one sound in Klingon, I call it a uvular aspirate — that sounds a bit like you're clearing your throat — and in the grammar it says it's perfectly fine to spit on your conversational partner when speaking Klingon."

In order to establish his Trekkie "nerd-cred," Windsor explained that he became enchanted with the language on September 27, 1987, when he was watching the premier episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Originally not altogether different in appearance from humans, save for distinctive facial hair, the Klingons in the TV series and later on in the movies, were humanoid extraterrestrial warriors who eventually came to have large ridged foreheads.

The language has also evolved. 

James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty in the original Star Trek series, devised the initial dialogue. At first, the idea was to make the Klingon language sound as inhuman as possible, Windsor says, but still have it follow a form and have a symmetry of sounds.  

There are now an estimated 7,500 Klingon speakers, with courses and text books explaining the background, phonetics and anatomy of the language.

Windsor is particularly interested in the phonetics, phonology, syntax and sounds, as well as the semantics and sociolinguistics of the language.

For non-experts in Klingon, it sounds a bit like a northern caucasian language, Windsor says, with patterns that can be found in Chechen, some dialects of Swiss German and some American native languages.

"It adds an element of realism to what you're watching, in (the same way) special effects draw you into a world, language will draw you into a world," he said. 

More movies are using invented languages, such as in the upcoming Hollywood interpretation of Beowolf, where the monster Grendel will have his own language, because "producers are realizing that language is as important as special effects," said Windsor.


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