Saturday, January 22, 2005

Ranting in Others' Blogs

My friend Madeleine Robins posted a comment in her blog about how an international language code system used by librarians now includes a coding number for Klingon. (See "The Library of Congress" at http://madeleinerobins.blogspot.com/) Mad presents this as kind of neat, or at least a bit cute, and I made a long curmudgeonly post that probably seems a bit ungracious. Imagine someone being asked in a friend's living room what he thinks of some gewgaw his host has, and appalling her by launching into an extended screed about how collecting those gewgaws
damages the ecosystem or encourages the further exploitation of a subjugated culture? You know: the guy may be right, but it wasn't exactly the place.

So let me move my post here, where people can comment at will. A critique of the political and moral implications of Star Trek may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but I am convinced that treating this stuff as silly but innocuous simply gives it a free ride.

Here is the post:

The fact that this or that activity has now been done in Klingon is the cute furry creature of contemporary culture -- whenever you are told of it, you are expected to smile and say, "Aww." Hamlet has been translated into Klingon? Aww. There is now a Klingon Language Institute? Aww.

Since one of the most ethically offensive things about Star Trek was its assumption that everything can be judged by our culture's values, a supposedly alien language that in its structure and syntax resembles modern European languages more closely than most non-European languages do is a pretty clear sign that its creators don't wish to conceive of anything in their fictive universe that our cultural mindset doesn't allow us to readily comprehend.

To shift franchises, do you remember the Ewok song that is played over the credits at the end of The Return of the Jedi? It's just a dumb little song, but despite the nonsense lyrics (its syllables comprising western European phonemes and intonation), the song sounds a lot less alien than, say, a Balinese one. This may sound priggish, but I find this refusal to dramatize anything as truly strange (even if something is supposed to be unfathomable and scary, it is presented in familiar terms) a piece of moral and ethical complacency, to put it nicely. (Less nicely, its racist ethnocentrism, used to justify imperialism.)

The original Star Trek was all about how funny foreigners (aliens) are, how silly their inability to run their own societies, which the Federation (essentially all white male humans) must step in and fix for them. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a bit less overtly imperialist: in perfect Eighties manner, it was all about validating one's feelings. The inferior societal values of the aliens (Klingons especially) were to be treated with compassion, rather than a punch in the face from James T. Kirk. That really doesn't make it much better.

So, yes: Klingons? Aww. But I can't join in the general fuzzies.

6 Comments:

Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I dunno that I was getting fuzzy about Klingon per se. My feeling about the language has always been that there are many other languages (most of them, as Maureen noted, dying out) that might more justifiably be studied. I am also bemused by the amount of time and energy people will spend to create and maintain something like this (my best friend in high school loved The Lord of the Rings so much she took her school notes in Elvish). What I found interesting in the information about the Library of Congress note was the extent to which this goofy artifact is being given a sort of academic privilege. Hence my comment about the scholar five hundred years from now trying to understand the origins of this particular language.

A lot of science fiction--certainly most of the early SF I've read--was all about the superiority of human (read: white male civilization) over alien simplicity or savagery. I don't know that "silly but innocuous" is the label I'd give all of it, but I do think that Star Trek is not the most egregious example.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

"...a supposedly alien language that in its structure and syntax resembles modern European languages more closely than most non-European languages do is a pretty clear sign that its creators don't wish to conceive of anything in their fictive universe that our cultural mindset doesn't allow us to readily comprehend." (Emphasis mine.)

This sentence indicates that its creators were aware that they were imposing a linguistic structure by concious choice. And that Klingon is comparable to European Romance or Germanic languages. So I went looking to see what the creators of Klingon might have wished.

Klingon is significantly different grammatically from indo-European languages, I suspect because Marc Okrand, who invented it for Paramount, is a linguist who studies Northwest Coastal Indian dialects. Klingon verbs have no tense. This is true of, for example, Chinese, but not of any Indo-European language I know. (Which just means that the language marks time of occurance and duration using something other than a shift of the construction of the verb.) I don't know if Klingon grammatical constructions of time resemble Chinese, and don't care enough to dicover.

The basic structure of the Klingon sentence is O-V-S. I know German sometimes uses what seems like an inverted sentence structure to English speakers--"Throw your papa down the stairs the hat," but that still seems (Implied)S-V-O and to just do strange things with indirect objects. And German uses S-O-V (Yoda speech, 'To the bathroom you go.' Are you aware of an indo-European language that uses O-V-S? There has been one attempt in Star Trek to render a language that had no nouns, and one that communicated by shared metaphor, but rendering those languages in English for an audience just showed how silly the whole idea was. Should Klingon be rendered without subject, verb or object constructions? That would be truly alien. But also, I think, impossible, even if you don't believe in Chomsky and deep structure.

It is true that there are no sounds in Klingon that can't be made by a human throat (although there is at least one that isn't in the English phoneme range.) It's based on a sound common in Indian languages Okrand has studied.

But grammar aside, the implication of the statement that the creators wished to build a language that we could readily comprehend assumes that they conciously set out to work within the constraints of their own culture. I don't know that they did, and certainly don't know whether Klingon in fact does this. Star Trek (the original) never seemed to me to be interested in aliens at all. I always thought it was a political vehicle for Gene Roddenberry's moderately liberal views. The way that Star Trek presents everything within the constraints of California/Hollywood liberal culture does not strike me as a particular failing of Star Trek, but a failing of most television and movies made by the United States today. Also those of India. I would also level the charge at most works of fiction, science fictional or not. And at most works of art. In fact, we are creatures of our culture, or as Marx put it, our ideology. And much of that ideology is invisible to us.

When I was in China, I found that I had a different personality as a Chinese speaker than I had as an English speaker, and my students told me that they had thoughts and feelings in English that they didn't have in Chinese. By building a grammar which my cursory survey indicates is actually rather strange (using suffixes to indicate classes of objects--not case, but category, again, a concept I'm familiar with from Chinese) Okrand may have actually been attempting to force different constructions of thought. Again, I don't know.

I find invented languages naive at best (Esperanto) and silly at worst, although I recognize the impulse, just as I recognize the impulse to promote Gaelic at the end of the 1800's in Ireland and the way Hebrew has been used as a political means of identity in Israel. But I think you may have missed the mark by identifying Klingon as an example of the kind of cultural imperialism you find so offensive.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

I'd say any racism seen in Trek and its offshoots is unplanned and relatively minor. What we have here instead is a paucity of imagination, a common charge when it comes to Hollywood. If you want to create something that seems alien, you still end up reaching for a shortcut, because it's easier on you, because it's easier on the audience, and because the Suits don't put up too much of a fight. Just like why the Trek aliens are all still bipedal humanoids with bumps on their heads; cheaper and easier.

D

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