Klingon Writing


The Klingons already have writing. At least, there are two writing systems already established, so why have yet another? Unfortunately, neither of the established ways of converting Marc Okrand's invented Klingon language into a script resembling the "Klingon" seen in "Star Trek" works terribly well.

Hol' pIqaD (also known as KLI pIqaD)

The most widely-used "Klingon" script, since it accurately and completely transcribes the Klingon alphabet into "Klingon" symbols. I've gone wild with quote marks there, since the symbols bear only a passing resemblance to "real Klingon." The actual, as used by the "Star Trek" art department, Klingon script is made up of 10 glyphs, only nine of which are actually part of this alphabet. All the other glyphs have either appeared only once or twice, or have never been seen anywhere at all except in this alphabet.

Skybox pIqaD

This form of Klingon writing has been used in licenced products, most notably a series of trading cards, hence the name "Skybox." It uses only the "canonical 10" glyphs, and very simply makes the same glyph represent a whole series of different sounds, compressing a 26-sound alphabet into 10 glyphs. Although Mr. Scott did observe "Reading Klingon, that's hard!" in Star Trek IV, there's a difference between hard and impossible. Klingon is a very regular language. Exactly the same sequence of glyphs can have any one of several equally valid interpretations. It's a bit of a problem that Klingon written in "Skybox" really requires a gloss in Mark Okrand's Klingon orthography to be comprehensible, although it has to be said that this form of Klingon writing is more of a lighthearted attempt to create some consistency between Marc Okrand's Klingon and the available official Klingon "letters" than a genuinely serious proposal for Klingon script.

An Alphabet?

Both of these approaches use a conventional 1 glyph=1 sound approach. It's what we're used to, and the easiest system to learn, not a small consideration when you're trying to get people to adopt your artificial language. Everyone knows that the Hol' pIqaD isn't terribly like samples of Klingon from other sources, but it's similar, and relatively easy to learn. But do the Klingons use an alphabet at all? Marc Okrand said in a newsgroup post on 17th October 1997:

Mike Okuda (who puts the characters on various control panels and other displays for the various Star Trek series and movies) and I have discussed it. We're pretty sure it's not an alphabet (and it's therefore not phonemic in the way the romanized version is), but we don't know the details.
There is no problem with <pIqaD> being used for the various dialects, regardless of how it works, because it does not necessarily work the same way (or, better, the details are not necessarily the same) for all of the dialects. Since the system has been around for a long time (if Kahless was literate, he was literate in <pIqaD>), it could provide some insights into earlier stages of the language. The rules for mapping the old pronunciations represented by the <pIqaD> writing conventions onto the new pronunciations surely differ for the different dialects, but the rules — with varying degrees of complexity, to be sure — certainly work.

So, the best information about Klingon is that it isn't a conventional alphabet.

My Attempt

If we can't say what Klingon writing is, what isn't it? It's not an alphabet. It's unlikely to be a ideographic script, since there's only 10 characters. A real ideographic script like Chinese has thousands of unique characters. What about a syllabic script? At first sight, that's unlikely, too. With only ten characters, there are 100 possible combinations of two glyphs. There are 21 consonants and 5 vowels in Klingon, which rather unhelpfully gives 105 possibilities, just 5 too many for a syllabic script based on double-glyph pairs to really work. Of course, 3-glyph combinations would provide 1,000 possibilities, but it's going to make Klingon awfully long-winded, and mean that a quite amazing number of glyph combinations would be meaningless. All written Klingon words would have to be exact multiples of three glyphs long, otherwise how do you tell where the sequences begin and end? There's also the question of what the 10 glyphs represent. If it's not sounds, ideas or syllables, what are they?

Writing with numbers

There are 10 glyphs. Marc Okrand's semi-official Klingon Dictionary says that the Klingons use a base-10 number system. Since there are no separate numbers, then it's not unreasonable to assume that the 10 symbols represent the Klingon numbers 0-9. This raises the possibility that Klingon is somehow "encoded" into a sequence of numbers so that it can be read. That's certainly moving away from an alphabet, even if the numbers are used to create a sequence of 26 "sound codes," that work exactly like an alphabet. That's cheating, though. If it's not a conventional alphabet, then this option should be ruled out. What about something ideographic? There are a number of ways of conveying information through numbers, perhaps the most obvious one being the Dewey Decimal System for library classification. That's got a big problem, though. Numbers of this kind have to be very carefully structured, and that will be reflected in the appearance of the text. The fewer glyphs, the less information. It's going to be unwieldy, too. Where do you end one number and start the next? What happens if the text is damaged? Will the whole thing change in meaning? On the other hand, perhaps it's something like the old commercial telegraphic codes, where every single likely message was given a simple numeric code, to save on cost and make it less likely that commercial information would be unscrupulously intercepted. Again though, Klingon texts would need to have a very particular appearance for that to work. More to the point, the code books were a vital part of the system. You needed the key to read the message, and the actual numbers made no sense without the "translation," severely limiting the possibility that it might be the basis of a "stand-alone" writing system. What we're looking for is a system that isn't a conventional alphabet, allows words to be of fairly random lengths and can convey something meaningful in two or three characters. Most importantly, it can't be so simple that Scotty's a fool for not being able to read it, or so complicated that no-one will ever understand it. My idea: mI'pIqaD


by StrauchiusStrauchius on 27 Aug 2012 11:55, last updated on 04 Sep 2012 21:12