Fancy putting on a season of Shakespeare that about 30 people in the world could understand? Then you’re going to need a cast of actors fluent in Klingon, the made-up language of the eponymous warlike aliens from the Star Trek fictional universe. And wouldn’t you know it – the tools now exist for you to do just that?
The latest earth-shaking advance in tech to have proudly self-described nerds abuzz globally combines their two favourite things: apps and Star Trek. The popular ‘freemium’ app Duolingo might be attractive to most people because it offers courses in 23 real-world languages, but it took the addition of a course in Klingon to get Trekkie hearts beating faster.
Oddly enough, Klingon isn’t the first made-up language to be featured on the app, or even the second. While Star Trek fans have a history of fanatical dedication going back more than 3 decades, with new recruits signing up for Starfleet cosplay every day, and everything from space themed casino games to board games pulling in the crowds, the show has always enjoyed cult, rather than mainstream status. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was a global TV phenomenon with millions of fans at exactly the right time and the right place.
That’s why High Valyrian, the ancient language of Essos in Game of Thrones, made it onto Duolingo’s made-up language offerings before Klingon. Duolingo’s third and most useful made-up language has about 2-million speakers worldwide: Esperanto, the ‘universal international language’ created by LL Zamenhoff in Poland in the 19th century.
Built by Volunteers in Incubator
Duolingo’s Klingon course has been in development for the past few years, built by volunteers on Duolingo’s Incubator site. Coding had to cope with some specific peculiarities of the Klingon language, such as different letters in the same word being capitalised to change the meaning, and apostrophes in the middle of words.
These features do not occur in any of the 23 real-world languages that form the core of the Duolingo courses, so the team had to build them from scratch in the app.
However, should the app ever get around to including certain Polynesian, Native American or South African tongues, all of which use apostrophes or other punctuation to denote glottal stops and click sounds, the experience of putting Klingon together should come in handy for Duolingo developers.
Extending the Klingon Empire
It was probably inevitable that Klingon would end up with its own course on Duolingo one day, given its inexorable progress into Star Trek lore. Although the Klingons were fearsome antagonists of the Federation in many episodes of the original series (TOS, to Trekkies), their language is mentioned in only one: The Trouble with Tribbles. In the first Star Trek Movie, made in 1979, the language is spoken onscreen by a Klingon character for the first time, by actor Mark Lenard, who also played Spock’s father on TV and in film.
In the mid 1980s, by the time of the fourth and fifth Star Trek films and The Next Generation TV series, Klingon characters were speaking their language freely, and other species were getting the hang of it too. That’s thanks to the hard work of writer Marc Okrand, who created the language for the films. Trekkies, always ready to pick up on something difficult and pointless, had a new way to set themselves apart from people who didn’t understand…
Some major works have since been translated into Klingon, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Again, it seems like a lot of work for a very, very small audience pool – it’s estimated that only 20 to 30 people in the world can speak Klingon fluently.
Still, now that Duolingo makes it possible to learn the warlike tongue on your smartphone, could we see all that change?