Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Star Trek Reference Books Capitalize On The Obscure And Strangely Brilliant With The Klingon Dictionary!

The Good: Generally well-conceived, "Accurate," as it were
The Bad: Well, it's a dictionary and made up, Not terribly practical, A big, essential, flaw.
The Basics: An interesting concept that is fairly well-executed, The Klingon Dictionary is nevertheless an impractical and outdated reference tool that makes for poor reading for entertainment.

I have been told by many that it appears I have a singular inability to write a short review. Sometimes, there is - quite simply - not much that can be said about something. I decided to challenge myself by attempting to write a succinct review that would still be very helpful to readers. I opted to attempt this (for me) Herculean task with The Klingon Dictionary, now in its second edition.

Written by Marc Okrand, The Klingon Dictionary is the textbook of - no kidding - the Klingon Language Institute, which envisions a day when a group of people from various countries might be in a room, all speaking different languages before realizing they all speak Klingon. To the best of my knowledge, though The Klingon Dictionary is only published as an English to Klingon/Klingon to English text. In other words, in their dream scenario, all of the people in that mythical room would have to be able to speak English, too. Still, it is a noble goal.

When Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (click here for that review!) was written, the producers of Star Trek hired linguist Marc Okrand to develop a Klingon language. There had been brief snippets of Klingon in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but the language was essentially an ad lib from the voice-over actor. In creating full scenes for Star Trek III in Klingon, director Leonard Nimoy wanted a true language and Okrand provided. The result was that Marc Okrand's pet project making a language developed and continued to be refined. The result was The Klingon Dictionary.

Published shortly after the release of Star Trek III, The Klingon Dictionary was exactly what it claimed to be, a language guide to translating from English to the fictional Klingon language. And that made sense. Copies of the first edition are nearly impossible to find and with the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (click here for that review!), The Klingon Dictionary was revised. The thing is, one has to ask, how useful a tool is this?

First, Star Trek VI forced an overhaul of the Klingon language. Okrand's original notes on syntax and structure for the Klingon language were very specific; he had designed the language around the concept that there was no verb "to be" in Klingon. It was taken for granted that everything was and as a result, all Klingons were concerned with were the actions they engaged in. However, The Undiscovered Country required a group of Klingons to be shown sitting around quoting Shakespeare and, of course, quoting Hamlet with "To be or not to be." Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

The result is the second edition of The Klingon Dictionary. In this version, Okrand lamely explains that there are different dialects of Klingon: conversational and clipped. The warrior's tongue does not use "to be," conversational Klingon does. It is a pretty weak excuse to cover for the writers completely uprooting Okrand's language.

So, the revised The Klingon Dictionary includes all of the words Okrand had to come up with for writers who asked for Klingon phrases for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One of the obvious drawbacks to this reference book is that it has not been revised now for over fifteen years. As a result, viewers who have questions about phrases from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager will not find the answers in this book. In fact, Okrand - who appears at many Star Trek conventions - has said one of the most asked questions is what Jadzia says to Worf upon their first meeting; it is not translated in the episode and the words used are not in this dictionary!

The Klingon Dictionary spends several pages giving detailed explanations about grammatical concerns and constructions for the Klingon language. It is quite clear and obviously well-developed by a language expert. However, it is also as complicated as learning any real language, which makes this much like a text book and its usefulness is largely based upon how well one learns foreign language. And, as many studies have shown, children are most open to learning new languages, but one suspects there are not many parents eagerly teaching their kids Klingon.

After the grammatical overview, which teaches readers how to construct Klingon phrases, there are lessons on nouns and their declensions, verbs and their conjugations and then notes on other types of words and parts of speech. After that, The Klingon Dictionary degenerates into a very obvious dictionary, with over a hundred pages of word lists. Words are given in English in alphabetical order with their Klingon counterpart next to them. After that, there is a section that reverses the process, with Klingon words and their English counterparts.

Which returns us to the question of how useful The Klingon Dictionary is. The main question one would have when evaluating a dictionary is "Does it correctly define/translate the words in question?" The answer here is "of course," because it is a made-up language. And let's face it, if Marc Okrand is phoning the book in, it's not like there are a ton of people who are going to catch it to call him on it. It's reading a dictionary, how many of us do that?!

The result is a real conundrum. The Klingon Dictionary is essentially a glorified codebook allowing kids to play in another language, with a code to pass notes to one another and then crack. The problem they run into is that this is a truly developed language and as a result, it is far too complex for children and most adults who do not believe they will ever meet a Klingon spend their time learning more practical languages.

Ultimately, I applaud the effort that went into The Klingon Dictionary; this truly does appear to be a remarkably developed language and for those obsessed with the Star Trek universe, it is quite useful. But it is not practical and it is not like it is great reading, thus my final decision to not recommend it. After all, there are only so many people one can say "A running man may slit many throats in a night" in English, much less the made-up language Klingon without being perceived as completely crazy.

For other Star Trek books, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek The Motion Picture By Gene Roddenberry
I, Q By Peter David and John de Lancie
Spock: Reflections By Scott and David Tipton


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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