Klingon speakers, those who have devoted themselves to the study of a language invented for the Star Trek franchise, inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder. Dungeons & Dragons players, ham radio operators, robot engineers, computer programmers, comic book collectors – they all look down on Klingon speakers. Even the most ardent Star Trek fanatics, the Trekkies, who dress up in costume every day, who can recite scripts of entire episodes, who collect Star Trek paraphernalia with mad devotion, consider Klingon speakers beneath them. When a discussion of Klingon appeared on Slashdot.org – the website billed as “News for Nerds,” the topic inspired comments like, “I’m sorry but it’s people like this that give science fiction a bad name.” Another said that Klingon speakers “ provide excellent reasons for forced sterilization. Then again being able to speak Klingon pretty much does this without surgery.”
Mark Shoulson, who has a wife and two children, doesn’t enjoy being talked about this way. “It’s okay to laugh about it, because it’s funny. It’s legitimate to laugh. Klingon has entertainment as part of its face value. But I do get annoyed at some of the ruder stuff.” Mark was my unofficial guide to the world of Klingon. When I met him, we lived in the same New Jersey town. I discovered this browsing the Internet, where I also found that he was assistant director of the Klingon Language Institute (KLI) and editor of the Klingon translation of Hamlet. I wrote him, and he emailed me back the same day, saying he was so excited by the prospect of another Klingon speaker so close by that he didn’t even finish reading my message before he responded.
I wasn’t yet a Klingon speaker, and I wasn’t really planning on becoming one. I was a linguist who had developed a side interest in the subject of artificial languages, and I wanted to talk to Mark for research purposes. People really spoke Klingon, so claimed the Klingon Language Institute materials anyway, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. When people “spoke” Klingon, was it playacting? Spitting out little words and phrases and putting on a show? A charades-like guessing game where someone sort of cobbled together a message and someone else sort of understood it? Or was it actual language use?
If it was, then this was something I needed to see for myself, because that would make Klingon something so remarkable as to be almost unheard of – a consciously invented language that had been brought to life.