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Live Long and Linguistics: Students learn Klingon

October 9, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  Resistance is futile.

A made-up language that began with one word in a cult classic television show spawned legions of fans who study it, speak it, and debate it around the world. 

Kokomo resident Alan Anderson, one of five professional Klingon speakers in the world, shared his experience with the language, created in 1984 for the Star Trek television series, with an Indiana University Kokomo linguistics class.

Anderson, a former computer programmer at Delphi, is an assistant translator for Star Trek: Discovery, currently in its third season on CBS All Access. He receives scripts for the show, and translates parts into the language spoken by the fictional humanoid alien species for the actors.

It all started when the Star Trek fan received a Klingon dictionary in a Christmas gag gift exchange in 1994.

“I read through it and I thought, this is really neat, too bad it’s useless,” Anderson said, until he came across a web chat for Klingon speakers, and was intrigued. He decided to boldly go where few had gone before him.

“They were speaking and conversing in Klingon,” he said. “They were using a constructed language as a real language, and I had to do it.”

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and structure. Lori Bruns, visiting lecturer in English, said the presentation enhanced class discussion of how languages are constructed, and the social and cultural aspects of language.

“It was a good experience for students to be part of, and learn more about how language can bring us together, even if it’s a language that isn’t real,” she said. “It offered students a more authentic experience of language use, within a different cultural setting than what we are used to.”

Alan Harshbarger, Kokomo, enjoyed Anderson’s brief history of how the language progressed from one word, noting it is the most famous constructed language.

“It started as constructed gibberish for a single movie,” he said. “A few people who really understood what makes a language grew it into a rich, usable system. This is how language is developed.”

Freshman Hayley Castillo, from Logansport, said it changed her perspective on learning linguistics.

“It shows how people can be passionate about languages, and have a sense of joy learning them,” she said.

Anderson progressed from chatting online in the Klingon Education Virtual Environment to attending the annual “qup’a”, or great meeting, held by the Klingon Language Institute. When he held his first conversation in Klingon, “I realized this is what I want to do,” he said, and he made it so. 

It's not easy to learn, he said, with little to no relation to English. It took him six to eight months to speak it competently, and a few years to gain fluency.

Anderson has made friends around the world, as part of a subculture of Klingon enthusiasts. He’s attended productions of A Christmas Carol in Klingon, went on a Star Trek cruise, and has read several novels, including The Little Prince, in the language.

Bruns appreciated the technical aspects of the language Anderson presented, because they’ve talked about that in class, but also the social aspects.

“It’s important for us to know how language as a whole is how we communicate in the world,” she said. “Wherever humans are, there is language in some form or another. We have an innate need to communicate and reach others, whether it’s through hand gestures or spoken language. It’s important for us to think about that, and realize its importance.”

Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.

Last updated: 10/09/2019