YfL5: Saussure and Klingon

What do you do when you want to talk about Tolkien and Trekkies? Make a silly, cod-academic reference to Saussure. Obviously.

An edited version was published in Monday’s EdEx, etc.


Klingon: An alien life form from the Star Trek books, television series and movies, origially the enemies of the Federation. Also the Klingon language, tlhIngan Hol, a constructed language invented by Mark Okrand especially for the Star Trek movies of the 1980s and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. (Urban Dictionary)

There is a moment, in one of the Star Trek movies (The Undiscovered Country) where a Klingon is supposedly quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it is written in his own language. He remarks to the (mostly human) crew of the Starship Enterprise that Shakespeare is far better “in the original Klingon”. It is only relatively recently that I learnt that there does exist a Klingon Hamlet. It is delightful – not only did the people behind the series go to the trouble to create a whole new language for this alien race, but other people joined in to translate Shakespeare into this wholly made-up language, all for their own amusement. Knowing Klingon serves no useful purpose, in the sense that language usually does, in helping people to communicate. But it’s the sort of thing that people clearly enjoy knowing.

Another constructed fictional language that I’m very fond of is Quenya, one of the languages of the Elves in J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Language lies at the heart of Tolkien’s universe; the many languages that the people he created speak were developed alongside the world itself. Tolkien was a language geek, apparently inventing his first language at age thirteen. He seems to have been fascinated by how things fit together, how grammar works; the general structure of language. And Middle-Earth is obviously the richer for it.

Of course, that is not all that language is. The Swiss linguist Saussure in the earlier part of the twentieth century drew a distinction between two concepts in language, “langue” and “parole”. By Langue he referred to the system of rules by which a language is goverened; Parole indicated the relatively flexible ways in which language was used and meaning created within those set boundaries. Of course this demarcation is somewhat reductive, but I think that fictional languages spoken by fictional people will only ever work at the level of Langue. Parole requires that people be present, actively using the language. If every Star Trek fan, or every Tolkien fan in the world were to display the levels of obsession required to learn a technically pointless language (quite a number of fans of both sorts have obviously done this and I think it’s rather wonderful) and to communicate with each other by this means, we might have the beginnings of something pretty fantastic. It’ll never happen.

And that is why, ultimately, I have no interest in learning either language. I’m delighted that both exist, but what really charms me about languages will always be the Parole aspect of things. I require that language be changeable and frequently ungrammatical and full of swearing and obsolete words and slang. The Elves would probably never come up with a rich tradition of Quenya slang, and that is genuinely unfortunate (I suspect the Klingons would manage slang quite well).


I seem to have gotten into the habit of praising profanity every week. I must consider this further.

5 Comments to “YfL5: Saussure and Klingon”

  1. Great article!
    j'adore parole.

  2. As much as I love the elves, you're right — they would never get slang-y. The idea of Celeborn saying the Quenya equivalent of "Yo dawg, what up?" is definitely amusing, though :)

  3. Celeborn was one of Elu's inner circle – he would never say ANYTHING in Quenya, which was banned in Doriath.

    I dispute the idea of slang not existing in Elvish. Any culture that fights so many wars against evil is bound to develop some colloquial vocabulary, I feel.

  4. JK Row;ling neatly avoided this impediment in fantasy by basing her world with us using old english and latin liberally

  5. Celine – Where would we be without it?

    KT – I have to bow to Roswitha's moment of hardcore geekery below, though I can't imagine him saying it in Sindarin either. ;)

    Ros – I can see later-Gondor developing slang – that fragment titled "A New Shadow" about post-Aragorn Gondor? But honestly, I cannot imagine the elves swearing, and I cannot imagine Tolkien imagining them swearing either. Colloquialisms are for the orcs.

    idlichutney – Well for the parole-y bits she's mostly just using modern English. Littered with expressions like "Merlin's Beard", of course. The wizards are our-world humans and don't really need a separate language therefore.

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