So more thoughts on language, holding to my promise from last week. As usual I should issue the warning I am in no way formally qualified to be holding forth on linguistics. I’m no Dr. Mark Okrund, I won’t be inventing Klingon anytime soon. Klingon is actually a great example leading into this next bit, though, as Okrund deliberately excluded a very common feature of human languages: the polite greeting. The blunt and confrontational Klingons have no time for the time-wasting social niceties of hoo-mans, and therefore the closest to a greeting Okrund put into their language is the word “nuqneH” which translates skips “hello” or “how are you?” and goes straight to “what do you want?”

Similarly, there is a humorous “how to speak Klingon” tape out there which starts off contrasting human and Klingon culture with the example of a human entering a Klingon’s shop.

Human customer: Nice day, isn’t it?

Klingon shopkeeper: I do not care! Buy something or get out!

Terribly rude from our perspective. Of course, from the Klingon perspective it’s the human being terribly rude. The implication of course is that this conversation would have to take place in a human language in order to be asking the rhetorical question in the first place. Or perhaps there are the famous Star Trek universal translator devices involved, but while they might be able to approximate words, they can’t bridge the cultural divide.

But Klingon is a made up language, right? Real languages don’t have these issues!

Don’t be too hasty. One example I find fascinating is that when Dawn was taking a class in Japanese, she mentioned how a lot of statements were… non-targeted? By contrast, the English language seems to want to wallow in the blame game. Where the Japanese phrase might be “the cup has broken,” considering that the most important information, English always wants to know whodunnit. “Greg broke the cup.” We don’t really think about it, and there are more or less polite ways to phrase it, but taken as a whole English comes off as much more accusatory. It’s not enough that we express the chicken is burned, even if it’s obvious by implication who burned it. Nope, we want to hear you say it, Greg. Say, “I burned the chicken.”

There is a popular hypothesis in the linguistics world that the way we speak influences the way we think, and vice-versa, and if true I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon makes native speakers of English less efficient in terms of problem-solving. We have to struggle past the blame game before we actually address the key issue that the cup is broken or the chicken is burnt. Perhaps that’s why the Faceless Men in Game of Thrones adopted their peculiar dialect where, for example, “a girl has no name.”

I mean, on the flipside you certainly wouldn’t want to just declare “My wallet has been stolen!” if you know who did it and that guy is currently fleeing down the street. Precious seconds for onlookers figuring out the context would be a detriment compared to you pointing and shouting “That guy in the green shirt took my wallet!”

Again, I’m no linguist so take all this with a grain of salt. Even linguists are divided on the concept. But it’s certainly food for thought if you’re writing interactions between Klingons and humans, or elves and dwarves, or even something closer to home.